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TeeFlii Starred in Rize. Now He's About the Hottest Underground R&B Singer Going 

Thursday, Jun 13 2013
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TeeFlii wants you to know he's a star. By the Fourth of July, he might be right.

That's the scheduled release date for Fireworks, his full-length collaboration with West Coast radio killer DJ Mustard, known for his ratchet-style hits like "Rack City" and "I'm Different." The mixtape isn't finished yet, but the South Central–raised, former krump dancer from David LaChapelle's Oscar-nominated documentary, Rize — who is now an R&B singer — has the confidence of Kobe, one of his two heroes.

"If we keep working together, Mustard and I have the potential to be like Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson," says TeeFlii (pronounced "tee-fly"), citing the King of Pop, his other idol. He's sitting in an oversized leather chair in his studio in Hollywood. Wearing a baseball hat, maroon hoodie and pristine Air Jordans, the 25-year-old looks like he still gets carded for Swisher Sweets. His catchphrase ad lib, "Excuse my liquor," suggests otherwise.

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"It's what I told my friends one night after I threw up everywhere," TeeFlii says, laughing. "I was so drunk they had to carry me back to my room."

Lost nights have been increasingly infrequent over the last six months. His lyrics depict an orgiastic riot of strippers and rough sex, but his reality has been near-constant work, with the occasional break to play video games, watch the Lakers or spend time with his two young daughters (one 3 years old and one 7 months). He's unsigned at the moment, but label meetings are increasingly frequent.

The studio isn't his second home; it's his only one. A lounge with a lavishly stocked bar and flat-screen TV is in the adjacent room; it leads to his bedroom. This was once Charlie Chaplin's cottage, and inevitably the spirit of the paternity suit–slapped silent film star sticks to the wood-grain walls. After all, TeeFlii and Mustard's first single to be played on Power 106 is called "This Dick" (sanitized to "This D" for terrestrial radio). Other songs are called "Pussy," "Sprung" and "Bad Bitches in Here."

Metaphors are like extra layers of clothing: They're only getting in the way.

The singer born Christian Jones calls his style "FliiR&B." If Frank Ocean and Miguel offer a sun-splintered psychedelic soul, TeeFlii and "My Cabana" singer Ty$ expose the stains that exist under the black light. TeeFlii's singing style tweaks inflections from R. Kelly and The-Dream, the attitude of Jodeci and the ratchet rap of YG, but he applies his own slang, snaps and 808 claps.

TeeFlii's lothario belt belies his heronlike frame. He's wiry, but you sense an undercurrent of ferocity — as though he'd kick or claw his way to win a fight if that was the wisest option. As a singer, his notes and melodies unbuckle pockets of the beat that lesser vocalists would merely glide over.

He speaks deliberately, as though he's revealing secrets. Invocations of his faith are frequent. He sees no contradiction between his scabrous lyrics and his devout beliefs. "I know God. I've got my own friendship with God," TeeFlii says. "I know how to thank God, and I know how to praise God in advance. And I don't have to go to church to do that. It all starts with faith. If you believe, that's all that matters."

The church is his foundation. His grandfather was a pastor at the Christian Tabernacle of Faith and Deliverance in South L.A. His grandmother was a gospel singer, and an aunt harmonized for Elvis Presley's backup group, The Sweet Inspirations.

"I probably wouldn't be singing these kinds of songs if my grandpa was still alive," TeeFlii admits. But while he learned the organ, piano, guitar and drums at the same South Central church his grandfather led, TeeFlii never sang until he was 17. As a result, his style avoids dramatic crescendos and instead aggressively darts and jabs like the krump phenom he once was.

Under the name Baby Tight Eyez, the teenage TeeFlii played a major role in Rize, performing chest pops and stomps at sports-car speed. "LaChapelle was a mentor in life, but he also taught me how to present myself and focus on camera," TeeFlii says.

Rize also shone a light on TeeFlii's troubled family life. His mother battled drug addiction, and he never knew his biological father until his teens. TeeFlii started smoking weed at 8 and moved out of his parents' place for good at 13.

"I was a young hothead. My daddy couldn't keep me in the house," TeeFlii says. (On cue, his father pops in from the adjacent lounge and nods his head.) After his rocky teen years, TeeFlii has mended his relationships with his parents, both of whom have since cleaned up and hold steady jobs.

TeeFlii's rise was triggered by his desire to create a better life for his kids. Krumping had made him a minor celebrity during his brief tenure at Crenshaw High. It also helped him land parts in Stomp the Yard and Chris Brown's first three music videos.

But he sensed that he had a brighter future as a music performer rather than dancer. Working as a songwriter and producer for hire, TeeFlii's first songs were glossy and geared for Top 40. You would never sense that their author would become the rawest in R&B. But after he lost visitation rights to his daughter, TeeFlii realized he'd been denying his own artistic aspirations.

"I was doing stupid shit: fucking bitches, fighting with my baby mama. It wasn't making my life better, it was just making it worse. I knew I needed to grow up. I didn't even have a house for my daughter," TeeFlii says. "Once I told myself that, it was, like, 'What you gonna do?' I said, 'I'm going to start singing again and saying whatever I want to say and talking about whatever I want to talk about.' "

Within months he'd started working with L.A. street-rap stars Nipsey Hussle, YG and Problem.

Mustard was sold immediately.

"Other singers sing too much, but he has his own style and makes his own beats, too. We learn from each other," Mustard says. "TeeFlii brought an edge to our camp. He's definitely going to be one of the greats."

Mustard beats and a co-sign from Power 106's DJ Carisma dramatically elevated TeeFlii's profile. Upon the release of his AnnieRuo'Tay 2 mixtape in March, Vice's Noisey website hailed him as the "Ratchet Prince of R&B."

The result is that TeeFlii now occupies the weird waiting area between local fame and stardom. Record labels have been circling, but he understands that his value figures to soar with Fireworks. And his brash confidence is supported by an indefatigable work ethic.

"A lot of people are still trying to find themselves. Me? I know I'm going to grow. I'm going to mature a lot. I don't want to just be nothing. That's always on my mind," TeeFlii says. "You could have that record pop, but you could just be that one-hit wonder. I've seen that and I don't want to be that. So that's why I work as hard as I do and I love music. I just have to stay in my lane."

Over the last six months, TeeFlii's lane has been cleared, paved and adorned with billboards. The main question remaining: How fast will he go?

Reach the writer at passionweiss@gmail.com

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