Across a mostly fun, guest-filled 22 minutes, the young New York rapper does what needs to be done and puts on for his city.
The cover of Lil Tjay’s latest album features a portrait of the rapper wandering an empty New York street, mask fitted to his face, crows eerily circling overhead, everything tinted into an unnatural shade of blue. But instead of a treatise for “these times,” State of Emergency remains focused on more historic issues. On opener “Ice Cold,” the South Bronx rapper mentions the global pandemic only to alley-oop a criticism of the education system—“JT my aroma, city got Corona/Sad to say I know like just two niggas with diplomas.” As it turns out, Tjay is more interested in addressing the NYC murder rate than the rate of infection. By the time guest rapper Sleepy Hollow shows up on “Wet Em Up Pt.2” to drop a bar like, “No Corona, boy, I’m too sick,” it’s outlandishly clear that this isn’t going to be a probing examination of this terrifying new horror.
Instead, State of Emergency is an act of defiance as the 19-year-old Tjay and a supporting cast of local rappers pledge love and loyalty to their home soil. On “My City,” Tjay gives thanks for his recent success while remembering the hardships and incarceration that color his origin story. On “City on My Back,” he teams up Jay Critch—a rapper who always seems to be on the cusp of a breakthrough—to make specious assertions like, “We put the city on the map.” Sure, but the underlying message of State of Emergency is clear: New York rap is going nowhere.
Some traditionalists will simply never take to Tjay’s voice. Chirping, tuneful, unorthodox, it can resemble an off-key American Idol contestant or his most apparent forefather, Young Thug. There are times when his vocals fly too close to the sun: The repetitive, high-pitched hook of “Shoot For The Stars” borders on abrasive. But when he hits the sweet spot, Tjay’s vocals offer a smooth counterpoint to some of the huskier Brooklyn drill rappers in his orbit.