Jhay Cortez comes to the phone from his native Carolina, Puerto Rico, where he’s spending a rare few days at home. But the trip is no vacation.
Cortez is spending every spare moment in the recording studio, where he’s now working on his own music after years of writing songs behind-the-scenes for artists like J Balvin, Natti Natasha, Anuel AA and Ozuna.
“I’ve got to make the most of it,” says Cortez, 26, of the quick visit. “Then, I’m back on the road.”
Like others in his circle of young reggaeton hitmakers, including Tainy and Bad Bunny, the artist born Jesús Manuel Nieves Cortes’ upbringing coincided with the birth of the genre in Puerto Rico. He started writing songs at age 11, and was bent on making a career in music by age 16.
A decade or so in, he co-wrote a set of crossover hits: Cardi B, Bunny and Balvin’s fiery smash “I Like It” in 2018; and Selena Gomez, Benny Blanco, Balvin and Tainy’s electronic-flavored “I Can’t Get Enough” this February.
It was around that time that Cortez felt he had finally perfected his own sound. In May, he released Famouz, his sophomore album with Universal Music Latin — including a remix of his steamy track “No Me Conoce,” with Balvin and Bunny. The song marks Cortez’s first entry as an artist on the Hot 100, where it has spent 11 weeks (peaking at No. 7); reaching a No. 2 peak on Latin Airplay for the chart dated Sept. 28.
“It was always my dream to have a song on [the Hot 100],” says Cortez. “I used to write a lot for other artists, so I always wanted to do it with one of mine.”
Below, the emerging reggaetonero speaks on the lessons he’s learned in the studio, why collaboration is “essential” to success in the industry today and how the “No Me Conoce” remix was, in a way, a birthday gift.
Was it a conscious choice for you to start out as a songwriter?
I never wanted to be a songwriter. I always wanted to be an artist. I started really young, so I didn’t have my own style or my own flow and personality. I just wanted to work with people and not be broke. [Laughs.] I started producing and writing for other artists until I felt like I had my own style, my own flow, so people would hear me and know it’s me.
And I knew [writing] was going to help me with networking. I had an apartment, and I could do music — that’s what I always wanted. So that’s what I did. I wanted to release my own stuff when I felt like I had a style and a personality that people could define me for.
I’m sure all those hours in the studio taught you a lot about how to make it as an artist, too.
Yeah, because I got to see what some artists do wrong, and what some artists do right. It gave me an example of how to work every day. Both [roles] helped me to be strong on each side.
What have you seen other artists do wrong?
Getting too comfortable with their writing or music, and not collaborating enough with new artists. And being too much of a diva; thinking you’re all that. Before, it used to be easy for artists to be divas, because there wasn’t social media. But nowadays, fans want to get to know the artist as a regular person. The biggest artists I’ve met are the most humble.
You made waves with Famouz. Is it strange to have people identify you as a “new artist,” given that you’ve been in the game for a while now as a songwriter?
No, because I see myself as a new artist, too. Now is when I feel I know what to do with my music, and what I have to deliver. It feels like starting. All these shows, being on planes and on the road, it’s different. It’s like I’ve gotten to another level, but I’m new on that level. Performing is hard, because you have to put having fun and doing a good job together. But I enjoy it a lot. I love to see people having fun — that’s what I enjoy the most, is seeing people sing the songs and have fun. It makes me feel good.
How did the “No Me Conoce” remix come to be?
When I released it, it was really hot on the streets in Puerto Rico, and people liked it a lot. A lot of artists liked it, too. Balvin would send me videos rocking with it. I have a really good relationship with Balvin, because we work together a lot. He’s like my big brother. And he liked the song. On my birthday, on April 9, he FaceTimed me like, “Yo, I’ve got a friend of mine, and he fucks with the song. He wants to jump on it.” He turned the camera around, and it was Bad Bunny.
What were you doing at the time?
I was in Madrid, recording the video with Karol G [for “Deséame Suerte” with Haze], and they were working on OASIS, so they were in the studio together, and that’s how the remix happened. That remix was the pre-OASIS. People didn’t know it was coming.
How important do you think collaboration is for artists in today’s music world?
It’s really essential, because it brings a new style. Some artists aren’t really well-known, but they have a fanbase — they have a really good, young fanbase, and that’s a fanbase that talks about artists, that buys artists’ new shit, that go to the shows. I think it’s really essential. Plus, you never know who that artist can be in the future. They could help you back one day.
Who’s on your bucket list to work with?
What’s a song you’ve written for someone else that you wish you could go back and take for yourself?
There’s a song from Yandel’s album, “Cuando Se Da.” It was a storyline, and around that time, I was doing story songs.
“No Me Conoce” is a story too, in a way — someone pretending they don’t know you.
It’s just something that came out. Sometimes I just go with what first comes out of my head. I always play with the melody until the words come out — the melody is everything. Melody, and then a concept. Like, what’s going to be the title? “No Me Conoce” is a story, but it’s an easier story. “Cuando Se Da,” you have to listen until the chorus, and then you get it. “No Me Conoce,” you get it from the start, and that’s why people like it so much. It’s easy to sing, it’s easy to remember, it’s fun, and it has a cool melody and the drums from way back.
And the video is fun, too.
The video is super dope. It was a really good experience, being with Bad Bunny and Balvin. I respect them both, because they put their hearts in the music. It’s not just for the fame. People ask us if we got together, and thought about what we were going to wear, but we didn’t. We just went in with whatever we had on.
I mean, you guys have such great style. I have to ask: What color is your hair right now?
[Laughs.] It’s pink. This is a purple-pink, but I usually do purple. I’ll keep mixing it up.
What are you working on next?
I’m already working on my next album. And I’m doing a couple of remixes from Famouz — it’s a surprise, and then I’m going to close that chapter. Obviously, I’m not the same person now as I was a year ago.