For years, Jhay Cortez paid his bills by making music for other artists. He was one of the masterminds behind J Balvin’s record-breaking album Vibras in 2018, as well as hits like Natti Natasha and Ozuna’s “Criminal” and Zion & Lennox’s “Hola.” But in 2019, Cortez, whose real name is Jesús Nieves Cortez, grew tired of being behind the scenes. And much like Kanye West stepped out of the shadow of artists like Jay-Z, Cortez took his place in the pantheon of reggaetón giants taking the genre global with the release of his first album Famouz. “I had a good idea then of where I wanted to go,” Cortez tells Refinery29.
Since then, the Puerto Rican artist has released hits like “Dákiti,” a chart-topping feature with Bad Bunny, and “Fiel,” one of TikTok’s most popular sounds of summer 2021. Earlier this year, he also performed at the Grammys alongside Bad Bunny, the first Latinxs to do so since Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” performance in 2018. Now, with the release of his sophomore album Timelezz (yes, the two zz’s are on purpose), the reggaetonero says he’s feeling much more like himself. “I feel more secure about myself and my mission with this album,” he says.
Released earlier this month, Timelezz is a 17-track record that takes listeners on a trip from today’s popetón and Latin trap to house sounds and guitar-heavy ballads. Much like Famouz, the album is entirely co-written and co-produced by Cortez, who, despite stepping into the spotlight, insists on getting back to his studio days. Still, he says he’s enjoying being an artist more than a producer. “I always wanted to be an artist. Production was more for me to pay the bills,” he says. “But it also helped me make the jump to being an artist because I learned from others’ mistakes.”
Though he doesn’t name names, one can take a look at the long list of clients he’s worked with in the past: Natti Natasha, Ozuna, Tito El Bambino, J Balvin, and Zion & Lennox, to name a few. He started writing and producing at age 15; now at 28, Cortez says he’s had time to develop, not only his musical tastes, but his broader goal beyond club-ready perreo.
A big part of that includes using his platform to bring forth relatively unknown artists, especially from his native Puerto Rico. In Timelezz, he collaborated with Puerto Rican indie band Buscabulla—composed of Raquel Berríos and Luis Alfredo del Valle. “They’re truly one of my favourite bands, and they sound so different from what we think of Puerto Rican music right now,” says Cortez, referring to the duo, who released their first album Regresa in 2020. Cortez first met Berríos and Del Valle after they had posted on their Instagram that they were fans of the reggaetónero, who had also long admired the twosome from afar. “Someone put me in contact with them, and I invited them to my house to tell them I wanted to collaborate for Timelezz,” he recalls. The result was a guitar-and-trap ballad, called “Eternamente,” that picks up on the album’s time motif.
Timelezz also includes features with reggaetón giants like Arcángel, Kendo Kaponi, and Myke Towers, as well as Skrillex, a staple of the 2010s EDM scene, who he collaborated with in the house-reggaetón mix “En Mi Cuarto.” In many ways, the album’s assorted genre palette, he says, is representative of the way reggaetón artists have approached music in the past few years.
Artists like Bad Bunny, Rauwl Alejandro, and Cortez have found a way to inject genres like rock, bachata, dembow, and dubstep into their reggaetón-heavy music, pushing the boundaries of what exactly gets defined as reggaetón. Although albums like Más Flow and Pa’l Mundo already played with genre-bending sounds, Cortez says that today’s artists are doing it on a much larger scale, thanks to the mainstream reach of reggaetón in 2021. “I think we’re very influenced by older songs,” he says, later referencing his single Christian Dior’s use of the classic Héctor El Father line “Tú quiere’ duro.” “But I think we’re much more open-minded, and that’s what’s made it so global.”
Today, reggaetón artists are headliners at festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. Cortez himself has headlined festivals like Baja Beach Fest in Mexico. Now, he’s the only Latinx artist to perform at the Bacardí Art Motel inside the 2021 Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas. (In case you’re curious, his favourite Bacardí drink is a classic rum and cranberry juice mix.) But Cortez says his mission is to have other Latinx artists join him on events like this.
“For me, it’s great to fly my flag wherever I go,” he says. “But I think it’s all about showing that we are capable of being there.”