Photo: Natalia Aguilera
The Skyward Ascension Of Jhay Cortez: How The Latin Trap And Reggaetón Star Is Blurring The Lines Of Música Urbana
Cortez's second full-length album arrives over two years after his wildly successful debut, Famouz, where he solidified himself as one of the most exhilarating up-and-comers in Latin trap and reggaetón. The record featured one inescapable single, "No Me Conoce," whose remix, starring Bad Bunny and J Balvin, accelerated Cortez to global stardom. "That's when everyone gave me a chance … but that's just the start of it," he tells GRAMMY.com.
Cortez's star ascended further when he featured in Bad Bunny's whirling hit "Dákiti" late last year. The song, which is currently nominated for Best Urban Song at the 2021 Latin GRAMMYs, landed in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100, and debuted at No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs, among other chart achievements. Cortez, alongside Bad Bunny, even performed "Dákiti" in at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show. "It was something that I never imagined," he muses. "To be the first [Latin artist to sing in Spanish at the GRAMMYs] from this decade is super impressive for me."
Born in 1993 in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, Jesús Manuel Nieves Cortez split his childhood between his native island and Camden, New Jersey. While on the East Coast, young Jhay got schooled in hip-hop, taking lessons from some of the movement's most formidable rappers. He traced his roots in the Caribbean, where he immersed himself in the hotbed of reggaetón. "I have many different roots and inspirations from different [places]," he points out. "That is what really helped me to be able to create all these different things."
On Timelezz, Jhay Cortez turns up the heat, maneuvering between slinky and hard-hitting rhythms alchemized by producers Tainy, MVSIS, Taiko, and Cortez himself, among others. He shoots for the stars with EDM brilliance ("En Mi Cuarto," featuring Skrillex), then manages to hang from somewhere in the aether with trap-mospheric pop alongside indie darlings Buscabulla. Meanwhile, Cortez narrates stories of heartache, lust, and nights of debauchery. "It was really about evolving Jhay Cortez," he says.
GRAMMY.com caught up with the multi-hyphenate artist a day before he performed at J Balvin's NEON event in Las Vegas, also starring Karol G, Rauw Alejandro, and Tainy, where he offered a glimpse behind the scenes on what it's like to live in the shoes of Jhay Cortez.
This interview was conducted in Spanglish and translated to and edited in English for clarity.
What were some of the main goals you had when creating your new album, Timelezz?
One of my main goals was to evolve from Famouz. Not to make a better album, or to compete with it, but trying to make another part of myself. I felt like I was in a great moment where I [had] really good control over my voice. I have found my flow. My verses are better. The production and my mixing engineers are a lot better. So it was really [about] evolving Jhay Cortez. I have found myself now that I have total control of how I want to look visually, stylistically, and how I want to sound. Now it's about paying tribute to all of those things that helped me excel. Don Omar was the artist that inspired me to be an artist, to make music. I finally got [creative] control to play with everything that I loved growing up. My main goal was not to make an album, it was to create an experience.
You also step beyond reggaetón, like when you produced an EDM song alongside Skrillex. How did that collaboration come about?
When we completed the "Dákiti" video, I started producing "En Mi Cuarto." I had this whole idea and melodies for it. Then, one day, I was scrolling down Instagram and I came across Skrillex's profile, and I realized I wasn't following him. I'm like, "Shit, why am I not following Skrillex?" He was one of my biggest inspirations growing up. So when I saw his profile, it said, "follow back," and I went crazy. I wrote to him saying, "Respect. You were a big inspiration to me." Then he told me that he really liked my music too. Reggaetón is mostly my base, but I knew that if I wanted to take that record ["En Mi Cuarto"] to the next level, I had to give it to somebody that knows what to do. And who better than Skrillex? So, I sent that out to him. He really connected with it, and we just started working on it.
You mention Bad Bunny's "Dákiti," which you famously star in. It's a tremendous multi-record breaking hit, and you performed it at the 2020 GRAMMYs in Los Angeles. What was it like performing at one of the most important events in music?
