Eyes glued to his phone for the first few minutes of our interview, Jhay Cortez makes sure to respond to as many Instagram comments as he can. “Soy medio loco … pero tranquilo,” he says smirking between sips of chardonnay. “If you want to listen to music that’s not too dirty, not too clean, not too pretty, not too street, and not too commercial … well, listen to my music.”
26-year-old Jesús Manuel Nieves Cortés, otherwise known as Jhayco, has a decade of experience under his belt, with over 40 songwriting credits to prove it—including J Balvin’s verse on Cardi B’s “I Like It” and Natti Natasha plus Ozuna’s “Criminal,” but he’s just getting started. His first full-length studio album, Famouz, which flaunts the already boasty and chart-friendly remix of “No Me Conoce,” came out a month ago and has held a seat on Spotify’s Global Top 50 and Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs Chart since then, most recently soaring to a new peak in the latter at number 10. Though that particular coup is a first for him, little else enveloped in this artistic coming out process is. From producing and lyric writing to mastering and engineering, he has his cake and eats it too.
When trying to envision a hypothetical alternative where music isn’t his life, he comes up short every time. Cortez’s devotion to the craft has been a lifeline and fiercely loyal companion throughout a lonely youth of hopping between family homes. Music helped raise him — and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t make it proud.
Carolina, Puerto Rico, Cortez’s hometown, is a land that’s bred a healthy batch of pioneering urbano artists including Don Omar, Tito el Bambino, and Zion y Lennox – the latter of which became partly responsible for Cortez’s breakthrough moment in the industry when they gave the jack of all trades a chance to exhibit his writing chops at the ripe age of 16 with “Como Curar.” Meanwhile, his work on Tito’s album, Invencible,got him his first Grammy in 2011.
The goal, though, was always to take center stage. “My plan was always to be an artist. I used the tools I had in my hand, because I was too young when I started. I didn’t have my flow, or my style,” he recalls in Spanish, “so I made money making music for other people.” Now, the young Puerto Rican lothario is eager to stretch his music’s global reach, and confidently take up space in the crowded urbano landscape. In his 2018 EP, Eyez on Me, we saw a less refined, more timid version of Cortez – a detail he attributes to being self-conscious about what people were going to think. “I was shy,” he says. “This [new] album is more secure – it has what I like, and what I chose.”
“Mi música está en el centro. It’s the middle [ground] of everything else,” he says. The scope of his sound, though, can mostly be sonically and thematically classified as classic reggaeton – a dembow beat bathed in sensual lyrics that are prime for belting anywhere perreo goes down. “It’s the essence of what I learned,” he explains. “I’ve been listening to reggaeton since I was little. Studying the history of it since I was little. I’ve been a fan since I was little. I think that essence has always stayed with me and will always be with me – whether it’s on this album, the next one, or the one after that.”
“If they believe in me, then why would I not believe in myself?”
Between the first wave of mainstream reggaeton, and the present-day second one, Cortez took a walk around the block. Dabbling in pop, pop-rock, and hip-hop while the rest of the world caught up and recognized the timelessness of the genre he loves most, he was able to learn how to control his voice, rap, and appreciate other rhythms. Now, he’s introducing those elements into the prototypical foundation of reggaeton to create a unique sound. In “En La Mia,” airy, poppy synths are smoothly sandwiched between brash rap, while in “Subiendo De Nivel” he flexes his trap muscles with colorful splashes of quotable lines.
Famouz, a title which follows in the orthographic style of both his artistic last name and first project, he claims isn’t quite a reflection of what he himself hopes to be, but rather what he sees his work becoming. Luckily for him, he’s got some of the best in his corner to see that through. Though “No Me Conoce” wasn’t exactly made with a remix in mind, choosing it for one was a natural pick ya que fue un palo in his motherland, and Balvin was up for the ride. Bad Bunny, the other little-known rising artist on the track, heard it one day at the studio and hopped on board. “It gives me more security, more faith,” he voices behind glimmering eyes. “If they believe in me, then why would I not believe in myself?”
In the competitive yet collaborative world that is the music industry, features have become less of a feat and more of a standard and expectation – particularly for newcomers. Though the near future already holds several more collaborations, including ones with Rosalía, and Karol G amongst others, Cortez plans to continue to keep that list to a relative minimum saying “I don’t want that to be my priority. I want people to need me for featurings.” In the meantime, ambitious goals like a sophomore album by the end of the year are on the other side of his tunnel vision.
“Each artist has their own color, personality, vocabulary… at the end of the day it’s up to people to decide if they like the majority or they like the minority,” he reflects on his place within the second wave. When asked where he stands in that see-saw dichotomy, he slyly says “that’s up to the public to decide, not me.”