Jay Cartesian is a far better rapper than he is a salesman.
“This whole project, I like it, but I don’t like it,” the musician said of The Calculation, his new album with producer Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton, out today (Friday, April 21). “And I think the idea was for me to feel like that from the jump."
Cartesian traced his lingering uncertainty about the record to the way Burton forced him from his comfort zone, pushing him beyond the boom-bap-type tracks he favors (“Resort,” featuring an assist from ) and into soft-focus songs centered on women (“Apple”) and jazzier flourishes like “POVs,” on which the MC takes stock of a world grown increasingly dark.
“America made me disgruntled,” he raps, making oblique reference to the unending stream of news headlines broadcasting Black men and women killed by police and later denied justice by a system that entrenches power in the badge.
“Sometimes, as a Black man, you’re viewed with this stigma,” Cartesian said, referencing the TV shows, movies and skewed news broadcasts that can fuel negative stereotypes. “And that can make you feel some type of way. … It kind of makes you more vigilant.”
Cartesian’s harsh assessment of his new album falls within character. The rapper described himself as a relentless self-critic, recalling how he pushed so hard to improve while training to become a bodybuilder that he tore tendons in his chest, leading to surgery.
At the same time, Cartesian allowed that stepping into these discomforting spaces often proved to be the best and only way forward, helping him to grow in ways he might not have otherwise. And he said this proved true whether exploring his softer side on “Apple” or stepping out on his own at age 21, relocating from Columbus’ Hyde Park neighborhood and eventually settling in Gahanna.
Cartesian recalls his early upbringing on “Western,” rapping about rising up from the “bottom of the barrel.” “I done crawled out of it,” he spits. “I ain’t going back.”
“Most of those guys [from my neighborhood] are probably dead or locked up; you know the story. … We lost a lot of people, and I’m still grieving,” Cartesian said. “The place where I grew up, it was almost like a movie, and now that I look back it just don’t seem too real to me. … But I was just different, and I didn’t see myself doing this. I just wanted to get out and do something different. We all had dreams, or some of us did.”
Cartesian described the early years after he moved from Hyde Park as “rehabilitation,” with the stillness afforded by his quieter environs gradually seeping inward. “I took that time just to find some peace within myself,” said the rapper, who talked of having to shake the PTSD he carried with him from his prior experiences. “So, yeah, I’ve been through a lot. But that moment there was an experiment; it was a journey I probably needed to travel on by myself.”
Growing up, Cartesian received his introduction to hip-hop through his older brother’s bedroom door, recalling how he would sneak up and press his ear against the frame, listening in while his brother freestyled inside with friends. “I had to be sneaky with it,” he said. “And every time they went to open the door, I’d run away.”
From there, he moved on to Columbus artists like MHz, Fly Union and the Catalyst, eventually picking up a notepad with designs on writing his own rhymes. Initially, at least, it did not go well.
“I locked myself in my room, grabbed a dictionary and started putting all of these words together, and, man, it made no sense whatsoever,” he said, and laughed. “But it got better from there. … Like I said, I’m my own worst critic, so I had to just keep moving forward and searching [for my voice]. And right now, at this point in my life, you could say I’ve finally found it.”