Behind Bad Bunny’s Summery Surprise, ‘Un Verano Sin Ti’

Isabelia Herrera reviews Bad Bunny’s recent work and presence for The New York Times, explaining that his fourth album was inspired by a spectrum of Caribbean music. “I’ve made it clear to people that I’m never going to make a record that’s the same as another,” the pop star said.

Most pop stars would move heaven and earth to attend the Met Gala. But for Bad Bunny, one of music’s most idiosyncratic figures, it’s just another Monday night. “Obviously I’m happy that they invited me,” he said, twirling from side to side in a high leather swivel chair at New York’s venerated Electric Lady Studios about 48 hours before the exclusive fashion fête. “I know that day is going to be an exciting thing,” he continued. “But I’m working a lot this week!”

Last Monday, he announced his casting as the lead of a live-action Marvel movie, playing a character from the Spider-Man universe named El Muerto. Two days after that, he was filming music videos in Puerto Rico. Throughout it all, he was preparing for the release of his fourth studio album, “Un Verano Sin Ti” (“A Summer Without You”), which dropped on Friday.

At the gala on Monday, Bad Bunny — born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio — wore a custom cream boiler suit and skirt with puff sleeves, designed by Riccardo Tisci for Burberry. At Electric Lady, calmly putting the final touches on the album and working on some new material, he sported a quintessentially Benito look: pastel pink swim trunks, a checkered blue cardigan and a wide-brimmed sage fisherman’s hat. His left thigh was covered in tattoos, including the sad-faced cartoon heart that appears on the artwork for his new album, and an outline of his home, Puerto Rico. His right thigh bore only one design: the logo for Pokémon Go.

Since his genre-crushing debut in 2018, Bad Bunny, now 28, has been nearly unstoppable, colliding pop punk, synth-pop, bachata, dembow and reggaeton on his way to becoming a global superstar. He released two LPs in 2020, including “El Último Tour Del Mundo,” the first fully Spanish-language album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. He’s been the most streamed artist on Spotify two years in a row.

The story of Bad Bunny’s mythical ascent from a grocery bagger in the small town of Vega Baja to a torchbearer for a new generation of reggaeton and trap artists has become nearly folklore. In the past few years, he’s also transformed into a fashion renegade, an emerging social critic, a semiprofessional wrestler and a budding actor. In July, he will make his feature film debut in “Bullet Train,” a bloody action movie in which he fistfights Brad Pitt. Bad Bunny said he trained with stuntmen for weeks to prepare.

“I always wanted to act and the opportunity came along, but I didn’t know that one of the first ones was going to be with Brad Pitt,” he said incredulously.

“At the end of the day, I’m still the same person I’ve always been,” he added. “That’s what’s important, what you have to know. I shouldn’t care how the world sees me, but rather, who I know I am,” he continued. “With that, I’ll be very happy.”

Bad Bunny has approached each of his albums with an explicit goal. “Since forever I’ve made it clear to people that I’m never going to make a record that’s the same as another,” he said. But beyond the ambition to warp genres, he’s also refused to genuflect to industry conventions, especially ones for Spanish-speaking artists.

“I could have done a track with, who knows, Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry,” he explained, referring to his first 2020 album, “YHLQMDLG.” “But no, I was making ‘Safaera’ with Ñengo Flow and Jowell y Randy. And I was putting the whole world onto underground from Puerto Rico, you know? That makes me feel proud of what I represent.”

He approached “Un Verano Sin Ti” with a bit of a lighter touch: “It’s a record to play in the summer, on the beach, as a playlist.” He drew on both recent experiences and nostalgia for dog days of the past. “When I was a little kid, my family would go to the West on vacation,” he said, referring to the coast of Puerto Rico. For “Un Verano Sin Ti,” he decided to explore the eastern side, near Río Grande and Fajardo. The majority of the album was recorded there and in the Dominican Republic.

“Un Verano Sin Ti” is a pop album, but not necessarily a straightforward one. Bad Bunny infuses it with electrifying beat switches, raunchy raps and astral synths. The record was inspired by an expansive spectrum of Caribbean music: the deep cuts of the beloved salsa singer Ismael Rivera; Dominican dembow; and groups like Buscabulla, who appear on the song “Andrea.”

“The album is very Caribbean, in every sense: with its reggaeton, its mambo, with all those rhythms, and I like it that way,” Bad Bunny said. Though his career often takes him far from home, he’s always kept Puerto Rico close — sometimes, he still pronounces his “Rs” with the guttural, back-of-the-throat intonation so common in the countryside. And he still has that Caribbean sense of humor. When asked about what he hoped to do at the Met Gala, he joked, “I want my hookah,” cackling.

On the mutant mambo of “Después de la Playa,” Bad Bunny sings on a live mic over the Dominican band Dahian el Apechao, echoing the style of the merengue experimentalist Omega El Fuerte. “Titi Me Preguntó,” a shape-shifting dembow track with a horror-movie synth outro, samples Kiko El Crazy, the pink-haired dembow eccentric.

“Un Verano Sin Ti” also contains collaborations with indie artists like the Marías and Bomba Estéreo, and plunges deeper into gauzy dream-pop textures and wistful synth interludes that feel vast and intimate all at once. The aural landscape is reminiscent of indietronica artists like M83, but Bad Bunny and his producers Tainy, MAG and La Paciencia immerse it in Caribbean gloss.

Both MAG and Bad Bunny were partially inspired by Buscabulla’s lush synth pop, and Bad Bunny said he listened to the duo’s 2020 album, “Regresa,” on repeat during quarantine.

“It was Easter Sunday and we got a call from a bunny,” the duo’s multi-instrumentalist, Luis Alfredo Del Valle, joked in a phone interview. On “Andrea,” Bad Bunny renders a portrait of a Puerto Rican woman hoping to live life on her own terms, and Buscabulla’s vocalist, Raquel Berríos, assumes the character’s voice. “I felt that the chorus had to carry a lot of weight about what it means to be a woman from the Caribbean,” Berríos said. “I had never worked this hard for a song.” [. . .]

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