For Nicky Jam, a Second Chance at Stardom as Reggaeton Surges Again

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A report by Jon Caramanica for the New York Times.

“Fénix,” the new album by the reborn reggaeton star Nicky Jam, is a study in transnational savvy and personal resilience. His latest successes — which include a pair of No. 1 hits on the Billboard Latin songs chart — have come as part of reggaeton’s second global wave, and “Fénix” reflects the ambitions of an artist who already tested his limits once, and failed, but who understands how many different sorts of ears have to be listening to make a hit.

On this spry, bright, savvy album, Nicky Jam collaborates with artists from across the Caribbean and Latin America: J Balvin, from Colombia, on the gleaming pop-reggaeton of “Superhéroe”; Sean Paul and Konshens, from Jamaica, on the deconstructed dancehall of “Amor Prohibido”; Wisin, on the throwback reggaeton of “Si Tú La Ves”; El Alfa, the dominant figure in Dominican dembow music, on “Nadie Como Tú.”

And, of course, the Latin pop star Enrique Iglesias, whose 2015 collaboration with Nicky Jam, “El Perdón,” spent 30 weeks atop the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart, the second-highest total in history, behind Mr. Iglesias’s “Bailando.”

For any artist, this would be an impressive run, but for Nicky Jam, 35, it caps an unlikely comeback. “Fénix” is his first album in a decade, a stretch of time during which this former teenage reggaeton star underwent a fall from grace: struggles with alcohol and drugs, depression, extreme weight gain, financial battles and jail time.

“People could say it was embarrassing to be me,” he said in an interview this week.

Substance abuse had been a recurring feature in his life when he was growing up in Lawrence, Mass., affecting his mother, father and uncle. “I came from that,” he said. “That’s the way I was raised. It was normal.”

He moved with his family to Puerto Rico in 1992, speaking no Spanish, but quickly became a prodigy in the local music scene, which was just beginning to coalesce into the Caribbean-hip-hop-hybrid sound that would become known as reggaeton. A young Nicky Jam idolized Daddy Yankee, whom he first heard on the reggae-influenced mixtapes by DJ Playero, the tastemaker who helped shape the island’s nascent sound.

“People said this music wouldn’t even last a year,” he recalled of the genre’s early days in Puerto Rico. “If you had a CD of this music in your car, police could give you a ticket.”

But reggaeton became the sound of young Puerto Rico, and before long, Nicky Jam was working alongside Daddy Yankee — a protégé and star-in-waiting. But the two men had a falling-out just before “Gasolina,” the 2004 song that took reggaeton global. In the mid-2000s, as the genre’s influence was growing, Nicky Jam had a string of his own hits but never fully broke through.

Then came the low years. “I was on the news a lot,” he said. “I couldn’t pay my electric bill. I would get a new car for five, six months, not pay for it. Police would take the car away from me.”

In Puerto Rico, reggaeton was transforming into electro-influenced pop, leaving him behind. A chance call to perform in Colombia gave Nicky Jam new hope. There, he wasn’t a washout, but a hero. And thanks to performers like J Balvin and Maluma, who were emerging then, Colombia was becoming the home base for reggaeton’s second global wave.

“Puerto Rico got too futuristic, with the electronic reggaeton,” Nicky Jam said. “It lost the essence of the reggae music. The sound that was doing really good in Colombia was the sound that Puerto Ricans stopped doing. They were making their own sound out of a sound we did already.”

With nothing to lose, he moved to Colombia, taking up residence on a farm 45 minutes outside Medellin. “My own little mansion,” he joked. “It was really good for soul-searching.” He began making new music, collaborating with young Colombian artists, and formed a partnership with the producer Saga WhiteBlack, whom he discovered making dancehall songs and nudged toward Latin pop.

He also began changing his music. Inspired by the humble narratives he heard in Colombia’s vallenato music, he began exploring his own vulnerabilities. “The mentality always in reggaeton was ‘I’m the man,’” he said. “I made that cool to say, ‘I messed up, I’m not the best.’”

That approach had its fullest exposition on “El Perdón,” which began as a Nicky Jam solo song before Mr. Iglesias contacted him about remaking it as a duet. (They also recorded an English language version of the song, “Forgiveness.”) Nicky Jam — who sings as well as raps — holds his own alongside Mr. Iglesias. “I don’t like the taboo where the pop singer does a song with a reggaeton artist, makes them do a 16 [bars] rapping, and then, ‘O.K., do your job and leave,’” he said. “Not everybody can sing — that’s something I have. I have to sing the same hook you do.”

That versatility has given Nicky Jam a second chance. As someone who was born in the United States, grew up in Puerto Rico and now lives in Colombia — and has picked up a bit of a Colombian accent, he confesses — Nicky Jam spends a lot of time thinking about the walls that language can put up, and the freedoms it can afford.

(In addition to Medellin, he has a home in Miami, but “the music comes out better in Medellin,” he said. “In Miami I have a brand-new studio — it’s the wackest thing in the world. I want my rusty studio in Medellin.”)

Now, when he records, he’s mindful of all the places his songs might go. “The way you pronounce words the Puerto Rico way, it’s not really global for music. Colombians speak some of the best Spanish in the world. So having a Colombian next to me every time I write makes my music more international.”

And he is beginning to make inroads into English-speaking America as well, with a role in the Vin Diesel film “XXX: Return of Xander Cage” (which will be released on Friday), and rapping in English (alongside French Montana, Ty Dolla Sign and Lil Yachty) on “In My Foreign,” a song from the movie’s soundtrack.

Despite the intense global impact of reggaeton’s first breakthrough, an artist fully crossing over from the Latin pop world to American pop never quite happened. It’s a prize Nicky Jam now has in his sights. “It’s funny that it’s the guy that was already left for dead, not some new kid,” he said. “It’s the guy that people thought he was already wack. ‘Ugh, I don’t wanna hear this guy!’”

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