Lil Tjay sits calmly at Complex’s New York studio, and takes off his thick Cuban link chain. These days, he doesn’t feel the need to keep up appearances.
“I don't care for chains and stuff; when I first started, I couldn't genuinely tell you that,” the 22-year-old rapper says. “It's the fact that I could buy it so easily now that I don't care for it.”
Lil Tjay is sure of himself, but it took a near-death experience for him to realize what’s important in life. A year ago, on June 22, 2022, the diamond-selling artist was shot seven times in Edgewater, New Jersey. He was air-lifted to the hospital for emergency surgery and then went through a challenging recovery process. That’s where Tjay’s story could have ended, but on his third studio album, 222, the native New Yorker illustrates how that low moment changed the trajectory of his life to be more focused on the things he cares about—his loved ones and his music.
This vulnerability is evident on tracks like “Project Walls” where Tjay connects with Youngboy Never Broke Again to illustrate the trials of growing up in poverty, to bonding with Polo G on “Beat the Odds Part 2” about how they both made it out the trenches, and the emotional “Foster Baby,” where Tjay reveals that he was adopted. The melodic rapper has been transparent in his music from the start of his career in 2018, but 222 is more earnest because he has nothing to prove. And while 222 discusses Tjay’s traumatic experience getting shot early on the album’s second track, “June 22nd,” the project doesn’t revolve around it. Like the rapper’s own life, his third album moves beyond his lowest point and still delivers the many layers that Tjay has to offer. Angel numbers have also been a big part of Tjay’s life recently and informed the title of this album.
“The helicopter came and picked me up and brought me to the hospital at 2:22, and my first album was True 2 Myself. My second was Destined 2 Win. I always knew I wanted to make my third one with a 22. I just didn't know what I wanted it to be. I'm 22 right now. I feel like it was meant to be.”
In this next chapter of Tjay’s life, one of the things that he doesn’t care for anymore is labels. When he was coming up in the game, he was adamant about calling himself the King of New York, but as he has traveled the world and racked up accomplishments, he realized that the world is so much bigger than his backyard.
“My thing with the King of New York title is it's a little corny because we've been going on talking about it for a while,” he says. “Everybody called themselves that when they got a record out. It's like, I don't even want it. The world is so much bigger than New York.”
Following the release of his long-awaited third studio album, we sat down with Lil Tjay to talk about the state of New York drill, this next chapter of his life and career, plus how he used surviving a near-death experience to deliver one of his most transparent records yet.
How are you feeling now that 222 is out after all the time you spent on it these past two years?
It's relieving, honestly. I feel like I know my fans are going to love it. But I just want to see a reaction and how they like my music, man.
I saw you brought out IShowSpeed at your Wireless Festival set recently. What made you want to do that and what’s your relationship with him?
The first time I met Speed in real life was right before that. I told him to come fuck with me. He wasn't doing anything and I had Wireless and stuff like that. He pulled up. I brought him out. He looked like he could have headlined.
I saw you went on Instagram Live to talk about fans needing to consume music slower. What do you think is the problem with the first-listen review culture music has become consumed with lately?
My thing is I see a lot of times, people say [an album is] mid or fire. You see that in the first 30 minutes. Everybody got their own type of taste of music. Me personally, I like real music, some vibes, and stuff when it's vibe catchy in-the-moment music. It's like stuff that somebody else put me onto or they'll play it in the car. The stuff I like is stuff I'll probably still like in five years.
That's the type of album I feel like I have. I feel like for people that just want a catchy vibe, they might look like, oh, this is not the catchiest, dancing, fast song and just skip it. But I just want everybody to give it a fair shot of hearing it out, knowing that that's not what I went for.
Is that why you categorized the songs on the album before it dropped into different sections like “Pain Tjay” songs, “Storytelling Tjay” songs etc?
Yeah, facts. First, a lot of people don't really have that many different versions of themselves and it's a blessing that I could make these different types of records. So I just wanted to emphasize that because I know that some people might think of Lil Tjay and hs New York and say, "Oh, I love when he makes records like ‘F.N.’" Or somebody might hear “Calling My Phone,” which is a whole different demographic. I like that the most.
