The World According to Bad Bunny

[Many thanks for Pablo Delano for bringing this item to our attention.] Carina del Valle Schorske (The New York Times) writes about Bad Bunny, “The Puerto Rican reggaetonero has come to dominate global pop on his own terms.” Here are brief excerpts. Read the full article (with photographs and videos by Mara Corsino) at The New York Times.

[. . .] Lately, though, the crisis seems like a historical period we can track, improbably, in relation to the career of Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio. He exploded onto the música urbana scene as Bad Bunny in 2016, when he was just 22, with the emo trap ballad “Soy Peor”: If I was a son of a bitch before, now I’m worse … because of you. That was the year the United States Congress passed PROMESA, the law that subjected Puerto Rico to a pitiless payment plan for its debt crisis. Then, in 2017, Hurricane Maria hit, and nine months later Bad Bunny released “Estamos Bien,” the defiant anthem of battered dreamers: And if tomorrow I die, I’m already used to living in the clouds. In 2018, amid an epidemic of femicides in Latin America, he released “Sólo de Mí,” channeling his voice, in the video, through a woman’s bruised mouth: I’m not yours, I’m not anybody’s, I belong only to myself. Now, in 2020, in this maldito año nuevo, he has given us a little something to take the edge off in quarantine: “Las Que No Iban a Salir,” 10 unreleased tracks from the “YHLQMDLG” sessions.

Bad Bunny has a preternatural feel for the needs of the moment, but his interventions very rarely come off as dutiful or didactic. He seems, instead, to be doing whatever he wants — at least, that’s the claim of his album’s title, “YHLQMDLG”: Yo hago lo que me da la gana. He performs the expressive freedom we wish we could, clearing the global stage not only for the charismatic spectacle of our joy but also for the impossible demands of our grief. He paints his nails purple. He talks about depression out loud, in public. He waves the Puerto Rican flag from the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of a massive street protest. He disappears for long stretches from social media — then emerges, looking sullen, to register to vote.

But mostly it’s his unmistakable voice that keeps us company at close range. Even my mother, who has zero tolerance for Bad Bunny’s explicit lyrics, admits there’s something special in his tone. Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea, who performs a range of Latin music as La Doña, writes in Stereogum that it’s “like he’s singing underwater,” and for the Mexican magazine Terremotothe poet-scholar Ren Ellis Neyra describes “sky-ripping, visceral gut-blow vocals that swarm a track.” On every song, he seems to hiccup between verses, as if gasping for air in the middle of a sobbing streak. Maybe it makes us feel less lonely to recognize, in the daily din, a distinctive human sound we’ve heard before — not just in San Juan, now, but in Miami, Mexico City, Los Angeles, London.

When Bad Bunny appeared with J Balvin on Cardi B’s smash hit single “I Like It” in 2018, the New York bugalú sample seemed to signal a major crossover moment. There’s no doubt that feature paved the way for his latest, greatest accolade: “YHLQMDLG” debuted at No. 2 to become the highest-charting Spanish-language album of all time. But this wasn’t really a conventional “crossover”: Bad Bunny cracked “the gringo market” (his words) without assimilating, without making the one concession that seemed unavoidable: his mother tongue. It’s pleasurable, in a recent Billboard video interview, to watch the host ask about the title of the new album. When Bad Bunny responds in Spanish, she smiles blankly, and he flips the script on his own clumsy English by using it to call her out — “you don’t know what I say” — before swooping in to save her with the translation. If language is a power game, then Bad Bunny is winning. [. . .]

Technically, reggaeton isn’t really “from” any one place — Jamaica, Panama and New York City were all crucial sites in its development in the early ’90s — but it established itself as a commercial force in Puerto Rico, which is uniquely positioned to amplify diasporic music. “We’ve always been good bridges because of the colonial situation,” said the rapper Residente, formerly of Calle 13, on a recent Zoom call, “the missing link that’s needed to make the rhythm work.” Despite the packaging of reggaeton as global pop, a palpable tension remains between Puerto Rico’s subjugated political status and its boisterous, filthy, defiant and now world-dominating music. This is especially true of the music Benito makes as Bad Bunny. [. . .]

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