Hip-hop loves a good come-up story. Take Tee Grizzley, for example, whose hypnotic, chest-thumping single “First Day Out” – which he wrote while locked up in prison and shot the viral video just hours after being released — catapulted him to stardom and earned him bragging rights as Detroit’s latest rap sensation.
In the first minute and a half “First Day Out,” Grizzley soars over faint, minimal production, as he addresses former friends who weren’t as supportive as he thought and counts his blessings after his arrest in Kentucky (which landed him behind prison bars), just before a beat change kicks in and transforms the chilled melody from the beginning into a booming trap bop.
“First Day Out” and Grizzley’s debut mixtape encompass what makes Grizzley such a hot commodity in hip-hop; his repertoire is rooted in deeply personal, relatable experiences but instead wallowing in misery, Grizzley takes his struggles in stride all while giving fans bouncy club-ready (and gym-ready a la LeBron) tracks to bob to.
For his proper debut introduction, Activated, out now, Grizzley’s personal narratives and aggressive production remain intact, but this time he’s just “having a lot more fun,” Grizzley tells Billboard. Coming f a landmark rookie year in 2017, Grizzley says the past year has been nothing short amazing – give or take a few eye-opening revelations.
Below, Tee Grizzley chats with Billboard about the experiences that fueled his new album, high prile co-signs and more.
What has the past year been like for you since “First Day Out” blew up?
The past year has been lit. I got a lot co-signs, a lot big performances, a lot money, a lot traveling. I’m experiencing a lot new things in life – cars, houses, jewelry – and getting the family situated. I’ve been dealing with fake friends, though, like a lot people trying to come around. There are pros and cons to this fame thing.
You speak a lot about your come-up on the album as well as dealing with family and friends who weren’t there for you before the fame. What have been some the revelations you’ve come to while recording this album?
How fame changes people, that’s the big thing. There’s so much to enjoy about being in this position in life but the negative people around you take away from the enjoyment when they show their true colors. The way they talk to you, the way they treat you, the way the vibe is when you come around is just all bad.
On songs like “Activated,” “On My Own” and “Time,” you reflect on a few years ago, when you didn’t have all the money you have now, and how quickly people around you have changed. What experiences fueled this new album?
Just people that you grew up with like your family and friends, how they turn to strangers, how they become people who you no longer know anything about. And also, reaching a point where I have the money and the fame, that’s really all I talk about.
How do you handle seeing your family and friends switching up?
Cut their ass f.
You created My Moment in prison. How did you stay strong mentally to create the full project?
Working out and making friends with people that are like me – funny, cool – that make you forget that you’re there. We started talking about females we used to mess with, some people who we knew out there. I was rapping to them and writing just to past the time by.
When I was in prison, rap was all I had at that point because I was kicked out school, all that education just gone and I couldn’t come out prison to play football – that was all over with. I saw myself going pro at some point, I was pretty good. Laughs] But all I could do was make music.
LeBron shouted you out when “First Day Out” dropped and JAY-Z called it the best song out. What did that co-sign from Hov mean to you?
It made me feel good but whether he said it or not, I knew that it was the truth because it was the best song at that time. If he didn’t say it, was I not supposed to feel like that? I already felt good about it but what his co-sign did for me was, it gave me motivation and showed me that people as big as him are watching. He’s so great and he’s so much a power player in this game that it just gave me confidence like, ‘I got JAY-Z vouching for me. I’m good.’
G Rap .Mel . Kurupt . Lox. X . Q. Ab lupe. Mos. Foxy. Boss . Ross. Quavo Future Travis too many fuck this. All you!T grizzley song best out
— Mr. Carter (@S_C_) June 16, 2017
So what exactly are you activating?
I’m activating my life. Activating the things I always wanted. Activating my legs, meaning I’m pushing myself towards the opportunities where I can go places and meet people, network. I came up with the name when I was locked up. When you're “activated,” you're on and I’ve been waiting all my life to be activated. Activated, to me, means finally being in a good position, being where I want to be in life.
When did Activated really start to come together?
Right after My Moment dropped, well actually, right after My Moment dropped I knew I wanted to work on it. I didn’t start working on it until about three or four months ago so it wasn’t a rushed job but I just went all the way. The vibe I was going for with this album was real energetic vibe, hype.
You’re known for these aggressive bars and production. How do you create each song?
I’m a perfectionist, so shit's gotta be on point or I’ll start all the way over. I can’t freestyle or else I’ll just start saying anything, so I’ll write the song first and then record. I’ll rap to the producer and he’ll make the beat f my rap.
Was there a song on the album you had to keep updating because it wasn’t up to par?
Yeah, there’s a song on there called “I Remember” with YFN Lucci. I couldn't get it right and kept going back to it until it sounded perfect.
How did the YFN Lucci collaboration come about?
We met through mutual friends. I'm not gonna lie, all the street rappers fuck with each other. We come from the same type place so we just connect f that, even if we've never met.
How did Chris Brown end up on the album twice?
That’s Chris Brown, he's gonna be a perfect fit for anything. He’s like an icon to me so I was really excited to have him on the album. I was in LA and I had DM’d him on Instagram like, “I’m about to drop an album so let’s do some songs.” He DM’d me right back and I wasn’t even expecting that. I just tried to get people on there. When I heard him on “Fuck It Off,” I was like, man, he's out here tripping like I ain’t know he had it in him. But I also DM’d a lot people like Chance the Rapper, Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, Moneybag Yo, Jeezy, just to say at least I tried, and they were DM’ing me back.
What happened with the Chance the Rapper feature?
He went to Africa at the time we were supposed to work together.
How do you choose who you want to work with?
If I like their music. I either have to like their music, or it has to be beneficial to me.
Jeezy, who you toured with on the Cold Summer tour, is also on the album,. On “Time,” he says, “It’s your time” and “I wanna see you on top.” What was it like hearing that from a rap legend like Jeezy? Did you drop any gems while you guys were on tour?
It meant everything to me, because the thing about Jeezy is that we come from similar struggles. I speak for the people in the trenches and I rap a lot about what I go through and what they go through because I’ve experienced it myself. Jeezy has gone through a similar lane. He taught me how to perform and how to talk to the labels. He pushed me to go after what I need and want in this career and he just made himself available to me.
You’re also singing a lot on this album. How do you decide when you want to switch up your flow?
I just have to feel the vibe on the beat. If the vibe is there and I feel like I’ll sound better singing, I’ll do that.
Where did this interest in singing come from?
I always liked singing. I really like R&B more than rap.
Really? But you’re a rapper.
Yeah, I know. I like Aaliyah, Faith Evans, Jodeci, Atlantic Star, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, stuff like that.
If you could do a song with a singer today, who would you choose?
I want to do something with August Alsina. I fuck with his music. Female? Beyoncé.
Have you ever entertained the thought doing a singing project?
I might do an EP with four rap and four singing songs. Growing up in a household with R&B and soul music playing was so soothing to me, it’s the only other kind music that moves me, really.
What would 2018 Tee Grizzley say to 2016 freshly-released Tee Grizzley?
It doesn’t matter what no one says, keep going. You’re on the right path, you’re winning so just keep going, because 2019 Tee Grizzley is gonna need you. These past experiences taught me that I can adapt. I adapt well in bad predicaments and situations and handle it better than most. There’s a lot stuff that I don’t want to go through but my past has shown me that I can do anything.