JesseRay: from XO to 1990 [Article]
Toronto, ON – Originally published April 4, 2014 – Earlier on this year, StarCity Music’s own JesseRay (formerly affiliated with The Weeknd) launched his debut album entitled 1990. Here’s how it all went down: I got the 1990 demo in my inbox at the end of February. I opened it up and peeped the cover art. Cue inner-dialogue: “Dude in a panda suit.” “Okay. That’s different.” “I bet this dude is deep.” “Okay. I’ll download the project and give it a listen.” “Wow. This guy is like the Weeknd; but with Kanye West auto-tune raps.”
And that’s the Cliff Notes version of how 1990 ended up on replay for the better part of two weeks. I didn’t reach out to JesseRay – at first – because I was still taking in the project. It was heavy. And it made me emotional. But I started plunking away at my review, anyways.
Eventually I reached out to Jesse’s StarCity Music crew mate, Ersan Bostanci. I wanted to verify the lyrics on the album’s fifth track, “Mr. Perfect.” Bostanci wrote me back with the song lyrics, and gave me the lowdown on JesseRay. Bostanci formed StarCity Music with JesseRay about three years ago. Bostanci also told me that Jesse had founded Bulleez N Nerdz with Abel Tesfaye (aka: The Weeknd) several years prior to that. At this point, my mind was blown. It all made sense: the sultry production, the skin-to-skin lyricism, the provocative use of f-bombs, and the realness of the feelers I felt while listening to 1990.
“Toronto – especially – is huge on emotions. People are starting to get in-tune with feelings, now.” – JesseRay
I posted my album review. And the Internet exploded over it (Seriously, 1,000-plus retweets is serious business). A week later, I posted Jesse’s video release for “Empty Rooms” and the Internet exploded again. So – of course – I had to link it up with Jesse for a chop-up. We hopped on the phone and talked about emotions, we rehashed the story behind Jesse’s split from the XO fam, we broke down some of the tracks off the project and then we talked about emotions some more. It was great.
JesseRay grew up as a huge fan of Nickelback and Kid Rock. Embarrasing? Very much so. He also came up on the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. He credits this to his twin sisters, Melanie and Stephanie. JesseRay didn’t actually start getting into hip-hop until Eminem’s monstrous 8 Mile came out. And that set it off. “Around then I started doing rap battles here-and-there, and eventually I went on and did rap battles for a little bit of cash,” he said. “It was mostly influenced by Eminem.”
Here’s the thing with JesseRay: you can’t really corner him into any one musical genre. He raps. He sings. He’s got that sexy between-the-sheets R&B undertone. And he brings it all together with a hefty dose of auto-tune. “We live in the era where you got to use technology to your advantage,” said Jesse. “If I can’t sing a song the way I want to project it, then I’m going to use auto tune.”
JesseRay’s set-up is very similar to that of The Weeknd’s. That is— he does everything in-house. He only works with one producer: Channing Anderson. And the two of them produced the entire album. “The beats is me and Channing [Anderson],” said Jesse. “Everything is in-house. Everything is coming from us.”
At first listen to 1990, I assumed that JesseRay was a serious womanizer. But despite the carnal Weeknd-like tracks about sexcapades and faded nights in the club, the entire album stemmed from one relationship. That’s right – there was only one woman acting as the muse throughout the duration of the project: JesseRay’s ex-girlfriend. “I was living with her, and everything; I was with her for about two years,” said Jesse. But after the recording of 1990 finished, Jesse broke it off. “I just wasn’t feeling it anymore and I definitely loved her but I’m trying to do my music and she kind of understood that,” he said. “She wanted attention. I guess I couldn’t give it to her.”
I interjected to point out that the various female conquests throughout the project seemed to be symbolic of JesseRay’s musical infidelity. That is – he wasn’t cheating on his girl with another girl. He was cheating on her with the music. Jesse agreed. “It’s my fault,” he said. Although he’s no longer close with his former girlfriend, she’s still maintained her support. She even posted up 1990 when it dropped. “She was good for that project,” said Jesse. “She was good for that experience of mine.”
Although this one girl served as the inspiration behind the album, 1990 runs a little deeper than that. It’s a commentary – of sorts – about the women of Toronto. Jesse put it all out on the table for me: basically, the “Screw” Face capital refers to more than the salty Torontonian facial expressions. That is – everyone is doing the dirty with everyone else. So Toronto isn’t just the Screw Face capital; it’s also the screwing capital. Voila. “The whole city of Toronto knows everyone because of that shit,” said Jesse. “All the guys know the guys through the girls. The girls know the girls through the guys.”
