As the average age of Billboard‘s biggest hit makers continues to trend downward in 2019, the name most quickly rising up the ranks belongs to an emerging star who has yet to finish high school. Lil Tecca, the 17-year-old Queens native whose breakout single “Ransom” most recently climbed to No. 4 on the Hot 100, may not look or sound like a typical rap star, but his success could foreshadow a new blueprint for just what a “typical” rap star will be in the future.
Released when Tecca was just 16, “Ransom” has a springy, almost tropical beat which he uses to run down a list of designer gear, exotic cars, and armaments that would make the saltiest rap veteran green with envy. There’s a catch, however; Tecca readily admits he doesn’t have any of those things, breaking kayfabe almost immediately when pressed about it in interviews — Rick Ross would shake his head; Jadakiss would choke on his signature laugh.
It’s not just that these items — clothes, cars, girls, guns, and the like — have become so ingrained into the fabric of hip-hop expected by the mainstream. There’s something almost refreshing about hearing them from someone young enough to not really care much about maintaining the “keep it real” schtick — either because of the expected apathy that comes with being a teenager or because Tecca is the ultimate product of a world in which we acknowledge the cognitive dissonance of carefully curated social media, then buy into anyway. Willful suspension of disbelief is part of his programming, so why shouldn’t he capitalize on it?
Born Tyler-Justin Anthony Sharpe in New York City and raised in the Springfield Gardens neighborhood of Queens, Tecca reminds me of the teens you’ll find at any Boys & Girls Club in America. He seems to want to be cool, but he doesn’t want to want to be cool (blame the conflicting messages of modern children’s television). He wanted at one point to be in the NBA, just like any boy growing up watching the athletic feats of the few millionaires on TV who looked like him, but eventually turned to the only other set of that demographic that would be deemed actually worthy of looking up to.
Like any burgeoning rapper of his generation, he shared his creations on Soundcloud and used connections made from online gaming to help spread the word. And like many of his peers, his career was accelerated — birthed wholesale, actually — by placement on Cole Bennett’s Lyrical Lemonade channel on Youtube. Naturally, the runaway viral success of the song’s video — well over 129 million views to date — sparked intense interest from corporate America. Republic Records quickly signed the teen star and helped arrange the remix with Juice WRLD, which garnered another 12 million views.
Most recently, he released his debut mixtape, We Love You Tecca, at the end of August to showcase his talent — which may not have been the best idea on his label’s part. Once upon a time, a label could be relied on to keep fresh, new rappers waiting in the wings as their talent was developed into skill. Many of the young performers throughout the Golden Era hated it and could be relied on to rail against their overlords’ meddling, but We Love You Tecca might be the key evidence why such interference is needed in the first place.
Although the tape racked up enough streams in its first week to debut at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, its critical reception was nowhere near as enthusiastic. It turns out that a disinterested kid repeating rap tropes verbatim over the course of 17 tracks with a flow that’s been compared to fellow New Yorkers A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Lil Tjay’s doesn’t really wind up distinguishing himself much. “Ransom” is a quirky, lighthearted song that’s easy not to take too seriously, good for a pop single, but that’s an overall strategy almost guaranteed to produce diminishing returns over the course of a full-length project.
So, now what? Lil Tecca, like any kid his age, faces questions about his future — but unlike any other kids his age, save for Bronny James and other top basketball prospects, there are now millions of fans and a horde of record execs licking their chops to see what he does next, with millions of potential dollars on the line. That’s a lot of pressure for someone who only decided to start rapping because he got bored with basketball (the irony is stunning). Whereas a similar success story, Lil Nas X, relishes stardom and looks born for the spotlight, Lil Tecca seems uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, like he’d rather be playing Xbox than doing interviews or writing raps.
Without the success of “Ransom,” would Lil Tecca have also tired of rap? Judging from his responses to the few interviews he’s been willing to do, it seems as if he may already be growing bored of the limelight. However, a hit like “Ransom” doesn’t happen by accident; Tecca has real talent and a gift for the craft of rapping, if not a whole lot to say at the moment. Maybe if he sticks with it, he’ll tap into a deeper well that will produce a long, fulfilling stay at the top — if he really wants it. For now, it seems as though he may be held ransom by accidental viral success, a condition that’s become all too common in an era where seemingly anyone can be a star, whether they want to be or not.
We Love You Tecca is out now via Republic Records. Get it here.