So I just wanted to show what type of songs were which. Some people I saw in other vlogs saying, "Yo, he's corny for that." I guess they didn't understand it, but it's not something I've seen done before. But I did it so that if you want a certain type of record, you know what pocket to look for.
Break down the meaning of your album title 222. How have angel numbers become more significant in your life?
I feel like in the last five days I have definitely seen 222 multiple times every day. But I got shot last year on June 22nd, 2022. For me, the time that the helicopter came and picked me up and brought me to the hospital, it took off the ground at 2:22, and my first album was True 2 Myself. My second was Destined 2 Win. I always knew I wanted to make my third one with a 22. I just didn't know what I wanted it to be. You know? I'm 22 right now. I feel like it was meant to be.
Is there a reason you didn't drop the album on June 22?
Nah. Honestly, it's so much behind-the-scenes things that be going on with me that everything just has to happen a certain way. But it just couldn't drop on June 22nd. That would have been smooth, though.
The “Song Cry” sample on “Nobody” is hard, what made you want to tap into that? And why is that your favorite song off the album right now?
Yeah, my favorite song on the album switches. It rotates [depending] on my mood. “Nobody” is my favorite song because I feel like, on a personal level, it's just like what I want to hear the most. I relate to it. I love this sample. It's so hard and just, I don't know. It's just the feeling it gives me that makes it my favorite honestly.
“Grown” is a unique sound that I haven’t heard from you in a minute. What made you tap The Kid LAROI for that one? You even got him sounding like you.
Kid LAROI for our generation, he's a GOAT for sure. He's one of the main people putting on, so I felt like it only made sense, and I heard his voice on it. I just felt like he fit it and he's my boy. He sent it back really fast. It was a no-brainer. Hopefully, it will go platinum one day.
You mentioned on Million Dollaz Worth of Game that you felt like one feature on the album, in particular, was special. Which one were you referring to?
That one was “Project Walls” with Young Boy [Never Broke Again]. I felt like people were just like, "I don't think that one was going to be expected."
How'd that track come together? Because that was another one that your sounds blended perfectly with.
Yeah, that one we definitely weren't in the studio. It couldn't work because you feel me, I got cases and I couldn't really get that way. But yeah, we just got plugged in through people that we know mutually. It just came through and he don't really be doing verses like that for people. So that's why I felt like it was going to be special.
How did you get an OG like Jadakiss on the emotionally heavy “Hole in My Heart?”
Jadakiss for sure is a legend and he been around so long that no matter what us young cats is doing or the numbers we put up, it's like you really can't compare it because we haven't withstood the test of time.
So Jadakiss is for sure that, but he was so humble about it and so easygoing with giving me the verse, he just showed love for real.
What are the ingredients of a perfect love song?
When I make a love song, a lot of times I talk on a song like I'm spitting game with a girl and that's when it's the easiest. Because when I talk about flexing and stuff, a lot of that stuff doesn't even really be me.
When I'm talking about I got this car, I got this chain, even right now, this shit hurting my neck. I don't really even care for this shit like that. It just be like, “I am a rapper. This is how I go.
But speaking of bars, “Lyrical Tjay” is super present on “Bla Bla” with Fivio Foreign. You have been tapped into the Bronx drill scene for a while, which has changed so much over time. What are your thoughts on where it is right now and the young artists that are pushing it forward?
If I'm being real, it's somewhat dead to a certain extent because when I say that right now, it's nobody that consistently could make the charts doing that. So I feel like for the people that's pushing that genre, you know what I'm saying, especially the young bulls, they got to get a little bit more creative on the way it goes. When I say drill, I don't mean people like Fivio or Central Cee. Those are drill beats. But all the violent things, I feel like it's a little oversaturated because everybody's doing it. It doesn't stand out as much anymore.
Part of the reason is because I feel like when we first started, what happened was back in the days, it was a little abnormal to just discipline a whole bunch of people on the song. So when it first started, it would stand out when somebody would do it. So now the first couple people that did that in the best way or the most, a couple people blew up in it made all these people get names. Now I feel like it's over for that. So in that way, I feel like it changed. You got to find a different way to go about it.
