It's only been a few weeks since Jazz Cartier's debut project Marauding in Paradise dropped, but to hear the 22-year-old Toronto rapper tell it, the wait has felt like an eternity.
"I was overthinking a lot," Cartier tells Exclaim! "There were four versions of it. The original version in 2011, that was when I was still in school and I moved back, scrapped that one, kept some songs for the second one. In between that, I was finding myself as a person down here, I found my stories got better and my writing got better."
Born in Toronto, he moved when he was seven or eight (his stepdad was a diplomat), living in Idaho, Barbados, Houston, Georgia, Kuwait, and several Northeastern U.S. states. While Cartier admits it took him awhile to acclimate to constantly moving while attending school, he says it taught him valuable lessons about judging character.
"It kind of helped me gauge people at a very young age," he says. "Kids are very judgmental, so especially for me, being a black kid going to mostly white schools, I learned how to form a bond between cultures."
Cartier was also exposed to a wide variety of music; his step uncle Lewis's UGK, Fat Pat and Houston screw cassettes, Caribbean soca, and in Kuwait — where hip-hop wasn't as prevalent — his mother's CD collection, which led him to R&B and "fundamental" rap. ("Forever Ready/Band on a Bible" opens with dialogue from a Biggie interview.)
A promising student who was accepted to Chicago's Columbia College to study art, Cartier didn't want to move somewhere he didn't know anybody, so he returned to Toronto in 2012, crashed a friend's couch and started selling drugs.
"You'll find out a lot about yourself living the downtown lifestyle for six months," he says. It's these experiences that form the narrative of Marauding in Paradise, a backseat Uber ride through a city that's more Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness than "Hold On, We're Going Home," filled with art school kids, clubgoers looking for their next hit and model ex-lovers.
With help from Toronto producer Michael Lantz, whom he befriended at a studio when the rapper was only 15 ("He came in with these electro beats that nobody fucked with but I saw his potential"), Cartier started working on music. He estimates that they recorded between 200 and 300 songs, editing and scrapping as he improved as an MC, often emailing Lantz with notes at 7 a.m. after staying up all night. Still he wasn't sure if he'd ever taste success.
"For four years, I watched everybody come out, I watched all these 'top in Toronto' lists and I weren't on any of them," he says. "I could have broken down, but that's not me, I knew my time was coming."
Eventually those accolades started to arrive, both locally and outside the 416. The take-no-prisoners trap-rap anthem "Switch" was played regularly at Raptors home games this season by the team's resident DJ 4Korners ("I usually get a barrage of tweets from people who are at the game and know the song"). At a Toronto show in March, he was introduced by none other than Kardinal Offishall, which could be seen as a symbolic passing of the torch.
Acknowledging the double-edged sword of attention that Drake's success has brought to the city, Cartier respectively dismisses the comparisons. "If you look at the history of Toronto rappers, their hasn't been anyone to put downtown Toronto on the map," he says. "Everyone comes down here, and then they start networking and trying to grow, but I'm actually from here."
Meanwhile, he remains tight-lipped about his plans to sign to a label or what a follow-up to Marauding in Paradise might sound like (he mentions wanting to work with Detroit rapper Dej Loaf and Top Dawg-affiliated R&B singer-songwriter SZA). He'll release more music (see non-album track "Always Up to Something") this year and tour, but he's learned to be patient.
"I'm a child of the internet and I'm very observant. Life is like a chess game, you know what I'm saying?" Without missing a beat, the rapper adds, "And I played chess in middle school."