J Balvin’s Latin Pop Crusade

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He’s on a mission to globalize reggaeton. Will the United States answer the call?

At 32, Balvin is the most popular reggaeton singer in Colombia – and one of the most popular artists in the world. Written with French singer-producer Willy William, “Mi Gente” topped Billboard‘s Hot Latin Songs chart for three consecutive months, and has surpassed 1.7 billion YouTube views; it also hit Number Three on the Hot 100 after Beyoncé jumped on the remix. Just last month, Balvin scored another Top 10 hit alongside the unsinkable Cardi B and Latin-trap master Bad Bunny with their boogaloo kitsch single, “I Like It.”

But as Balvin readies his upcoming record, Vibras, he’s concerned less with accolades than with loftier goals, like representing a new Colombia. “We’ve had Juanes, who played rock, and Shakira pop,” says Balvin. “But we’ve had nothing urban to represent our country.” And another thing: He wouldn’t mind taking Spanish-language music to the American mainstream. “The beautiful thing about ‘Mi Gente,'” he says, “is that I wrote it in Spanish with Willy William, a producer from Paris . . . and it hit Number One [in charts] around the world. After Beyoncé jumped in [with] the remix, it wasn’t a strategy to make it bigger. . . . It was for the culture.”

Two days before his Radio City appearance, I meet Balvin inside the Rico Pan Bakery, a Colombian family establishment, and one of the best-kept secrets in Woodside, Queens. The place is teeming with guava pastries, wine-soaked wedding cake and cheesy bread rolls called almojabánas. Employees look on in hairnets and blue aprons, doting on Balvin as he surveys every treat the store has to offer – and atones for cheating his strict diet. “After this,” he says, “we go to the gym!”

Balvin rocks a blue varsity jacket, distressed blue jeans and a shaved head, despite the blistering cold. New York is much farther from the equator than his home in Medellín, and his manager, Rebeca Leon, makes note of his rigorous skincare routine. (“He’s gotta moisturize,” she says before taking a call.) Balvin laughs and throws on his Chanel shades for passing fans, who non-discreetly take photos on their smartphones. Wielding a DSLR camera, Balvin’s personal photographer snaps a couple of photos near the fans for his meticulously curated Instagram account. Balvin and his entourage file into two vehicles, and we head to the downtown Manhattan hotel where he’s briefly staying, taking a bag of almojabánas to go.

To understand Balvin’s career as a reggaeton-singer-turned-international-pop-dynamo begs some context. As the history goes, reggaeton has gone through a few evolutions: Its predecessor, reggae en Español, flourished in Afro-Latino communities in Panama during the early Nineties. Taking cues from Jamaican dancehall and dembow, Panamanian MC El General popularized the format, which then made its way to Puerto Rico, where producers DJ Nelson and DJ Playero ushered in new takes on the sound. Puerto Ricans made it their own by applying the clave – the mother of all Afro-Caribbean rhythms, as found in genres like salsa. Factor in a drum machine, plus a heap of braggadocio, and a reggaeton song is born.

To some hard-line reggaeton fans, Balvin’s mellowed vocal lilt and laid-back sensuality, not to mention his heritage, don’t fit the bill for an authentic reggaeton star. “Of course everybody was like, ‘You’re a crazy Colombian,'” says Balvin. We sit at a window overlooking the Financial District, his hotel room decorated with colorful Murakami pillows and figurines. “They said, ‘Reggaeton is for Puerto Ricans – you are never going to make it,'” he continues. “But the more they said it . . . the more I wanted it.”

Balvin often speaks of himself as an outsider – which might be more plausible, had he not emerged from a Colombian music industry that’s catapulted some of Latin America’s biggest pop stars to global fame. But is he really qualified to be a global ambassador for reggaeton?

“I’m not saying I’m Drake,” he says cautiously. “But I was from Colombia, a different culture, and I got into the game. It’s the same thing that happened with Drake – he’s a Canadian guy who got into the [hip-hop] game and just changed the rules.”

