It’s Friday after midnight, and the West Bank’s century-old Viking Bar is packed. Around 100 rap fans are gathered for the Young N Reckless hip-hop showcase, organized by Tavey Shaw-Martin, who runs the local blog Motivation to Hustle.
We’ve already seen an eclectic group of Twin Cities MCs, including promising young lyricist Juice Lord and blunt street rapper Dubb P. Up now is the headliner, St. Paul’s Taylor J, wearing a red hoodie emblazoned with his catchphrase and signature adlib, “Takeeeooovvveeerrr”—with exactly that many e’s, o’s, v’s, and r’s.
Taylor is the night’s most comfortable, fluid performer, the event’s most accomplished artist. He’s released around a dozen mixtapes and EPs, worked out of three different states, and collaborated with a range of performers that includes trap-rap lord Gucci Mane, snarly L.A. vet Nipsey Hussle, and Next singer and Minneapolis native RL. And yet, the release of Taylor’s first proper studio album, Who Would’ve Thought, is still 48 hours away. For now, he’s Coolin Till My Album Drop, to borrow the title of a new appetizer EP with remixes of tracks by hot MCs Kodak Black and Playboi Carti.
On the phone two nights later, Taylor sounds confident about the buildup to the album set to drop the next day, which is also his 26th birthday. “We got so many people in tune, compared to other projects,” he says. There may be lots of ways artists can get their music out these days, but still, nothing keeps fans listening like the release of an old-fashioned, full-length album.
“Originally, Who Would’ve Thought was gonna be a mixtape,” Taylor says. “I was just working on another mixtape. I was just working on music. I had this goal in my head of doing a certain amount of projects this year, like once every quarter. As I started working on it, hearing the music that was coming out during the recording process, it was making me feel like it was going to be a bigger moment. I just started realizing I was at a bigger point in my career.”
Taylor has been working on that career since he was fresh out of Como Park High School eight years ago. “I was always trying to get the music shit going,” he says. He moved to Las Vegas in 2009, where he says he learned a lot about life.
But Taylor wanted to be at the center of the rap world, and Vegas ain’t it. Atlanta—not NYC, not Chicago, not L.A.—is now the genre’s capital city, producing more stars, influential styles, and opportunities for artists than anywhere else, so that’s where Taylor headed in 2012. Immediately, he faced challenges.
“As soon as I got there, everything went downhill terribly,” he remembers. His car overheated and broke down. Later, he was kicked out of his apartment. “We had nowhere to go, no vehicle, no money, no nothing. That was a key point, just learning how to survive.” He was “getting conditioned for bullshit,” he says, which has helped him ever since.
Things eventually started looking up, and about six months later, Taylor signed with Big Play Entertainment. “My time at that label is when I learned a lot of shit, too,” Taylor says. “That’s when I made a lot of connections, meeting other artists, promoters, producers, DJs—connecting the dots. That changed everything. I went from not knowing how I’m going to live in Atlanta to doing real good in the city.”
He returned to Minnesota in 2014 as his contract with Big Play was ending, and the following year he released a mixtape, 1991, and an EP, Central Ave, on his own label, Scenious Entertainment. But Taylor’s 2016 would be even more fruitful after he started working with Lex Luger.
Luger is the onetime teenage prodigy and architect of the bruising, influential trap sound of releases like Waka Flocka Flame’s 2010 street classic Flockaveli who went on to produce hits by Jay Z, Kanye, and Rick Ross. He had a Minneapolis show scheduled, and Kush2x, Taylor’s day-one friend and fellow St. Paul native, hit Lex on Twitter, suggesting that he get together with Taylor while he was here. They met that same night and kept in contact ever since. Taylor’s first project with Lex, last December’s The 91 Family, was an eight-song EP that racked up 4,500 downloads on DatPiff.
“When I work with Lex, I feel like I’m working with a professional,” he says. “Lex got that experience of doing things on a professional level. It makes me work harder. When you work with someone on a particular level, you gotta meet them halfway.”
The 91 Family Pt. 2 is in the works. Lex has shared his excitement about the project with his 300,000 Twitter followers, and Taylor agrees that it’s going to be stronger than the first installment. “The music’s bigger, the sound’s bigger,” he says. “We have something to build off from part one. There’s a stronger connection because this ain’t the first time we’ve worked together.”
Taylor has previously released full-length mixtapes that were of album quality, but Who Would’ve Thought is more cohesive than even the best of those projects. There are no Lex beats on the album. Instead, Kentucky duo Ric & Thadeus, L.A.’s Red Drum Beatz, and Kush2x handle most of the production. Their instrumentals tend to be chilled and vaporous in a way Lex’s beats aren’t, though they’re still hard-hitting. And Taylor is telling his story more memorably than ever. His knack for effortlessly melodic flows is evident everywhere, and some moments are particularly lyrical and introspective. “Impossible,” where he recounts meeting Andre 3000 and other experiences he had in Atlanta, is one of the album’s more personal songs, and one of the most affecting.
The cover art for Who Would’ve Thought is a grainy old photo of Taylor on Christmas morning at his grandma’s house, wearing pro-wrestling fan gear and clutching a mock championship belt. “One day, my dad had posted the picture on Facebook randomly,” he says. “I had the concept in my head for the artwork—I was going to use an old picture of myself. I wanted that stage of my life to look like it didn’t add up to where I am today.”
Though his music career isn’t something anyone predicted for Taylor at that time, the work he’s put in since then has made his present-day takeover inevitable.