Tyga lives by two rules, he says, adjusting his $188,000 Goyard neckpiece. “No. 1 is, ‘Don’t listen to anybody.’” The other? “No one cares, bro.” To the divisive rapper’s haters, his erratic moves earn him splashy headlines rather than big numbers. But if you’re Team Tyga, he’s a maverick. “I go off feeling,” he continues. “Sometimes it has worked for me. Sometimes it hasn’t. In this case, I guess it worked.”
Tyga is referring to his late-summer hit, “Taste,” featuring Migos’ Offset, which has peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s the biggest of several recent wins for the 28-year-old rapper born Micheal Ray Stevenson: solo single “Swish,” which peaked at No. 44 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, and a guest spot on Iggy Azalea’s Hot 100-cracking comeback, “Kream.” The peak comes just six months after an all-time low in his decadelong career. His February album, Kyoto, a foray into introspective R&B, debuted with just 1,000 units sold, according to Nielsen Music. Yet suddenly he’s matching the success of his 2012 breakthrough earworm, “Rack City,” which peaked at No. 2 on Hot Rap Songs.
Speaking in his native Compton, Calif., drawl on the patio of a glitzy Hollywood restaurant in late August, the rapper shares another rule: “I’m a guy you can never count out.” Slouched in his seat wearing track pants, he doesn’t say this with the air of an egotistical star determined to shut down the haters.
Instead, he’s relaxed, even indifferent. Tyga’s music is often eclipsed by TMZ coverage, of lawsuits alleging he owes money everywhere; baby-mama drama with model Blac Chyna; and every nanosecond of his relationship with ex Kylie Jenner. He has also made some distracting artistic choices, like directing a “Rack City”-themed porno, and launching a 2015 MTV reality show in which, among other oddities, Chris Brown spray-paints a mural in Tyga’s son’s room. Even when he tried to take control of his story with Kyoto, the album got less attention for its hazy, pining, Auto-crooned songs than it did for its lewd cover art: a nude tiger-woman on all fours. Tyga admits that his path has been rocky — “I’ll get success, gain momentum, then lose it, get it again, lose it” — but refuses to acknowledge any regrets. “If you fuck up, you got to get back up,” he says. “That’s it. Nothing to it.”
Tyga’s latest songs are summer jams with video treatments that recall the Jiggy Era: cars, blunts, jewels and pools full of models. He insists the about-face isn’t a strategic rebound attempt — that ’96 to ’05 is his inspirational rap “golden era” (“Swish” even interpolates vintage Juvenile and David Banner lyrics). But also, he admits, “I know what people want from me. There’s too much going on in the world, and life is too short. Everybody has to have fun, and I’ma supply that background music for you.”
Pausing periodically to check his phone, Tyga openly wonders about his underdog status. He proposes a few reasons for his meandering career path — mistakes he made while young and naive, working with the wrong teams over the years, having “control issues” in general. After hustling his way into an unofficial spot in cousin Travie McCoy’s Gym Class Heroes, he then rapped over a Fall Out Boy song at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards alongside Lil Wayne. The Young Money CEO signed and mentored Tyga through his early days. He has since worked with Young Thug, had an album produced by Kanye West and even scored a supporting role in Barbershop 3. When Tyga’s on top, it all feels like something of a rolling redemption narrative, on loop.
“I don’t look for the pat on the back. Hopefully the universe sees that and blesses me, which I feel like is kind of happening… which is weird,” he says. But he mostly seems energized that, as he puts it, “I haven’t even reached what I know I’m capable of yet.”
Even with his recent hot streak, Tyga is vague about capitalizing on it with a new project. He has been independent since 2015 and is strategizing future business moves. He’s A&R’ing other artists — he says he personally pitched Azalea on the “Kream” beat. He’s also suing former label Young Money and Bryan “Birdman” Williams’ Cash Money for $10 million in unpaid dues stemming from financial issues with the label. Still, Tyga insists, it hasn’t caused a rift with Wayne: “He is one of the greatest to ever do it, and I’ll always voice that.”
On his L.A. Leakers freestyle in early August, Tyga kicked things off by declaring, “N—as know I broke the curse.” It could be a reference to the “Kardashian Curse,” which consigns any man who dates a member of the famous family to a life of bad luck. Or, it could be about Kyoto. When asked what he meant, he explains: “Anybody that has doubted me, held me back, tried to block me behind the scenes or spread negative energy or stories on me… whoever try to curse me, it doesn’t matter: The curse is broken.” For now, at least.