"The world is so much bigger than New York that I don't even care about calling myself the King of New York [anymore]."
Speaking of the Bronx, you gave Ice Spice her first Billboard charting song with “Gangsta Boo.” How did that song come together?
Ice is still going in the come-up stage. You feel me? Super early in the come-up stage. We was cool. We are still friends and feel me, we were just friends at the time. She just pitched it to me, like, "Yo, Tjay, you want to do a song with me?" I heard the song, I'm like, "Hell, yeah." I got to writing. Got my verse. I think I sent it back ASAP for the next two, three days.
You called yourself the King of New York back in an interview you did with us in 2019 after dropping your debut album. On “Beat The Odds 2,” you’re humble about not feeling like the biggest artist yet. What are your thoughts on the King of New York title nowadays?
My thing is with the King of New York title is it's a little corny because we've been going on talking about it for a while. Everybody called themselves that when they got a record out. It's like, I don't even want it. The world is so much bigger than New York that I don't even care about calling myself the King of New York [anymore]. You know? I just want a billion dollars for real.
How I told you right now, I don't care for chains and stuff, when I first started, I couldn't genuinely tell you that. It's the fact that I could buy it so easily now that I don't care for it. It's like now that I feel like I came to a point where I ain't trying to just tell myself, "Yo, you the guy." You feel me?
The self-confidence is already there. You don't have to self-assure yourself all the time.
Yeah, I definitely don't got to tell myself. If you think that, you think that.
On “June 22,” you break down what happened the day you got shot. What is it like to process that through the music but also move on despite it being a topic of conversation? How challenging was that record to make?
The song “June 22nd” is a mix of my day and the scenario, but it's also entertainment. So I just know that for my album, I just had to put that song in to somewhat explain what was going on, so you could feel me a little bit better on other songs. It was all right. It wasn't too hard to get off my chest because I felt like the hardest thing was going through the situation, I got to figure my destiny to live it out and maximize what happened to me. So I can't be a coward about this part now.
If I listened correctly, you also revealed that you’re adopted for the first time on “Foster Baby.” What made you want to talk about that here, and how did you reach a place where you were comfortable doing so on a track?
I feel like it comes with what I was saying earlier, being just confident with myself, comfortable with myself, and just knowing that. I genuinely feel like God is feeling me. So you really can't laugh at me and say too much negative things anymore because I work past it, from being able to have the secrets about my life and make it look like I was this perfect guy, flawless.
How has the creation of this album been different compared to past projects? Especially after all that’s happened.
I feel like this album right here is more central to my career. The first album was still in the beginning of the hype and I feel like this album is just going to show what type of artist I am going to be like. I got the chance to go into this big huge superstar career or I'm going to be around? You know what I'm saying. The last album was, I felt like it was kid time. It was like, yeah, I blew up. So whatever. It wasn't that serious.
Are there any parts of your musical process that have changed, that you realize when working on this album?
I just been taking it more seriously. When I first started, I took it real serious and I would do a song and edit the song five, six times, make different versions of it before I dropped. Then I got lit and I get a song. “Oh, this shit sounds good enough. People already got fans.” Well, it's easy now.
Then I really had a traumatic thing happen to me and I got motivated. It was so much going on in my mind, I felt like my back was to the wall, it was my best time and it motivated me to try to be my best. I felt like that helped me.
You also told Million Dollaz Worth of Game that the biggest lesson you took away from this situation is that you only get one chance at life. You kind of touch on this in “Forgot I Was The 1.” What do you plan to do with this second chance you have now?
I feel like for right now, in the next five years, I need to be maximizing off of this music for sure, and just not putting myself in the same position as I did before. Any situation that can jeopardize my life, my safety, and stuff like that, I'm staying away. Way further away than I was before. Things like that. Just appreciating life and people. Life is short.
What is this new chapter of your life called?
Chapter 22. For real because I feel like my story is abnormal for sure. I became who I am at this age. The average person ain't do that. But in the street side of what was going on, it kind of was normal for certain areas. I feel like it's just chapter 22 of my life, my specific story. That's what I'll name it.