Drake is a notable comparison: Just as El Draque churns out hits with pop luminaries across the African diaspora, Balvin has fashioned himself a collaboration machine for the world. His label, Universal, first tried to bolster his crossover appeal with features on Spanish-language remixes of singles by Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 and others; but after the whirlwind success of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” Latin pop has wielded more cachet in the United States than ever before, and Balvin is happy to capitalize on this moment. “I want to make music for everybody,” he says. “I don’t have to work with superstars – I want to work with cool artists that make super music. I’m not a big fan of fame, I’m a big fan of success.”

José Álvaro Osorio Balvin was born and raised in Medellín, a landlocked metropolis nestled in the Andes Mountains that’s best known for giving rise to Pablo Escobar. Balvin’s father was an economist and business owner; Balvin’s mother, whom he describes as his best friend, studied medicine and played accordion. His family hit financial trouble in his teens, during which they moved to a more working-class neighborhood. Balvin started a crash course on American music of all kinds, hoping to catch his own big break someday in the United States.

“I started listening to hip-hop at the time,” says Balvin. “I got to know [American] hip-hop culture: Kris Kross, Run-DMC, artists like that. But at the same time, I was listening to Nirvana, Offspring, Metallica. I started learning to play guitar and started with covers.” (Balvin has a Nirvana logo on his knee, one of dozens of tattoos; he’s also dyed his hair more than 20 times, in colors ranging from laser-yellow to aquamarine.)

At 17, he enrolled in a foreign-exchange program that placed him in Atoka, Oklahoma, hoping to improve his English. After relations with his host family soured, he left for New York, home to his hip-hop heroes, as well as his aunt. He took gigs as a dog-walker in Soho and let the streets become his guide. “I was just breathing the culture,” he says. “Walking around Queens . . . seeing all the graffiti, Jay-Z and Puff Daddy on billboards. I [took] the train and watched all of these break dancers. I thought, ‘I gotta do this. This is what I want to do.'”

He returned to Colombia with dreams of becoming a rapper. But at the time, rock music was king in his native country, and bands like Bomba Estéreo and Systema Solar had kicked off a growing movement of young musicians revamping traditional cumbia music for the club. Meanwhile, reggaeton – still relatively underground in Colombia – was getting its first taste of mainstream international success with Daddy Yankee’s 2004 breakout hit, “Gasolina.” It was not only the first distinctly reggaeton song nominated for a Latin Grammy, it was the first to crack the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. “I fell in love with Daddy Yankee,” says Balvin. “Almost everybody [in hip-hop] was African-American, but I saw Yankee was Latino and thought, ‘OK, I got a chance.'”

He took to a Medellín neighborhood called El Robledo and sought out Colombian hip-hop and reggaeton pioneers Golpe a Golpe for help. With their blessing, as well as some hard-hitting MySpace campaigning, Balvin began performing across the Colombian hip-hop circuit. His enterprising father took charge as his manager – until Balvin signed to Universal in 2013. “To me, family is first,” he says. “Our relationship wasn’t going well because we were always talking about business. Now we can talk about how I feel and not, ‘What’s up? How much money’s in the bank?'”

His Latin Grammy-nominated 2014 album, La Familia, is basically a Balvin sampler, showcasing his flexibility across different genres and languages. His 2016 follow-up, the slinky Energía, fared much better in Latin radio, highlighted by his hit “Ginza,” which hit Number One, and the Pharrell-assisted “Safari.” But in Vibras, Balvin hopes to break Spanish-language music further out of its segregated status in the American music industry – and after a lifetime of absorbing Anglophone music, he wants Americans to try singing along in Spanish, too. If cultural empowerment and exchange is a mission Beyoncé is down with – “Lift up your people, Texas to Puerto Rico, dem islands to Mexico,” she sings in “Mi Gente” – then it’s on the rest of us to catch up. “I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Beyoncé,” says Balvin. “But for the ‘Mi Gente’ remix, we sent Luis Fonsi’s brother, Jean, to take care of her Spanish and pronunciation. And she killed it. She did it with so much passion and love that I’m so grateful.”

