Let me explain what’s happening in that blessed image up top. The men dressed up like life-size cartoon characters are J Balvin and Bad Bunny, two of the biggest stars in the Spanish-speaking music world, figures so transcendently popular that they’ve repeatedly spilled over to English-speaking audiences with little to no knowledge of the urbano scene. The above image documents one of those moments.
Balvin and Bunny are onstage at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, wearing colorful costumes that inflate everything but their heads to comic proportions, surrounded by similarly oversized cacti and creatures out of a nursery rhyme acid trip. They’re performing “Qué Pretendes” from Oasis, the collaborative album they released by surprise last summer best understood as the urbano equivalent to Drake and Future’s What A Time To Be Alive. Balvin locks into effortlessly smooth melodies and nimble rap cadences, his voice navigating the heavy reggaeton thump with a grace his ridiculous attire doesn’t afford his body. Bad Bunny’s burly baritone toggles between rapping and singing as well, but his every syllable is blurted with an unpolished intensity that starkly contrasts his costar’s microphone presence. At one point Bunny’s inflatable hand grabs his inflatable crotch. In the end, both men are hoisted into the air and up through the ceiling, their absurd apotheosis complete.
Like most urbano superstars, Balvin and Bunny collaborate liberally with artists from inside and outside the scene, but they’ve been constant fixtures in each other’s careers ever since they met backstage at a Balvin show four years ago. As chronicled in this handy Billboard timeline, they’re frequently hopping on each other’s songs, jumping on stage at each other’s shows, and haunting each other’s Instagrams, and their partnership has sometimes extended into the forefront of the American mainstream. Back in 2018, when Balvin was already a global reggaeton superstar with a top-five US hit in “Mi Gente” and Bunny was still bubbling up from Puerto Rico, they both guested on Cardi B’s chart-topping summer jam “I Like It.” Less than two months ago, in the kind of gargantuan public spectacle that suddenly feels like a relic from another era, they both popped up in Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s Super Bowl halftime show.
Besides linking these two in the public imagination, such appearances have established Balvin (born José Álvaro Osorio Balvín) and Bunny (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) as modern ambassadors for an urbano movement far too broad to be summed up by a handful of superstars. Pitchfork’s recent primer on the scene — which encompasses reggaeton, Latin trap, dembow, and other genres that have flourished across Latin America for decades — is a great next step for those of us just starting to wrap our heads around these sounds. But what piqued my interest in the first place, and what maybe will pique yours, is Balvin and Bunny’s contagiously enjoyable music and wild public presentation. Both together and separately, they’ve become bright lights shining the way toward a whole new world of pop.
In recent weeks, both guys released new solo albums that crystallize their respective appeals. First came Bad Bunny’s YHLQMDLG, short for Yo Hago Lo Que Me Aa La Gana. It means “I do what I want,” and man, does he ever. Not that it’s anything new: On Bad Bunny’s debut X100PRE, released on Christmas Eve 2018, his wandering muse carried his baritone outbursts across slick, skittering Diplo production, a surprise pop-punk interlude, and a buffet platter of urbano subgenres hybridized by Tainy and Roberto Rosado, all leading to a sweetly sung duet that found Drake singing in Spanish. It played out like a sonic equivalent to Bad Bunny’s visual eccentricities like the third eye he often paints on his forehead and Young Thug-like tweaking of gender norms, a summation of the perspective he’d been refining through years of hit singles.
YHLQMDLG pushes that unconfined impulse even farther. Opener “Si Veo a Tu Mamá” turns a chintzy Casio version of the ’60s Brazilian bossa nova hit “The Girl From Ipanema” into the foundation for something like his very own “Hotline Bling.” A full-fledged hard rock song breaks out in the middle of penultimate track “Hamblamos Mañana.” The throbbing “Yo Perreo Sola” steps you directly into the legendary garage dance parties of his native Puerto Rico. The Tainy-produced beat-switch monster “Safaera” cycles through a rapid barrage of touchpoints including Missy Elliott, Bob Marley, and Jaws, while Bunny reminds us how good he can sound atop one consistent rhythmic throb on reggaeton tracks like the hard-thumping “La Difícil” and the sleek “Vete” and trap excursions like “Pero Ya No.”
At 20 tracks and 66 minutes, YHLQMDLG is more of a patience test than X100PRE, but it mostly rewards your attention with its diverse splatter of sounds, largely crafted by the production duo Subelo NEO and in-demand urbano producer Tainy. Bunny welcomes both elders like Daddy Yankee and Arcángel and peers like Anuel AA and Duki, contributing to the sense of eclecticism. Bunny’s voice, one of modern music’s most expressive channels for cataclysmic emotion, is the main unifying factor, a sadboi siren song with a magnetism verging on hypnosis. Contributing to the vivid world-building are the album’s visuals, built around a young boy who seems to be some version of a young Benito finding his way in the world; the kid rides a bike on the cover art and appears in videos, at one point convincing a man not to hang himself by playing him Bad Bunny’s music. Elsewhere our young hero crosses paths with other characters within the album’s universe, a realm you could spend a long time in before following its tributaries out into the world of urbano at large.
J Balvin’s new Colores is a very different kind of album. At 10 tracks and 29 minutes, it presents a sleek, streamlined vision of urbano as pop. As if further tightening the theme from Vibras (Vibes), every track is named for a different color, associations to be reinforced via visuals for each track by all-star music video director Collin Tilley. All of them were produced by Sky Rompiendo, who does for reggaeton what the best Atlanta producers do for American trap, somehow making the same rhythmic pattern sound fresh and alive with the subtlest of adjustments. At a certain point hearing Balvin shout “J Balvin, man!” over a variation on the same rhythm should grow tiresome, but it never does.
