The access that listeners have been granted to most of their favorite artists’ lives through social media has created a more substantial relationship between consumer and creator. We are now able to get previews of new music straight from their studio sessions, go on car rides with them on Instagram Live, and vicariously live through their other daily outings. Before, the method of getting to know an artist was primarily through their work, or maybe if they sat down to do an interview with the press. But as rap has become more and more of a commercial enterprise—bolstered by analytics and streaming figures—the music is sometimes the least reliable way of knowing who artists are. The vast majority of rap right now is built on rolling snares and interchangeable lyrics about Patek Philippe watches, Rolls Royce Wraiths, and whatever drugs said artist prefers. So when we are given the opportunity to listen to rap that invites us into what makes someone tick, there’s a sense that the music should be cherished for its rarity.
Detroit’s Tee Grizzley established himself early with that type of vulnerability. His debut single “First Day Out” followed the anticipation-building template of “Intro” from Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares and became an unlikely staple across national urban radio. But the song was an anomaly for two reasons. For one, 90 seconds go by before there’s any sign of a beat dropping—something you never hear on radio. And secondly, the majority of the song has very little to do with Grizzley’s possessions more than it recounts the legal battles he incurred from robbing a jewelry store in Kentucky and breaking into dorm rooms while attending Michigan State University. With that, his introduction to the world was a moment of full transparency, which makes the second half of the song—and his success since the song dropped—something that can be collectively celebrated by himself and fans.
My Moment, Grizzley’s debut mixtape, followed much of the same formula. On it, he ran through the struggles of having neither of his parents around (his mom incarcerated and his father deceased), the falling-outs he had with friends around his own time of incarceration, and his vow to provide for the people struggling around him. But he left plenty of space to detail how he began celebrating his newfound financial freedom. This week, the Detroit native is releasing his debut studio album in Activated. To him, it’s a more honest starting point than My Moment, as he says he wasn’t giving his full self, despite how open people may have perceived him to be. “On My Moment I really talked about our struggles and the stuff we go through. On Activated I talk about what I do on a daily basis,” he said. “The good and bad.” During a recent trip to NYC, I spoke with Tee about why he bares all in his music, the failures of My Moment, and considering online criticism.
Noisey: Your whole life was pinned up inside of you before you made My Moment . So how have you dealt with the space in between that and Activated in hopes of making another solid project?
Tee Grizzley: Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking like that. I wasn’t in that mindstate. When I go to the studio or make songs, my approach is different than a lot of people’s because I have fun with it. I don’t have fun with it in terms of, I go in there and say anything, but at the end of the day, it’s a blessing for me to even be in this position to make music, to have people take to it, and for me to make a life doing this. I go in there and tell people about my life. People either gonna accept it or they ain’t. My Moment was a project where I was going through that struggle. That’s what a lot of that music came from. Activated is coming from a place where, I’m in a better place in life. So I’m having fun and I’m turned up.
I obviously heard “First Day Out” like everyone else but what turned me into a fan was “No Effort.” But that song is more of a lyrical flex than the heartfelt recollections you’ve become known for. Do you have to be in a certain mood to get into different pockets? Are you recording the different types of songs in separate studio sessions?
It come from different sessions, for sure. Before I even go to the studio I already be having some of this stuff written. On the way here, I’d be writing a song. The way my creativity work—I smoke a lot of hookah. When I smoke hookah, I get to feeling some type of way. If I’m in my feelings at the time, that’s when I’ll come up with that. “Real niggas, ain’t gotta say they real.” Or if I’m turned up, that’s when I’ll come with that “While everybody talking down, I’m up bitch.”
I never heard nobody say hookah gets them in the right mindstate to make music.
That shit get me there I ain’t gon’ lie.
Does it calm you?
It clouds out all the bullshit.
Like in a way that weed can’t?
Man listen, I’m scared of weed. Weed and patron was not meant for me. It just make me super uneasy. I don’t know what to do.
A lot of your music is about what life is like for a non-famous person. But now that you’ve found success and some fame, where are you pulling that from? Memory?
I still mess with a lot of people that’s struggling. A lot of my friends and the people I mingle with, they not famous. They don’t got half of what I got. For me, what that do is, it keeps me humble. It keeps me grateful and appreciative of what I got. It keeps me grounded. If I’m just hanging with all stars and people with money, you can get lost and caught up. You get to moving like you got it made and you get to spending. That’s how a lot of people go broke. I’m around people that don’t spend no money so I can save all of mine.
Your music has that rare quality to it that makes a listener feel like they know you just because of how transparent you are. Was there ever a compromising moment for you where you decided that you were going to bare it all? It takes some people a while to get to that place.
I always been real. I done fell out with family. I’ve had family hit me like, “Damn. You gon’ get on a song and say that? Why you let them know about that?” I’m one hundred. I don’t have no shame. This is stuff I really go through. This is who I am. That’s what makes me unique. I don’t know no other artists who do that in this generation.
What songs on Activated do you think will stick out to people?
It’s a few of them. One was “I Remember” with YFN Lucci. One was “Set the Record Straight” and “Fuck It Off” with Chris Brown. “Time” with Jeezy. “Two Vaults” with Yachty. It’s a lot of songs on there that I thought people would like. As far as the process of making them, I would bring my lifestyle to the studio. Instead of hanging out, messing with females, and hanging with my mans, I brought them to the studio. So I’m just working and that made it comfortable for me.
When the value of so much of your music is centered around personal accounts, how do you gauge getting better in a technical sense? It’s hard to get better at being yourself. It’s not the same as improving on hooks and song structure.
When you put your music out, the people gonna critique it. They gonna tell you what you need to do. They’ll say all your songs sound the same or you need new producers. If they say they don’t like how you sound singing, then you know you need to rap more. They’ll put you together. Just put the projects out. As far as regular life outside of music, people already know what they need to change anyway. You see what the errors is in life. You see what obstacles you keep bumping into. You see what keeps stressing your life. You know what to change.
But the internet is a lot of noise. How do you decide what you listen to? Do you go with what people are saying the most?
I ain’t gonna lie, I go through it. I talk to my fans on Twitter, Instagram, and read the comments on Youtube. It’s just like in life. In real life I talk to a lot of people. I get a lot of different opinions. Everybody can’t work like this but I can because I been doing it for so long: I gather up all these opinion and I sort the stuff out. What’s the most repetitive thing I keep hearing?
What did you hear the most about your music that you had to take to heart?
That a lot of the music sound the same and that I should rap more.
But you rap all the time, though.
A lot of songs of songs on My Moment I was singing. But on Activated they gonna get that. I switched it up a lot. I took away some of the singing, but not completely, because I got people that support that.
“First Day Out” became a radio song but it’s not a radio song. So now you’re in a position of leverage because you’ve been able to dictate what your radio songs are because that’s how you came out of the gate.
I don’t try to be politically correct. Like, “I’ma make this for the radio and this for the club.” No. I’ma make this for people and if they like it enough, it’s gonna get played on the radio and in the club anyway. With “First Day Out,” I wasn’t shooting for radio sounds. I was pushing for people to love it. Because if they people love it, people gonna go to the club and request it. Go for what people love to hear.
Were there any songs on the album that felt like hard work to make?
“I Remember” with Lucci was. I was doing the singing thing on there and nothing was sounding right. I finally got it down after a while and caught the key. Then I had to figure out, I need to talk about this struggle and how I feel people did me. It was hard to go back and think about those times and what I wanted to take out.
How do you eliminate what’s not worthwhile? Because some things might be important to you but they might not resonate with the public.
Exactly. I try talking about things that’s universal. Sometimes I talk about stuff that only I went through. That makes me unique but at other times, I’ll talk about something that connects with the people. Like, I talked about carrying bottles to the store when I was young. I know everybody didn’t carry bottles to the store before. That’s only a certain group of people, but that’s what makes me unique.
What do you hope people will receive from Activated that they didn’t get from My Moment ?
They gonna get who I am as a person. On My Moment I really talked about our struggles and the stuff we go through. On Activated I talk about what I do on a daily basis. Like, introducing people to me.
Well I felt like My Moment taught me a lot about you. You feel like you were holding back?
I was holding back on the other side of me. I was giving people me, but me on a good note trying to make it out. But with this, it’s all of me. The good and bad.
With all that you’ve gone through before finding success, do you feel like there’s some sort of fate at play? Like, do you need to be here to speak for anybody in particular?
I need to be here to speak for Detroit and I need to make a lot of money because I’m gonna do something with it that ain’t nobody gonna do. Like, I already did a lot of stuff that people could have easily done and it wouldn’t have been an inconvenience to them. But only I did it. Like, a lot of people in my family had money but didn’t do certain things. They probably didn’t think to do it and if you would have asked them to do it, they probably wouldn’t have. It take somebody like me because I really care about people and want to change people’s lives. Take a young dude from the hood who don’t even except to get nothing, I’ll be like “Here go $10,000. This what you do with it.” Next thing you know, he up $40-50,000. Or I’ll take one of the older females in my family that was just living life and I’ll be like, let me open this part of the world to you. People’s lives would probably be less than it is. I feel like God put me in this position to make people’s lives better.
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