So you’re probably all wondering about the story behind JesseRay’s affiliation with The Weeknd. I was, at least. So I prodded. “It was a very dark time for both of us,” began Jesse. JesseRay attended elementary school with Lamar Taylor (XO’s current Creative Director). And years later, Jesse’s girlfriend attended highschool with Lamar Taylor, Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd), and Hyghly Alleyne (one of XO’s creatives).
JesseRay took me back through his adolescent days. He reminisced about kicking it at girls’ houses with The Weeknd, Lamar Taylor, and Hyghly. The Weeknd was the introverted one of the bunch – he didn’t kick it as often. “Girls never liked this guy,” said Jesse. “He was going to parties [and] he would go up to girls and they would shut him down. Doesn’t matter how good his voice was, then. He was single all the time.” I was shocked to hear this. Because – you know – Abel Tesfaye can de-panty a woman just by looking at her. “Now that [Abel]’s big, everyone is down to f**k this guy. Every girl I know that didn’t like Abel, [now] loves Abel,” said Jesse.
“Now that [Abel]’s big, everyone is down to f**k this guy. Every girl I know that didn’t like Abel, [now] loves Abel.” – JesseRay
The splitting point came when JesseRay’s childhood friend – Branden Viarruel – committed suicide. “Abel and all those guys knew him too,” said Jesse. “And after he died, I completely stopped talking to these guys.” Jesse was closest with Branden. And the suicide hit him the hardest. He stopped making music and sunk into a depression. “They were messaging me – just Abel, most times – like, ‘Jesse, what’s going on? Are you good?’ And I was like, ‘I’m good. I just wanna be alone’,” said Jesse. “That’s how – slowly – we broke apart.”
While JesseRay’s separation from Abel was seemingly on good terms, he was still in conflict with the other XO members. After JesseRay stopped working with XO, they brought Omari Shakir on board – supposedly as a replacement for JesseRay. “After I stopped f**king with them, this Omari guy came in and tried to take my spot,” he said. “I don’t know where he is now. I think they dropped him, or something,” he added.
JesseRay’s saltiness is evident. He denies it. But it seems like JesseRay still hurts a bit. A while ago, he received a comment on one of his YouTube videos along the lines of “Jesse, you’re wack.” He clicked to see who had posted it and it linked to the XO crew. “There was actual declared beef,” said Jesse. While the beef didn’t escalate to anything too serious, it caused bitter feelings between JesseRay’s new circle, and XO.
But XO dealings aside, JesseRay and I got in deep about 1990. We went back-and-fourth about what I had written in my review. I asked questions. He answered them. First order of business: “Empty Rooms.” Jesse released some visuals to accompany this particular joint. And it was one of the heaviest songs on the project. The feelings of emptiness were real. “To be honest I was really f**ked up when I did that song; like high as f**k,” said Jesse.
The track all started off with a beat – a self-produced beat. “I don’t know how to compare it to another beat I’ve heard. Ever. It just sounds different,” said Jesse. “…like a dark eerie type of sound,” he added. Once Jesse put the horns into the beat, he just knew that he had to title the track “Empty Rooms.” “I feel the emptiness,” said Jesse. “There’s a door at the end of my life, and I feel like I’m close to that door and I don’t know what the door’s going to be when I open it.”
To give you some insight, there: Jesse is only 24 years old. But after overcoming that serious bout of isolation and depression that followed the death of Branden Viarruel, JesseRay fully immersed himself into his music career. While his friends are going out and partying, he’s in the studio – alone – cranking out the tunes. “I just feel in the lyrics; the whole concept of the song is that feeling- that emotion.”
I confided in JesseRay that I was a huge fan of rap game emotions. I’ll refrain from calling it “soft rap” because that has a negative connotation. But the bottom line: I love feelings. JesseRay does, too. “I find that Canada is big on that kind of topic; emotions,” he said. “Toronto – especially – is huge on emotions. People are starting to get in-tune with feelings, now.”
He points out that some of the OGs are very rigid when it comes to feelings. But artists like Drake (who JesseRay said is “controlling [Toronto] right now”) and The Weeknd are making it okay to talk about the feels. “I think a lot of artists are scared to say how they feel,” said Jesse. “They’re afraid of image [and] they’re afraid of how people are going to see them.”
Which is – exactly – why JesseRay is making a serious good look for himself. 1990 is that album that you can get lost in by yourself; or while you’re doing the dirty. It strikes a balance between self-reflection, and shared intimacy. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: if you haven’t copped a listen to this project yet, you should probably do so ASAFP. And keep it locked. Because JesseRay is already working on his next album entitled The Awakening.
“It’s kind of like school: you can either be in the class and you can try to do it that way. Or you can go in the playground and try to do it your own way,” said Jesse.
“The best way to do it is to try and play around.”
Interview and article by Sarah Sussman for HipHopCanada
Photography by Tyson Simmons