A Day in the Life of Bad Bunny, Introverted Superstar

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 9.30.31 PM.png

A report by Stefanie Fernández for Pitchfork.

As the Puerto Rican phenom continues to take over the pop universe with his new album YHLQMDLG, he dreams of just kicking back in flip-flops.

Bad Bunny is reminiscing about the glorious summer of Pokémon Go. Back then he and his friends would stay out until 7 in the morning, driving to different parts of Puerto Rico in search of virtual pocket monsters. As that season came to a close, he would begin his surge toward superstardom, eventually becoming one of the most streamed artists on Earth, and even taking the stage at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show alongside Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. But in 2016, he was still just Benito. He says he spent his “last days of freedom” in search of a Pikachu.As he relays the story, he’s about as far from that memory as you can get. He’s in a large conference room at Twitter’s Manhattan office on a grey afternoon in late February, explaining a few of his cryptic tweets. It’s media day, and he’s being driven from building to building in a black SUV with heavily tinted windows to promote his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, which stands for Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana, or I Do Whatever I Want. The record is a nod to the reggaetón he held as gospel growing up, and to simpler times. Near the beginning of the album, he jokes that he’s not a Pokémon an ex can catch.

After Twitter, he climbs into the car, accompanied by his publicist and his blue-haired childhood friend Jananthony. Benito is wearing a plaid orange-brown-black suit, a Gucci tennis T-shirt, chunky beige sneakers, and a bespoke white knit hat with bunny ears encircling his head and chin. His nails, which have made headlines for their manicured length and color, are bare. A little gold virgen and an Old English “B” hang around his neck.

We’re on the way to Apple Music, then Rolling Stone. The driver turns on the radio, and a gassed-up remix of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” calls from the speakers, as if on cue. Benito sings along with its nuclear bridge: “Tenemos tú y yo algo pendiente/Tú me debes algo y lo sabes.” On YHLQMDLG, Benito aims to conjure the seismic effect that 2004 hit had on popular music: to stitch the old magic of Puerto Rican reggaetón into pop’s present fabric. The album features Daddy Yankee on a true-to-form reggaetón romántico called “La Santa.” On it, the 25-year-old Benito and his 43-year-old beau ideal trade lines, the younger star’s melodic melancholy interwoven with the veteran’s more hype delivery. The song is a pocket history of where reggaetón has been in pop, and where it’s going next.

 

 

Bad Bunny first established himself as an unpredictable talent over a couple of years of consistent hits in the Latinx mainstream, including the emo-trap anthem “Soy Peor,” the piano ballad “Amorfoda,” which showed off his honeyed baritone, and a bounty of scene-stealing features. His 2018 debut full-length, X 100PRE, saw him toggling between genres—from trapchata to rock en español to dembow to pop punk—with a deft hand, and ended up at No. 43 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums of 2019 list. YHLQMDLG trades dexterity for detail, squarely focusing on reggaetón, as well as Latin trap tracks like the Puerto Rico ode “P FKN R,” which features mentors Arcángel and Kendo Kaponi rapping over beats that are more reminiscent of Puertorro caseríos (housing projects) than mansions in Miami.

The SUV weaves through Manhattan traffic as the radio DJ mixes “Gasolina” into “Yamilette,” a Daddy Yankee-DJ Playero deep cut from the early ’90s. We eventually arrive at the Rolling Stone offices, where Benito is scheduled to play a couple of songs off the new album. In a wood-paneled boardroom, he takes a seat at the table’s long edge before he is encouraged to sit at its head. He quietly scrolls through his phone and selects a track called “La Difícil.” An old-school backbeat bubbles up through the speakers. “This is reggaetón,” he says in Spanish. Then, in English, he stresses: “That’s reggaetón from Puerto Rico.”

On the song, Bad Bunny throws respect on a woman’s game even as she gives everyone—him included—the ghost. But that brazen persona isn’t in the room. Benito is mostly soft-spoken, shifting in his office chair. After playing another track, he shrugs and offers a little smile: “It is always so hard for me to show my music in front of people.”

Eventually, media day ends in the dim, minimalist lobby of a luxury hotel in Times Square. As he shuffles through the doors, a young Latino fan recognizes him and calls, “Benito! Benito!” Inside, white guests in slim-fitting jackets file into the elevator bay behind him. They don’t seem to recognize him. One asks if he’s waiting to head up.

When we reach his floor, Benito settles into a cream-colored armchair in a luxurious, cream-colored room. After having to speak in English for much of the day, he falls back into Spanish for our conversation. (His quotes below have been translated.) He says people always ask him how he feels, and he usually offers a canned response of fine and blessed. But now, with his album out in less than 48 hours, he can say with certainty that he’s happier than he’s been in a long time. Even more so even than when he dropped X 100PRE on Nochebuena 2018.

He tells me X 100PRE came out of a far more existential period. “I didn’t feel good about all the success, the tour, all the money, the popularity, the fame,” he confesses of the time before X 100PRE. So he used the record to share a more serious and creative side of himself. “It was like, yeah, Bad Bunny can do a song for the club, for drinking, for fucking, for smoking—but he can also make a beautiful and profound song with meaning that can reach people.” Out of this fugue came tracks like the resilient “Estamos Bien,” which vindicated Boricuas at home and across the diaspora against depictions of Puerto Rican suffering, or “Otra Noche en Miami,” a synthwave escape from the fame and the fakes.

