Even from across the sea of pixels that comprise our zoom call, Jay Wheeler’s energy is infectious. He’s just spent the majority of the day in a press junket, and I am one of his last calls. But if the 29-year-old artist would rather be doing something else, it doesn’t show. When Wheeler enters the room, he is in high spirits, playfully joking around with his team before sitting down in a director’s chair flanked by art from his latest EP, «Emociones 1.5.» Two things immediately become crystal clear: First, that Wheeler is set to make 2023 his biggest year yet. And second, that despite his talent and tremendous success, the Puerto Rican artist remains as humble and genuine as they come.
Born José Ángel López Martínez, Wheeler’s humility is a product of humble beginnings, namely a childhood spent in the small town of Salinas in southern Puerto Rico, a place where the mountains gently sidle down to the Caribbean Sea. It is in Salinas that Wheeler says he experienced everything that makes him who he is.
«It was everything. Complicated, beautiful, ugly. Every major event in my life happened to me in Salinas. I fell in love for the first time. I was cheated on for the first time. I fought there. I was bullied there,» he tells POPSUGAR in Spanish. «But I wouldn’t change it for anything. Salinas is beautiful.»
By now, Wheeler’s encounters with bullying in school are well documented. Trauma caused him to shy away from the spotlight out of fear that he wouldn’t be accepted. But with all, he’s gone on to achieve since, it’s easy to understand why Wheeler might be grateful for all that has happened to him. Everything he has experienced has molded him into the person he is today, one that not only knows exactly who he is but also who he wants to be.
In urbano music, that’s a rare thing. As with many offshoots of the hip-hop movement, artists in the genre can be tempted to dial up the bravado and tough talk in order to make an impact. But not Wheeler.
«I don’t try to be something I’m not or project myself as someone I’m not. I am myself and I’m always going to be myself.»
«I don’t try to be something I’m not or project myself as someone I’m not. I am myself and I’m always going to be myself,» he says. I like comedy, I like to make people laugh. I like to make music. I’m not going to be what other people want me to be. I’m always going to be myself.»
While Wheeler credits a long list of people for his success, from his mother to his team, his steadfast attitude is clearly the biggest factor. After all, Wheeler’s rise came at a time when trap Latino and maleanteo (a subgenre similar to gangsta rap) were reaching new heights in popularity, something the singer says complicated his search for his voice.
«I used to be a rapper,» the artist says, switching seamlessly to English. «I thought that was going to be my path to success,» Wheeler recalls with a smile. But all that would change following a particularly bad heartbreak that his best friend convinced him to channel into a song. After he’d worked on the chorus, the artist who’d grown up singing in both his house and in church, thought for the first time, «singing might be it.»
But making an impact with a more romantic and sentimental style while crime-laced lyrics and braggadocious behavior continued to sell, proved challenging.
«It was really hard to make my mark, to make people understand that I sing romantic music, and make them give me a shot when we’re in the middle of the trap era,» he says.»But I knew that sooner or later, someone would look over to this side and say «okay, I’m tired of [trap], I’m moving on to [romantic]. And I’m thankful that now when they ask who represents the romantiqueo genre, you’ve got to mention Jay Wheeler.»
Since he first hit the scene with his massive hit «La Curiosidad,» (a song which the artist refers to as «la bendicion»), Wheeler has become one of the most distinguished figures in the genre. Along with contemporaries like Maluma, Manuel Turizo, and Sech, the Salinas native is the latest to carry the torch in a long line of reggaeton crooners that includes legends like Zion y Lennox, Divino, and Arcangel, all of whom have made an impact on the young artist.
During his latest show at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico, he actually brought out Divino along with other icons of the genre. It was an incredible way to not only honor one of the pioneers of the romantiqueo genre but to bridge its past, present, and future. Playing the «Choli,» as the coliseum is colloquially known in Puerto Rico, is something every kid across every barrio in Puerto Rico dreams of, so much so that Wheeler is actually floating the idea of tattooing himself with the date of the show. And for him to share his moment with some of the people who have helped pave the way for him shows the depth of his humility.
But while he is more than willing to share the spotlight with his peers and idols, Wheeler will always labor to carve his own path and seek out challenges as they arise. When asked what differentiates his music, he answers without hesitation:
«I feel I bring more sadness. My interpretation leans more towards the things that do you damage and make you suffer,» he says with a smile. «When you listen to a Jay Wheeler song you’ve got two options: change it because you don’t want to feel sad or be said.» However, while his lyrical content revels in heartbreak, it would be unfair to reduce Wheeler to just another lovesick singer. He’s a versatile artist, musician, and producer, capable of switching genres quicker than most DJs can. One need look no further than his last album, «Emociones» and the subsequent EP, «Emociones 1.5» for proof.
«‘Emociones’ was a very special album for me. Today, people are accustomed to you launching a project, and within a month it’s old and they want something else,» he explains. «I wanted to extend [the project], so we came up with «Emociones 1.5.»
Across both the LP and EP, the singer says he wanted to use different genres to play off his fans’ emotions in different ways.
«Working with emotions is a bit complicated, but when you manage to bring them all together in a single project, it’s a beautiful thing,» he says.»I think that’s what making an album is all about, giving people a variety of music. If you want to feel sad, here’s the song. If you want a good time, here’s the song. If you want some trap, here’s the song.»
But what makes Wheeler’s genre-bending prowess even more impressive is that he does it in real-time, without the use of a pen or a pad.
«I don’t write. What I’ll do is stand in front of the mic and listen to the beat, I’ll improvise a little flow without any lyrics, and after, I’ll start adding the lyrics to the flow as they come,» Wheeler says. «I think it’s better that way because I feel like everything happens right there in the moment.»
Yet, even if Wheeler prefers to improvise his songs in the booth, when it came to his first English-language release, «For You,» the singer admits he needed a little help.
«I’m not going to lie to you, I needed assistance from a few people that really know English, » Wheeler says as he lets out a laugh. While he’s pretty fluent when it comes to speaking the language, the singer notes that singing in English comes with unique complexities.
«There are times when the pronunciation is distinct, and you can’t pronounce it how you would say it,» he says. Never one to shy away from a challenge though, Wheeler plans to release more English-language songs in the future.
«I have a lot of respect for English-language music. My mom used to play it for me when I was young, and I actually thought I would end up being a singer in English rather than Spanish. So this project in English is more of a personal thing,» the artist says.
In December, Wheeler married Venezuelan singer Zhamira Zambrano, a union he says has impacted his artistry in the most positive way possible. But that doesn’t mean that he’s going to stop singing about heartbreak. Wheeler is confident that his relationship with Zambrano will only deepen his ability to interpret the full range of emotions.
«Lord willing, I’m never heartbroken again, but I imagine that whatever [hardships] I go through with [Zhamira], will obviously hurt more because she’s my wife,» he says.»But it’s also important to understand that when you’re singing, you’re acting for the ears and you’re interpreting emotions. So even being in love, it won’t be hard for me to do that.»
That’s the beautiful thing about Wheeler’s artistry: he wants you to see him as he really is. His joy, his pain, it’s all right there on the surface because he knows that what he’s been through, so many others out there are experiencing or will experience the same. Yes, he’s a versatile singer-songwriter, and yes, not all his songs are about heartache. But he knows from experience that el desamor, either the ones we experience ourselves or the ones we see our loved ones experience, can be paralyzing. So he’s built his brand on providing us with an outlet to relieve some of that pain. And in the process, he’s built himself into a star set to make 2023 his biggest year yet.