The only guest vocalists on Colores are Rompiendo and Mr. Eazi, the Nigerian singer who also emerged on Oasis to help connect the dots between the party music of Africa and Latin America. Otherwise it’s all Balvin, who never ceases to play the suave superstar, whether crooning on the softly moody “Rojo,” weaving through the downbeats of “Morado,” or skipping across the spacious, hiccuping “Blanco.” If Bad Bunny is a mad scientist, J Balvin has this shit down to a science. Yet with assists from Tilley (check out those dancing basketball-people in the “Amarillo” video) and art director Takashi Murakami, he’s pushed his image well beyond his genre’s usual tropes. Only compared to Bad Bunny does he come off as straitlaced.
I love both of these albums, and I love that the artists who made them are using their platforms to be themselves. Urbano is a YouTube-dominated genre, so the audio and visual components are even more tightly wrapped together than in most music today. Given their massive popularity within the Spanish-speaking music world, they could shy away from idiosyncratic work in the hopes of maintaining their position. With a foothold in the American mainstream, they could easily attempt to cross over further by switching to English, but they’ve held firm, innovating within their own traditions rather than selling out. At a time when the sound of the American rap mainstream is growing stale, the time could be right to explore urbano as a vibrant alternative, and those seeking a gateway into the genre couldn’t ask for a more appealing pair than these two.
Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” is somehow still #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for an 11th straight week. It seemed like Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good” might surpass it at some point after umpteen weeks at #2, but it’s now fallen to #4. Then last week it seemed like Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” could do it, but that’s fallen to #3 — don’t rule out a surge when Dua’s album drops this Friday.) The new #2 is the Weeknd’s newly peaking “Blinding Lights,” a radio hit that really could get enough of a boost from this week’s After Hours release to finally dethrone Roddy Ricch. Somebody’s gotta do it soon.
After Post Malone and Arizona Zervas comes a new #7 peak for Harry Styles’ “Adore You,” which becomes his second American top-10 hit alongside solo debut “Sign Of The Times,” which peaked at #4. Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions” is back to its #8 peak, and Lewis Capaldi and Billie Eilish round out the top 10.
Over on the Billboard 200, Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake stays #1 for a second straight week thanks to the release of its deluxe edition, which was really an entirely new album titled Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World 2. Billboard is combining the totals for the original and deluxe albums, which is how Eternal Atake racked up 247,000 equivalent album units in its second week. Strange times on the charts for a strange time in the world!
After Lil Baby and Bad Bunny comes a #4 debut for Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather with 59,000 units and 42,000 in sales. Jhené Aiko and Roddy Ricch are next, then Don Toliver, whose debut Heaven Or Hell enters at #7 with 44,000 units. Post Malone, Justin Bieber, and the Frozen II soundtrack close out the top 10.
The Weeknd – “In Your Eyes”
I still want to hear Abel Tesfaye attempt a Peter Gabriel cover. This goes nonetheless.
Childish Gambino – “Time” (Feat. Ariana Grande)
Donald Glover’s albums are usually good for a handful of jams amidst the all the averageness, and right on cue, 3.15.20 has blessed us with a retro-futuristic Ariana Grande duet that feels like some of the best Sweetener songs trapped inside a computer with a gospel choir.
Noah Cyrus – “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus”
Did not expect a song called “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” to be a country pivot, but it’s easily the best Noah Cyrus song I’ve ever heard, so… OK!
John Legend – “Actions”
Nor did I expect John Legend to be inspirationally vibing over the sample material from Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” but this is also working for me, especially when the alternative is more sanitized “All Of Me”-core.
Lauren Jauregui & Tainy – “Lento”
I like the thought of a full Lauren Jauregui reggaeton album at some point.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Harry Styles played NPR’s Tiny Desk. [NPR]
- Lana Del Rey and that reality TV cop brokeup and he talked to the NY Times about it. [NYT]
- Madonna shared a weird coronavirus video from her bathtub. [Instagram]
- Ariana Grande is seeking a restraining order against an obsessed fan who showed up at her house earlier this month. [TMZ]
- Dixie Chicks did “Gaslighter” on Ellen. [YouTube]
- Travis Scott and Young Thug shared a video for “Out West” featuring Quincy Jones. [YouTube]
- Vanessa Hudgens apologized for “insensitive” comments she made about coronavirus. [USA Today]
- Rihanna’s foundation donated $5M in pandemic relief to food banks serving at-risk communities. [NY Daily News]
- Sia’s anti-coronavirus tweet has big Gal Gadot energy. [Twitter]
- Niall Horan shared a video for “No Judgement” starring viral toddler Baby Boss Brody. [YouTube]
- Luke Combs covered Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” in a livestream. [Instagram]
- Charlie Puth livestreamed a concert and Q&A from his house. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGbVSVZE-UU
- FINNEAS shared a video for “Let’s Fall In Love For The Night.” [YouTube]
- Troye Sivan announced a new single, “Take Yourself Home,” out 4/1. [Twitter]
- Miranda Lambert released a video for “Bluebird.” [YouTube]
- Ellie Goulding shared her video call workout with her trainer. [YouTube]
- A Chipotle-sponsored Zoom hangout featuring Lauv ended abruptly when someone shared porn onscreen. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
I don’t make the rules pic.twitter.com/L3jMrF5OFf
— DUA LIPA (@DUALIPA) March 18, 2020
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
Stay safe out there friends pic.twitter.com/Mpx1g9gF6q
— Charles Cornell (@_charlescornell) March 14, 2020
OK, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME