To celebrate the close of this remarkable decade in music, we’ve launched an article series called the TIDAL 10 – that’s 10 essays reflecting on 10 movements that have helped to define the past 10 years in 10 diverse genres. The pieces will appear throughout December, and cover a striking range of music, from Chicago drill to crossover classical, Americana to the R&B avant-garde. Enjoy. – Evan Haga, Editor, TIDAL Read
It’s September 29, 2019, and it’s cloudy inside Madison Square Garden. J Balvin is being showered with applause from a remarkably diverse crowd of reggaeton lovers. In front of the cartoon-like imagery of his Arcoiris stage show and dressed in extra bright colors — per usual — he’s been performing songs from Oasis, his joint album with fellow eccentric trendsetter Bad Bunny.
“Cuidao por Ahí,” a hardcore perreo helmed by legendary producer Tainy, emanates from MSG’s sound system as if the end of the world has arrived, and the doors of heaven have opened, and there’s only one password: reggaeton. The applause ramps up, the chants of “Balvin” continue and José places his hands in prayer position, his go-to pose. He eventually falls to his knees in appreciation of the sold-out crowd.
The rise of J Balvin to the top of Latinx music coincides with the rebirth of reggaeton, the genre rooted in Panama and made in Puerto Rico. During the reggaeton boom of the early 2000s, which spawned superstar artists Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen and Wisin & Yandel, alongside powerhouse producers Luny Tunes and Eliel, the genre was the voice of the youth of Puerto Rico.
But as with so many youth movements, it eventually caught the attention of politicians who were quick to blame the genre for the Commonwealth’s ills. In 2002, Puerto Rican Senator Velda González proposed an anti-obscenity project aiming to ban reggaeton from TV before 5 p.m. The petition, of course, only made reggaeton more popular, and two years later “Gasolina” hit. Daddy Yankee’s seminal song went viral before viral was a thing: It was the first reggaeton track played on English-language radio stations, and its video achieved steady rotation on MTV. Between 2004 and 2007, the movement stayed strong with N.O.R.E.’s “Oye Mi Canto,” Don Omar and Aventura’s “Ella y Yo” and more.
Before long, however, the genre had grown stagnant — a byproduct of a lack of new blood and, more important, a lack of unity and collaboration among its artist community. While the superstars kept putting out hits (Wisin & Yandel’s “Abusadora”), none of them reached the heights “Gasolina” did. That is until the parceros in South America revitalized the genre.
By the 2010s Colombia, the birthplace of such rich genres as cumbia and vallenato, was celebrating the success of its holy trinity of global artists — Shakira, Juanes and Carlos Vives. Beyond the nation’s shiny pop stars, there was reggaeton brewing — or, rather, a perreo ready to bite — in Medellín’s own J Balvin. Along with Balvin, Reykon, Maluma and Karol G were among the artists giving reggaeton a new voice. The Colombians inspired by old-school reggaeton and their own musical culture infused this revamped reggaeton style with softer lyrics and a certain South American charm that could make your abuelita blush.
“We need to refresh the genre,” Balvin said a few years ago, when asked about Colombia’s distinctive take on reggaeton. “Colombians come with a different perspective. We’re more open-minded with the lyrics. It’s sexy but not vulgar. We’re evolving the genre.”
Colombia also took one of reggaeton’s original cangris and saved his life. The singer and songwriter Nicky Jam, whose past troubles with drugs and alcohol have been well documented, relocated to Medellín — a city with its own notorious past — to escape the demons that trailed him in Puerto Rico. What he found was a city in the midst of a reggaeton renaissance. Fast forward to 2015, when his “El Perdón,” featuring Enrique Iglesias, spent 30 weeks atop the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart — a run that told the rest of the world reggaeton was back.
In 2017, two major reggaeton songs became staples of global pop culture. On “Despacito,” Daddy Yankee, arguably the genre’s most iconic artist of all time, along with one of Latin America’s finest crooners, Luis Fonsi, delivered a pure pop hit that was streamed over 4.6 billion times within six months of its release. Balvin looked to France for his feature by remixing Willy William’s “Mi Gente,” creating a megahit so infectious even Beyoncé decided to jump on the remix. And then there’s Bad Bunny. Much like his English-language counterparts, El Conejo Malo used SoundCloud as a platform to get discovered, and his catalog skews more trap than reggaeton. Bunny’s feature on Cardi B’s “I Like It” alongside Balvin earned the trio the Billboard Music Award for Top Rap Song of 2019.
Simply put, the crossover effect is no longer needed. Gone are the days when reggaetoneros were vying for a guest spot on an English-language song; instead, English-language artists are jumping on reggaeton palos. Here’s a sampling of collaborations released in 2019: Ozuna, Diddy and DJ Snake’s “Eres Top”; Karol G and Nicki Minaj’s “Tusa”; Madonna and Maluma’s “Medellín”; Daddy Yankee and Katy Perry’s “Con Calma (Remix)” and on and on.
At the end of this decade, reggaeton and dale are part of the average pop music listener’s vocabulary. Ozuna, Bad Bunny, Farruko and Anuel AA are appearing on late-night talk shows, signing brand-ambassador contracts with liquor companies and headlining Lollapalooza. It can be said that J Balvin was the Latinx star of the 2010s and the one who led the rebirth of reggaeton, but it’s more accurate to say the decade’s brightest star was Colombia.
Jesús Triviño Alarcón is TIDAL’s senior director for Latin, Global. He was previously entertainment director at Latina, and has written for the New York Daily News, Vibe and People.com, among other publications.
Image: J Balvin onstage in Mexico City in November 2019. Credit: Adrián Monroy/Medios y Media/Getty.