It was something that I never imagined. Obviously, I had dreams of singing at the GRAMMYs, Latin GRAMMYs, or even singing at Premios Juventud or the Billboard [Music Awards]. But to perform at the actual GRAMMYs? I think the last [Spanish-singing] Latino [performing] was Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee [with "Despacito" in 2018], and then Ricky Martin. But to be the first from this decade is super impressive for me. I'm really grateful and feel blessed that I went through all these barriers as a Latino, and being able to get to places that no one imagined previously.
In your new album, you step into atmospheric pop by incorporating trap elements alongside New York-Puerto Rican duo Buscabulla in the outro track "Eternamente." What was that collaboration like?
They're one of my favorite bands. One day, somebody asked them on Instagram if they listened to urban music, and if they did, who. They wrote "Jhay Cortez." That really surprised me because I was already a fan of them. So I hit them up and invited them over to my house. I thought it was a great idea to have them on my album, because this album is everything that I like and have liked before. I knew then and there that I wanted to genuinely click with them. It's not all about me. It was really about making the moment, and if it was a vibe, and they agreed to it, then we would collaborate. But thank God that everything went better than we thought, and we did more than one song. We got to work on different things, so that for me is a dream come true.
You were born in Puerto Rico, but grew up in Camden, New Jersey. How did the geographical and cultural shift and getting exposed to an entirely new environment shape your creativity at such a young age?
That is what really helped me to be able to do all these different things. I have many different roots and inspirations from different [places]. I used to listen to Eminem, then 50 Cent, Don Omar, Arcángel, Drake, and then The Weeknd. I like salsa, and I like reggae group Cultura Profética. I have so many inspirations from so many different places that it's impossible not to take the best things out of each one of them and make cool things in reggaetón. That is one of the most important things that has helped me be able to emulate [my idols].
That's inspiration from across the board, from different genres and generations. So, for Timelezz, what music were you most influenced by?
I would say reggaetón's golden era, like Luny Tunes' Mas Flow, Don Omar, Hector El Father, Tego [Calderón], Wisin & Yandel. That's the era that I grew up in, when I really dreamed of making music like that. So it was a moment of being able to do what I always wanted to do as a kid, but having the ability to do it a little bit better — not better than them, just better in this era, better than anybody in this era. There's not a lot of people that know how to really mix, I would say, different eras of reggaetón and make it sound super dope. I was really just having fun.
Yeah, I started [songwriting] when I was 17 because I didn't work. I needed to make money somehow, so I said to myself, "Yo llego a donde quiero llegar" ("I'm going to where I want to go"). I had to make money and eat, so I started working. That was also my way to network and make connections. That also really helped me at the end.
Several years ago, you started blowing up, particularly with "No Me Conoce." That song has continued to resonate in my Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick since it was released over two years ago. That song was a massive moment for you.
That's when everybody gave me a chance, like, "Okay, he has something and maybe we should pay more attention to his music." I think that's how you prove yourself en este género ("in this genre"), in this music. It's all about the competition, how well you can do, and how big you can do it. That was my first big global hit. And that was just the start of it. But that's always going to be a special record for me because it was my first one.
Well, enjoy the rest of your time in Vegas. Are you also planning on checking out the city and gambling?
I'm not a big gambler — well, I gamble with clothes. I love buying clothes and shoes, so after this, I'm going to the mall. I've got to buy stuff for tomorrow's performance [at NEON]. I'm going to the studio, and I have a car, so I'm driving around. I'm definitely having fun in Vegas.
The 2021 Latin GRAMMYs, hosted by Ana Brenda Contreras, Carlos Rivera and Roselyn Sánchez, will air live on Univision on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m. ET/PT (7 p.m. CT). It will also air on cable channel TNT at 19.00 (MEX) / 20.00 (PAN-COL) / 21.00 (VEN) / 22.00 (ARG/CHI), and on Televisa on Channel 5. Learn more about the 2021 Latin GRAMMYs Awards via the Latin Recording Academy's official website