Working behind the scenes through it all is 25-year-old producer Alejandro Ramírez, also known as Sky Rompiendo el Bajo. Balvin’s right-hand man since La Familia, Ramírez met Balvin 10 years ago in a makeshift studio in Medellín. “It was a basement with two speakers,” Ramírez says, laughing. “Balvin was already big in my country, but you’d still see him on the streets.” Ramírez has been essential to curating Balvin’s sojourning sound, which has ambled almost everywhere from hip-hop to house. (“Sky’s taste is crazy,” notes Balvin.) Some in Balvin’s circle have even referred to Ramírez as the “Colombian Calvin Harris” – but unlike the Scottish playboy, Ramírez has no designs on solo stardom. He’s happy to help further Balvin’s globetrotting objective, which reaches its peak in Vibras.

Opening with a faint blush of vocals by Mexican indie-pop darling Carla Morrison, the new album is suffused with electronica, hip-hop, dancehall and calypso sounds, serving both Ramírez’s eccentric visions and Balvin’s agenda of building pan-Latin solidarity. Reggaetoneros like Wisin y Yandel and Zion y Lennox make bold features, other players on the album – such as flamenco singer Rosalía, Brazilian pop star Anitta and Aruban singer Jeon – round out the global aspect. Plus – who can resist a steel drum? “Anybody that knows me,” says Ramírez, “knows I fuck with a steel drum.”

In short, the album is a growth spurt both for Balvin and for Ramirez – and no Balvin record, nor almost any reggaeton record, has sounded as strikingly fluid as Vibras. “I don’t even think of it as a reggaeton record,” Balvin tells me. “There’s reggaeton sounds, but Vibras is a world record.” Yet still, as if to settle a longtime score between him and his naysayers, it’s worth noting he managed to secure the ultimate reggaeton co-sign: help from legendary Puerto Rican producer Tainy, who collaborated early in his career with San Juan producer duo Luny Tunes, the masterminds behind many of Daddy Yankee’s records. “[Tainy] started producing when he was 16,” says Ramírez. “He’s only a few years older, but I always looked up to him. He was the reggaeton guy who always came through with the freshest stuff.”

Ramírez recounts their studio time with the wonderstruck humility of a kid who just caught a foul ball hit by his favorite player. But make no mistake: Ramírez is already in the big leagues. “In Energía, we stuck to our reggaeton roots,” says Ramirez. “But [Vibras] is riskier. The reggaeton oldies all [start out] tough, like they’re all trying to show off. It’s cool, that’s our culture, but we wanted to do something different. . . . It’s for Latinos, but it’s also for the whole world. It’s a proposition to the people: ‘Do you like this? Would you accept us?'”

One Friday in late April, Balvin was getting ready to appear at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, with Ozuna and Becky G, when he got a call from Beyoncé’s team. Would he grace Her Majesty with a cameo at Saturday’s Coachella set – and become the first reggaeton artist to play the festival’s main stage? “I didn’t care if if was the day before [the show],” Balvin recalled over the phone the following Monday. “I hopped on the [next] plane! ‘Let’s do this!'”

“J Balvin! Where you at? Where you at?” called a vinyl-clad Beyoncé that Saturday night, quizzically scanning the perimeter as her dancers filled the stage. Balvin emerged 15 seconds later, strutting across the stage toward the Queen Bey. (“I was waiting for my cue!” he explained later.) Beyoncé coyly moseyed on backward toward Balvin, but he maintained a rigid, albeit flushed, composure – just trying to land all his lines and stick to the beat. The stars exchanged a comradely hug before he marched offstage. But on his Instagram later that night, he was not as lost for emotion. “BEYONCE AND I – ESTO ES PA LOS LATINOS Y EL MUNDO” – “this is for the Latinos and the world” – his caption read on a glowing video of the two onstage. “So few people in the world have the opportunity to be onstage with the queen,” he says. “It’s crazy how organically the song got so big, and this is just the beginning. It’s beautiful for the culture, for us Latinos.”

Before the show, Balvin hung back and casually indulged in a selfie with his childhood hero, Jay Z. For a moment, the rapper Balvin remembered from a billboard in Queens – the one he used to gaze at, in his days as a young dog-walker from Medellín, Colombia – was not so supersize, but smiling next to him, standing just a little taller in a white Puma track suit. “I am so blessed,” says Balvin. “I still think of it all as a dream.”

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