In this era where the line between mixtapes and albums has grown hazy to the point of nonexistence, calling a project your debut album still holds significant weight for a new, emerging artist. The pressure that fans, labels, and even the artists themselves can put on the success of a debut album can make or break a career. First impressions still matter, even when a follow-up might be only six months away — especially considering the near-non stop flow of new music that can leave an undistinguished project lost in the lurch.
TJ Porter doesn’t seem bothered by any of that, though. With his debut album, Voice Of The Trenches, releasing soon via Def Jam Recordings, the 19-year-old Harlem rapper comes across more cocksure than anxious, more excited than worried, and more hungry than he ever will unsure. Porter is one of Def Jam’s new prized artists, fresh off his appearance on the Undisputed compilation and its accompanying, vaunted “rap camp” recording sessions in LA, where I first encountered the upstart rapper in a crowded room at the studio after he wrapped up laying vocals.
The compilation was well-received, introducing the world to such emerging talents as Porter and his new labelmates Bernard Jabs, Nimic Revenue, and YK Osiris. But the show must go on and now it’s time for TJ to distinguish himself from the wave after wave of rap acts bubbling up from the shadowy corners of Soundcloud and Spotify. He hopes to do just that with Voice Of The Trenches, an album that does its best to bridge generations between the melodic impulses of youth, and the grittier direction of the classic hip-hop that dropped when Porter himself was still just a baby — and even earlier than that.
During a phone interview to discuss the new project, TJ drops references to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” and an old-school work ethic that emphasizes having fun doing the work. “The thing I love about recording is I get to let my emotions out,” he says. He has plenty to speak on; one of the largest motivating factors for his move into rap from basketball — he was on the track to becoming a highly touted college player, profiled in Slam magazine and he loves boasting of his on-court duels with other well-known New York players — was the death of his close friend, Juwan Tavarez, to gun violence.