Bad Bunny Finds Gold in the Past, While J Balvin Is Trapped in the Future


Jon Caramanica (The New York Times) reviews new albums by Bad Bunny and J Balvin, YHLQMDLG and Colores, respectively. He says that the “new albums by two of Latin pop’s biggest stars find them chasing inspiration in opposite directions, with contrasting results.”

“Safaera” arrives in the middle of Bad Bunny’s second album, “YHLQMDLG,” like a gut punch of memory. The mood is early to mid-2000s: the hard-snapping vintage reggaeton production redolent of the Luny Tunes’ pioneering “Mas Flow” compilations; the tinny, wobbly melody line familiar from Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On”; the guests, Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow, flashes from the genre’s past.

Bad Bunny, the most modern — and sometimes postmodern — of the current generation of Latin pop stars, is finding grounding in yesteryear.

This is a very particular response to a very intense arc of fame. In the last four years, Bad Bunny has become a signature pop star, a Puerto Rican singer-rapper fluent in reggaeton, Latin trap, pop-punk and beyond. On his last album, “X 100PRE” from 2018, he embraced broad collaboration and experimentation. The genre-surfing was pointed, an example of what happens when you want both to challenge expectations and to make overtures to the rest of the world.

But the strikingly good “YHLQMDLG” (which stands for “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana,” translation “I Do Whatever I Want”) moves in a different direction, looking deep inside the genre’s long history and proposing that there is enough information in the past on which to build a whole worldview.

This richness stands in contrast to the approach of the Colombian reggaeton superstar J Balvin, who just released his sixth album, the affable but slightly numbing “Colores.” Balvin was a key player in the Colombian reanimation of reggaeton in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and has become perhaps the genre’s most visible star thanks to his wide-ranging collaborations (with Beyoncé and Cardi B, among others). His mechanisms are straightforward and legible — if Bad Bunny has been the tastemaker ambassador, Balvin has been the glossy centrist. Both were guests during the Super Bowl halftime show in February, a sign of their increased visibility on bigger and bigger stages.

“Colores” — every track is named for a color — is a shiny reaffirmation of the steps that have made the reggaeton revival part of the broader global pop conversation over the past few years. The production is buoyant and polished, using reggaeton as a skeleton for ambitiously scaled club-pop. Sometimes there are left-field flourishes, like the kazoo-ish buzz running through “Amarillo,” or the ethereal whistles on “Arcoíris,” a collaboration with the Nigerian Afrobeats progressive Mr. Eazi.

But by and large, these are polite songs, and familiar, too. Balvin is a sweetly elegiac singer — see especially “Azul,” where he stretches out soft vowels like taffy — but his rapping is largely blank.

What makes these songs really travel is Balvin the hypercolor character — a dazzler in outrageously rare sneakers, chicly proportioned clothes, hair whatever color will be popular next month. His album art is by Takashi Murakami, that empty aesthete signifier who favors exuberant simplicity. And so it is with Balvin.

See, for example, the Busta Rhymes-esque video for “Blanco,” a flashy achievement in set and costume design that outpaces the song itself, one of the better ones on this album, full of cheeky reverb and sticky chants. Balvin manages a touch of nostalgia as well on “Colores,” especially on “Negro,” a sneaky, grimy song that harks back to when reggaeton was flirting with hip-hop in the late 2000s. But looking backward isn’t really his thing.

Though their approaches can be at odds, Balvin and Bad Bunny are friends and collaborators. Last year they released a “Watch the Throne”-style album together, “Oasis.” It was a mixed bag, full of soft-punch production and especially light on Bad Bunny’s dynamism. It was like watching a racecar stuck in midtown traffic.

On “YHLQMDLG,” Bad Bunny returns to genuinely radical fifth-gear pop, almost entirely within the framework of reggaeton then-and-now. “Bichiyal” is of-the-moment, à la Balvin. “Ignorantes” features Sech, and with its pleasantly loping beat is a fitting complement to the Panamanian singer’s 2019 hit “Otro Trago.” On “Puesto Pa’ Guerrial,” Bad Bunny teams with the rising star Myke Towers for a muscular duet. (Towers recently released his second and best album, “Easy Money Baby,” a promising hybrid of reggaeton and hip-hop.) And the crescendo of hard-rock guitars at the end of “Hablamos Mañana” shows Bad Bunny still winking at the world outside reggaeton’s doors.

“YHLQMDLG” is a long album, perhaps slightly overlong — “La Zona,” “Vete” and others slide by inoffensively. But the high points are rousing. “La Santa,” a collaboration with Daddy Yankee, a superstar of reggaeton’s first global breakthrough, is stirring, with mellow Drake-style production topped with tart back-and-forth rapping. “Yo Perreo Sola,” about an empowered woman on the dance floor, manages big-club grandeur without sacrificing the pointedness of the reggaeton underpinning (though the female duet partner, Nesi, isn’t credited). “Está Cabrón Ser Yo,” with Anuel AA, is moody, brawny Latin trap.

Throughout the album, Bad Bunny finds contemporary ways to deliver old ideas. Tainy, who produced several of its songs and is a graduate of the genre’s mid-2000s renaissance, has a similar idea on his recent album “NEON16 TAPE: The Kids That Grew Up on Reggaeton,” which pairs current performers with classic-minded beats. Now more than ever, Spanish-language stars are being offered the world. But they’ve always had it.

Bad Bunny
(Rimas Entertainment)

J Balvin
(Universal Music Latino)

[Photo above by Kevin Mazur/WireImage, via Getty Images: J Balvin, left, and Bad Bunny, friends and collaborators, have each released new music that focuses on different moments in Latin pop.]


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