Now, with YHLQMDLG, he’s back at the club. For months, Twitter skeptics hoped he would dispense with the who-hurt-you energy and deliver something hard. The missing piece was perreo, the dance and diasporic birthright first learned by kids in middle-school and perfected in marquesinas (garage parties) across the entire length of Puerto Rico. He missed it too. He reassures me with a slow smile: “I come with perreo.”

 

 

Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Almirante Sur on the south end of the coastal town of Vega Baja, about half an hour’s drive from San Juan. He says he mostly spent his youth at home with his mother, a teacher; his father, a truck driver; and his two younger brothers, only leaving the house to play basketball or see friends. At home, there was salsa and merengue; outside, there were the Catholic hymns of the choir he sang in at his mother’s church. The first reggaetón artist he remembers loving, at age 5, was Vico C, whose “clean” music era (think Will Smith’s Big Willie Style) earned the approval of Benito’s parents.Genre heavyweights Daddy Yankee, Wisin & Yandel, Calle 13, and Tego Calderón followed—what Benito calls “la crema del reguetón.” Calderón’s iconic 2002 hit “Pa’ Que Retozen” came out when Benito was in first grade. He recalls how that song would always come on the radio at approximately 7:50 a.m., right before he started school at 8. When he overslept, his mother would tell him to wake up if he wanted to hear Tego Calderón—at which point he’d spring up, get dressed and, to his chagrin, catch just the back half of the song once he made it to the car. The video for YHLQMDLG’s “La Difícil” opens on a similar scene, with a young boy asking his mother to turn up the car radio. Except this time, the kid begs to hear Bad Bunny, wearing the same bunny-eared white hat Benito wears before me. 

 

When Benito was 15, his mother was without work. He says he was exposed to street life around this time, but always stopped himself from getting involved. “I had the opportunity to do a lot of things, but I would think: What would happen if one day they catch me doing this and my mother finds out?

He got good grades until high school, when he started making music. Any given Saturday, he’d wake up at 3 in the afternoon, turn on his computer, and make beats. At the time, one of his biggest worries was running out of gas in his Toyota thanks to its broken fuel gauge. By 2016, when he was pulling double duty as an audiovisual communications student at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo and bagging groceries at the local Econo supermarket, he had found his sound, and a reason to leave the house. When his first SoundCloud hit, “Diles,” reached 1 million plays in two weeks, he remembers running to the bathroom at the Econo to take calls from producers, not knowing what to charge for studio time or graduation parties. He says Jananthony was there for all of those early days, driving him to parties and personally delivering Benito’s song-filled USB drive to the DJ with the directive to play it from 1 to 6 a.m.

The same boy from the “La Difícil” video punctuates the visuals for YHLQMDLG, and takes center stage on the album’s supernatural cover. The boy seems to represent a young Benito, though he tells me that’s not quite right. Rather, he could be pretty much any kid in the United States or Latin America in 1999: His parents fight, and he spends his days in his bedroom playing Nintendo 64 and listening to cassettes of his favorite artist: Bad Bunny. In the video for the single “Ignorantes,” the boy shaves his head to look like his hero, uncovers a third eye on his forehead, and, suddenly, he can see a better future.

“This is the album I would have wanted to make when I was 15,” Benito tells me. He thinks reggaetón as a genre is peaking commercially right now, but not necessarily creatively. “It became so pop—so pop,” he says, referencing forays by Colombian pop stars Shakira and Carlos Vives, and Mexican boy band Reik.

He attributes this dilution as one of the reasons urbano—the catch-all for reggaetón, trap, dembow, and other modern Latin genres—was snubbed at the 2019 Latin Grammys, a move driven by long-standing industry classism and racism that he protested onstage. Yet part of him understood: “Reggaetón has lost itself a little.”

A project like YHLQMDLG necessitated a sobering look to his heros. In Benito’s book, Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, Wisin & Yandel, and all the rest are still the masters of the genre, but he points out that once they reached maximum pop visibility in the Latin industry, they largely abandoned reggaetón’s native sound and drive. (And that doesn’t even take into account the long erasure of reggaetón’s Afro-Panamanian roots prior to its boom in Puerto Rico, or the influence of dancehall and dembow across the Caribbean on urbano writ large.)

He’s even made red caps as part of his merch that read “MAKE REGGAETÓN GREAT AGAIN,” though he hasn’t dared to wear one yet. He wants to be especially careful about how he introduces it, given the hat’s Trumpist baggage. To be clear, he’s no fan of the current administration. In 2018, he began a Tonight Showperformance with a somber call-out referencing the tragic federal response to Hurricane Maria, saying, “More than 3,000 people died, and Trump’s still in denial.”

