Concert preview: Rapper Jai Carey in sharp form on heartfelt, human Project Housing EP

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

Jai Carey kicks offThe Project Housing EP with a challenge to himself, stating, "I hope my pencil is sharp enough when I'm writing this."

He needn't have worried. With seven tracks clocking in at a lean 28 minutes, the rapper's latest effort is honed to a fine point, with nary a wasted syllable or breath present.

According to Carey, who recently released the mini-album free online via BandCamp and DatPiff, this is a bit of a shift from his last project,Fire Sale, from 2012, which he described as "super-lyrical," packed with dense internal rhymes and deeply layered concepts (the EP doubled as an allegorical attack on modern hip-hop).

"I didn't worry about [Fire Sale] being relatable," said Carey, 34, who started writingProject Housing when he returned to his birthplace of Newburgh, New York, in November 2014 to help care for his grandmother in the months before she died (Carey has called Columbus home since 1989). "But with this new project I was like, 'I have to do this for me, and I'm just going to speak the way it needs to be spoken at the moment.'"

As a result, the MC pares back some of his usual lyrical flash, delivering his words in a more conversational, everyman cadence. The subject matter is similarly grounded, rooted in daily realities that range from minor inconveniences (on "Social Networth" he refrains from posting to social media sites while on the clock at work) to legitimate life-or-death struggles. Witness "Famous Last Words," in which Carey wrestles with a depression so dark and enveloping that it leads to suicidal thoughts and a lingering sense he's been abandoned by both family and faith.

"And I'm talking to God, but his response is silence," he confesses, delivering his pleas atop a steady trickle of piano and a warm sonic crackle reminiscent of a vinyl record spinning on the turntable.

The song, like every track here, has a basis in reality, taking shape in the weeks after Carey's grandmother - a key figure in his life growing up - died in January following a prolonged battle with Alzheimer's and dementia.

"I was going through heavy depression … and I almost stopped working on the project completely because of the mind state I was in, like, 'I can't do this right now,'" the rapper said. "There were times I had suicidal thoughts. In September, I had a show with 8 Bit Genetic Code, which was the band I was part of. We were going to Miami University to open for [Columbus rapper] Illogic, and I was sitting there envisioning throwing myself out of the car.

"Everybody is always like, 'Suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do,' but unless you're there you can't understand what's going on. I did this song [to help raise] awareness, so people can be like, 'This is going to help me because I understand what he's going through, and he made it out of it.'"

Carey credits his survival, in part, to his music, which has functioned as a form of release since he started writing his first rhymes at 16. It helped, of course, that his mother and grandmother, who logged time as a teacher and a librarian, respectively, helped instill him with a fondness for language that led him to craft his first poems at the age of 12.

"When we got in trouble we were reading dictionaries," laughed Carey, who, along with a brother, two sisters and an adopted brother, was raised largely by his mother ("I don't really have a lot to do with my dad," he said bluntly). "[My mom] was big on making sure we read and that we knew what was going on [in the world] around us."

In high school, the burgeoning MC, who initially gravitated toward freestyle - "With writing … every word has its place on the beat and every syllable needs to fit, but freestyle is my meditation [because] you can just zone out and go," he said - would apply this skillset to his studies, spinning elaborate verses about political and social events in order to absorb and retain the material taught in his political science class. In a way, this trend has continued into adulthood, with Carey crafting songs as a means of understanding both his surroundings and his place in them.

"That's how I know how to express myself," he said. "'Let's sit down and talk.' Nah, I'll just put it in a song and call it a day."

It's an approach that took on even deeper importance onProject Housing, with Carey penning deeply felt rhymes that helped him gradually claw his way back from the brink.

"I had to retreat to try and get my mind right," he said of the months-long writing and recording process, which finally wrapped up in June. "It's an everyday struggle, and I know there's still work that needs to be done. But speaking for today, today's a good day. Right now, I'm good."