If we’re honest with ourselves, as rap fans, we can admit that New York City lost the stranglehold it once had on mainstream rap in the past decade. Yes, it is the birthplace of the genre, but for many years it’s been downright boring when compared to the likes of Atlanta, L.A. or even once relatively obscure cities like Chicago or Detroit. I say this as someone born and raised in the city’s limits; outside of storied veterans like French Montana or the occasional fluke (an A$AP Mob here, a Bobby Shmurda there) the 5 boroughs have felt more like an afterthought than ever before. Even on the underground, more people are likely to praise Long Island’s Roc Marciano or Westside & Conway from Buffalo than anyone living in the supposed Mecca of Hip-Hop. That being said, in the past few years there’s been a number of different movements that have captured the eyes of a national audience, clearly showing us there’s a new shot of adrenaline in the city’s rap scene. Whether it’s the NY Drill movement out of Brooklyn, the new swag rap style from Queens, or the various arty weirdos in Manhattan, the scene feels more vibrant than ever before. One of the biggest rising stars however, is the Bronx’s own Lil Tjay.
Frankly, it feels improbable that Lil Tjay would come from as rough and ready a place as the Bronx, even after decades of gentrification. As of April of this year, Tione Dalyan Merritt is an 18-year old who specializes in auto-tuned crooning more influenced by the likes of Lil Durk, A-Boogie and Speaker Knockerz than say, Big Pun or Remy Ma. His adolescent crooning and penchant for melodic straight-ahead material would make you think that he’s the kind of rapper who’d prop up Lyrical Lemonade fodder and become a teen heartthrob. More often than not, though, if you dig beneath the layers of autotune, you end up discovering a surprisingly dark and detailed storyteller who can make talk of guns, selling drugs and other shocking things into powerful anthems. More Polo G, YNW Melly and Youngboy than Lil Mosey or Lil Skies, it’s sometimes jarring to hear such potency and morbidity from a rapper who’s barely an adult. So that only leaves the question, does his debut album True 2 Myself show that he’s going to need further time to develop? Or is this prodigy one of the acts who the city, and the rap game as a whole, needs to take notice of?
Typically, Lil Tjay’s previous material have often relied on stripped back, simple yet dramatic beats to convey mood while he takes center stage. In a collection of singles or a playlist, this usually works perfectly for when the listener needs that extra boost of melancholy or motivation. Over the course of a whole album, it does reveal that Tjay’s auto-tuned vocals are limiting, leaving little to no room for variation. Between the somber orchestral tunes, downtempo clubby tracks and gestures at slow jams, you run the gamut of moods on True 2 Myself pretty swiftly. Frequent guests JD On Tha Track and Dystinkt Beats provide some of the highest quality material, such as previously-heard records like the dread-laden “Hold On” or the pop-tinged “Leaked,” but when these songs find themselves in such a similar sounding pool, their extra moments of finesse aren’t as appreciable as they would be if sided by contrasting material.
Working to counter this sort of homogeneity is Tjay’s vocal delivery– but he has his work cut out for him, given how much he relies on similar melodies and auto-tune’s overall flattening of any distinguishing moments. When he does go into soft lover-man mode on “Sex Sounds” it’s both the slowest and perhaps the lowest point of the album. When tempos are on high and his rolling melodic triple-time kicks in, Tjay’s rapid-fire delivery is earnest and touching, as you get swept up in his passion beneath the computerized cleanliness. That energy and urgency has worked wonders for him on other people’s tracks, and even on his own album– he’s only surpassed by the likes of Lil Baby and Lil Durk, who, at this point are both veterans in pushing auto-tune to its limits. If anything, it’s just a reminder for Tjay that there is still room to grow and improve his current formula. It also leaves room for the possibility that it may be Tjay influencing a new crop of rappers once he reaches his own auto-tune pinnacle.
When it comes down to it, beneath all the musical elements that help or hinder Tjay, it’s his lyrical content that’s going to keep anyone here. Aligned with the proper (high) energy, Tjay overflows with words that convey the emotions behind the sweeping melodies, and that’s where he truly demonstrates his potential. Songs are bursting at the seams with frustration and desperation when the young artist describes crimes, both past and present, to get to where he is and keep him and his family protected. Likewise, there’s a genuine despair whenever he talks about the friends and family who have already passed on; and it’s easy to be taken aback by just how often the teenager has had to grasp adult understandings of mortality and betrayal, thus creating even more emotion within the music. When you hear album closer (omitting the two remixes) “No Escape” in which Tjay mostly abandons all the studio effects on his voice, you can see the skill and craft he’s developed at such a young age, and this is what lies at the heart of all of his music. “No Escape,” while relegated to the end of the album, is perhaps the most important song on it– and that’s to say nothing of the piano-key production and the reflective lyrical content– it’s an argument for the talent that you could easily miss beneath the melodies and auto-tune, and it’s one he should probably showcase more directly, and more often.
As far as debut albums go, True 2 Myself is by no means a disappointment, but it does serve as a reminder that Tjay still has much growth, and perhaps more apt, potential ahead of him. It’s clear, even at his young age, that he’s got all the tools to make become one of the top rappers, not just limited to NYC, now it’s more so a matter of developing that toolkit.