Across the new album’s ambitious 20 tracks, Benito delivers a master class in Puerto Rican reggaetón, with guest lectures from its giants and cult figures. One of his favorite tracks is “Safaera,” an intentionally over-the-top homage to horniness featuring reggaetón forefathers Ñengo Flow and Jowell & Randy, and produced by hitmaker Tainy alongside Benito’s old friend DJ Orma. The song is pure mixeo, constantly switching tempos and beats while mixing in samples used on songs like Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” to make the existing track that much more perreo-friendly, as was the style at clubs and marquesinas throughout the mid-aughts. The mesmerizing highlight “Bichiyal” enlists Yaviah, a legendary reggaetónero who released a precious handful of songs in the mid-’90s and the decade thereafter before withdrawing from public life; Benito coaxed him back out into the light.

On “Yo Perreo Sola,” Benito foregrounds the long-relegated role of the female background singer on a track entirely about independence and consent in perreo, just one of the topics that has earned him praise for challenging urbano’s machismo on previous tracks and videos like the anti-domestic-violence “Solo de Mí” and the gender-bending “Caro.” The voice belongs to Génesis Ríosknown on YouTube as Nesi, who has been widely unknown until now. “Tranqui, yo perreo sola (Relax, I dance alone),” she asserts in a magnificent drawl, a chorus Benito knew he couldn’t sing as a man. But the moment is undercut by the fact that Ríos, the only woman featured on the album, is not credited for her performance in the tracklist, upholding a long, sexist precedent in reggaetón. At one point during his media rounds, Benito praises her voice but forgets her name.

 

 

Sitting in the hotel, he pulls his hat off and starts to talk about his relationship to his island. He was last in Vega Baja a couple of weeks ago, but it’s rare that he goes unnoticed as before. He still has whiplash from the last few years. But even when he’s halfway across the world, his eyes are on Puerto Rico. Last summer, when 800 pages of sexist, racist, homophobic, and corrupt Telegram chats involving the U.S. territory’s former governor Ricardo Rosselló leaked, Benito cancelled what remained of his European tour to join the reggaetón-punctuated protests that spurred Rosselló’s resignation. Alongside fellow Boricuas Residente and iLe, he also recorded “Afilando Los Cuchillos,” a protest song that glints with the deadly clarity of a community that knows all too well what it means to be taken advantage of.

Thinking back to that moment, he says he saw what everyone else saw, what had always been accepted tacitly. “The world was clear about how bad the government is, the corruption they’ve had for years and years, the abuse of the lower middle class, the working class,” he explains. “So when that happened, it was like you found out that your neighbor stole your bread from you everyday and you had thought you were crazy. But that day, bam, you saw it. You couldn’t be crazy because you see it.”

When he first saw the news of the Rosselló scandal on TV while on tour, he says he appreciated the world’s attention to Puerto Rico, adding, “But at the same time, I thought, How awful that my flag and my country’s name appear with something so negative.” The pride he felt was at once political, yet far removed from politics, expressed across a sea of people and their insurgent perreo intenso. Even though he responded quite loudly then, he’s still not quite sure how to respond when it comes to politics. He doesn’t know if he’ll vote in the upcoming Puerto Rican primary for President of the United States (Puerto Ricans can’t vote in the general election), but he does know he’ll show up the next time his people need him to. The day after our interview, he backs this claim up with another political statement on The Tonight Showpaying tribute to the Puerto Rican transgender woman Alexa Negrón Luciano, who was recently shot and killed in an alleged hate crime: During his performance, he opens his jacket to reveal a sweatshirt that reads, in Spanish, “THEY KILLED ALEXA, NOT A MAN IN A SKIRT.”

 

 

This sense of accountability can be heard on YHLQMDLG’s final track “<3,” a freestyle of thanks to his day ones, his abuela, his island. On it, he teases that he’s already thinking of the follow-up album he’ll release in nine months, and of a peaceful retirement. Between now and then: He’s been acting in a series that’s being filmed in Mexico. He’ll play his first concert of the new decade in San Juan in May. And his 26th birthday is just days away, on March 10. He says he wants to celebrate by throwing a huge party for his family and friends, except he’s not great at planning things, so he’ll probably just go to the beach and see the latest Pixar film. “I only watch animated movies,” he adds.

He’s excited about his imminent Tonight Show appearance, where, in addition to performing, he’ll sit down next to Jimmy Fallon for an interview in English. After earning his success in his native language, why would he bother even doing interviews in English at all?

“The world already knows that I got here without having to sing in English or translating songs to English,” he notes. Now that he’s conquered the American market without resorting to cheesy crossover acrobatics he wants to be understood. “Gringo kids spot me and it’s like they’ve seen Michael Jackson,” he marvels. “I’m like, seriously?”

But that kind of visibility was never really the goal for this avowed introvert. “I would love to go out on the street in Puerto Rico in an undershirt and flip-flops, and order a beer at the bar at the corner without anyone giving me so much as a look,” he says. “But those looks are part of my life, and I’ve learned to live with that.”

As our conversation winds down, Benito rises from his armchair. He’s tired but thankful. There’s a backbeat pulsing gently across the floor from a few rooms away, beneath a familiar Caribbean baritone. He heads down the hall, following the sound of his own voice.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s