A “No loitering” sign hangs on the weathered brick facade of an unassuming building in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. It’s a clear fall day, so mountain glimpses peek through between single-story businesses across the street as cars whoosh by.
Jay Loud is in good spirits; whenever his boyish grin grows wide enough, the sunlight that pours through the trees lining the sidewalk catches the gold on his teeth. The 19-year-old rapper/singer is a familiar face to staffers at this Tacoma senior center — which doubles as a young-adult shelter at night — where we met for an interview. Not long ago, the aspiring artist was staying at another of the shelter’s facilities, roughly a mile down the road, while trying to make a new life for himself in an unfamiliar city.
“It’s not something that you really want,” Loud says. “But at the same time, it’s way better than me being homeless, because there were some nights that I did get overheated in the shelter and they kicked me out for a couple days. So I was outside, for like two days, making dumb decisions.”
Born James Jackson, Loud’s circumstances have improved considerably since those nights spent outside. Roughly a year removed from arriving in Washington state on a one-way bus ticket, the Indianapolis transplant has a shot at being one of the latest artists from Seattle-Tacoma’s thriving hip-hop scene to catch on outside the region, despite only two local performances under his belt — prior to a Nov. 15 date at the Vera Project. Over the past 10 months or so, the promising (and previously unknown) emcee/bedside crooner has garnered attention with a handful of knockout singles, picked up a co-sign from Nipsey Hussle’s longtime deejay, DJ V.I.P., and landed a record deal with Empire, the prominent hip-hop distributor-turned-label.
On Oct. 25, Loud released his style-shifting debut album, “Nap Town” — one of the strongest Seattle hip-hop records of the year. And if not for a significant leap of faith and a chance encounter at a Tacoma fast-food joint, it never would have happened.
Loud grew up in a rough part of Indianapolis, where he says trouble has a way of finding even those who aren’t looking for it. He worked on music back home, but describes it as “kinda bootleg,” and the only real promotion strategy was passing out CDs on the street. His music prospects dwindled after infighting tore apart the group he was in. Loud was also facing misdemeanor battery charges stemming from an altercation in high school, a case that’s still open. (He declined to comment on the incident.)
Loud had gotten involved with a young woman from Washington state and one day received a call from her mother, who wanted to get to know him. Over the course of their conversation, Loud told her he was looking to make some positive changes in his life, and she offered to buy him a bus ticket if he wanted to come live with them.
“Shoot, I was lost,” Loud says. “I came out here because I really didn’t have no choice. It was either keep on living the lifestyle that I was living back home or I was going to have to take a chance.”
Ultimately, the living situation with the mother and daughter became untenable; he moved on to the shelter and, eventually, a shared-housing facility that he was in and out of. (These days, he’s crashing in Renton with his co-manager, Papa Black Davinci.) While working toward his GED at the Goodwill Milgard Work Opportunity Center, he also needed a job. One day, while waiting his turn for an open interview at a McDonald’s not far from where he was staying, Loud was working on a song that caught the ear of a security guard, who put Loud in touch with Taj King — now his primary manager, who already had connections at Empire. After hearing a snippet of his music, King offered to spring for a studio session as sort of a trial run.
It was a step up from the mic-in-the-closet home recordings Loud was used to back home, and he admits it was a little intimidating at first. “I was scared because it was a big studio. I ain’t never heard my voice this crispy,” he says.
During that first session, they cut Loud’s first single, “Lick” — a sleek, melodic rap song with a syrupy hook that touches on past tribulations and his desire for a more prosperous future. “Me putting my history on my songs, that’s me leaving it in the past,” Loud says. “All that’s doing is helping me overcome my fears, my anger and all of that pain I went through.”
Tracks like “Lick” and the irresistible behind-bedroom-doors anthem, “Bad Lil Shorty,” perfectly marry Loud’s smooth flow and innate singing ability, a union that the former preteen freestyler (who also sang in the church choir) was once reluctant to embrace. Despite his irrefutable ear for melody, it might be a little surprising to anyone familiar with Loud’s earliest singles just how much of “Nap Town” — the title borrows his hometown’s nickname — is purebred R&B.
That dual skill set and Loud’s “distinctive tone” were two reasons Bobby Fisher, an A&R rep with Empire, signed Loud to a multi-project deal.
“In comparison, it almost felt like Juice WRLD in a sense, because there’s this new renaissance of new artists where you can’t necessarily group them as a rap artist, or R&B, or pop or alternative,” Fisher says. “They’re in a space where they’re just doing music. I felt like he was one of those guys that belongs in that class. … Because you can’t really categorize Jay Loud. He does R&B just as well as he does hip-hop.”
For every gritty pounder teeming with bravado, like “Sideshow,” there’s an introspective R&B cut in Loud’s catalog, like “Feeling,” a wounded piano track that finds Loud at his most vulnerable, feeling betrayed by a love interest after letting his guard down. “Sometimes I wish I was dead / wish I was gone off the earth” he sings without a trace of emo-rap affect, his echoing, heartache-stricken voice suspended in air as the beat drops out.
It’s one of an impressive number of styles and vibes Loud conjures throughout the song-oriented album, ranging from the radio-friendly (at least in melody and structure) summer jam “Ice Cream” to the stuttering West Coast bounce of “Wait” or the hypnotic “Zoom,” which features another rising local artist in Laza. To an extent, Loud credits his new surroundings for the stylistically diverse departure from his more struggle-oriented early work.
“When I got out here, it was a new experience … so it’s something different,” he says. “It’s not guns everywhere I go, it’s not beef everywhere I go, it’s not cops trying to start stuff with us. It’s just calm. I know there’s some places where it gets out of hand, but I’m in the right places, so I don’t gotta worry about that.”
The fact that he’s made career strides in such a short time here has been “overwhelming” and humbling, he says, praising the behind-the-scenes work of the Seattle-area team that’s rallied behind him.
“Without any of them, I’d be moving slow right now,” he says. “I’d be at McDonald’s.”
Jay Loud with Keshawn, Truly, Big Jones, L’Shawn, B-Rose, Noah and more. 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15; Vera Project, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $8-$10, all ages; theveraproject.org