For Bad Bunny, short shorts have, at times, been a point of contention. In a video published almost exactly one year ago, the Puerto Rican rapper told the Remezcla reporter behind the camera, between bites of pepperoni pizza, about an early brush with some rather dramatic detractors. “A lot, a lot of people,” he says in Spanish, “thought it was weird—SUPER weird—that in one of my first singles and videos, ‘Tú No Vives Así’ with Arcangel, I come out in shorts.” He sounds genuinely confused as to why anyone would be offended by his personal sense of style—which admittedly does eschew sartorial convention with unbridled confidence and carries a delightfully dirtbag ethos. But a few haters mean nothing when you are one of the biggest and most exciting Latinx artists of the year. Even when his own team occasionally doubted his ideas, Bad Bunny said he would tell them to chill and they’d do the thing anyway. “And it would work.”
To call Bad Bunny up-and-coming would betray an Anglo-centric vantage point. Though he just released his first full-length album, X100pre, on Christmas Eve, in the world of urbano music, Bad Bunny has been famous for nearly two years, since his days of uploading tracks to SoundCloud while he also worked bagging groceries. (By now, this origin story is part of Bad Bunny’s lore, and it’s been touched on in many of the interviews and profiles he’s garnered over the past year.) SoundCloud is how he got on DJ Luian’s radar, with his 2017 single “Diles”; Luian went on to sign Bad Bunny to his indie label, Hear This Music. Now, in the pop music industry, there’s a race to catch up and build with him. It’s surprising—not because the English-speaking world’s desire to cash in on Latin sensibilities or art is new—but because it represents a shift in the way mainstream acts have worked with Latinx artists in the post-“Despacito” world.
In that same 2017 video where he’s eating the pizza (something that’s impossible not to notice about Bad Bunny is how wildly at home he seems at every red carpet event and in the press), Bad Bunny says people have “no idea” how many artists from the U.S. want to him to remix their music. Today, he’s even more in-demand than that. In the past nine months, Bad Bunny appeared on Cardi B’s “I Like It”—a collaboration that gave him his first No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 and a Grammy nomination—and released singles with J. Lo, Marc Anthony, Will Smith, and Drake, who takes the featured spot on their track “MIA” and raps in Spanish. This is the caliber of artists who want to get in the studio with him, and they’re doing way more than remixing.
This distinction is crucial. In 2017, Justin Bieber hopped on Luis Fonsi’s reggaeton-pop track and provided a model for how other big-name acts could flex with Latinx artists who were perhaps seeking to crossover—and ideally boost their own cred at the same time. After “Despacito,” Beyoncé remixed Colombian reggaetonero (and frequent Bad Bunny collaborator) J Balvin’s “Mi Gente.” Her remix, like the original, never truly caught on in the States, despite the original’s dominance overseas and across Latin America. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing.
That Beyoncé couldn’t replicate the chart-topping magic of Bieber’s remix should indicate that making a Latin pop smash isn’t a paint-by-the-numbers game. It is certainly not as easy as identifying who is already big in Latin America and singing over their beat in English. Remixes might be a first step towards putting English- and Spanish-speaking creators in conversation with each other, but we can see the way Bad Bunny has been (at least initially) welcomed into the mainstream rap and pop circles as a another way of collaborating—one that honors his specific areas of expertise and affords him more artistic control.
With the release of X100pre, it’s clear that now Bad Bunny has the U.S. music industry’s attention. All year, he’s been prolific in releasing one-off singles and collaborations. He regularly drops runaway hits with some of the biggest names in reggaeton and Latin trap, including Daddy Yankee, De La Ghetto, Nati Natasha, Farruko, Nicky Jame, and Ozuna. At publication time, he’s the lead or featured artist on all 10 of the top 10 songs on the Billboard chart for Latin Streaming. He’s solidified a name for himself outside of the States, and in 2019, he stands to gain a bigger foothold into the U.S. market.
A prime example is his tour schedule. In 2018, on his debut U.S. tour, Bad Bunny played two venues in the New York tri-state area: United Palace, a performing arts center in Washington Heights, and the Prudential Center arena in Newark, New Jersey—both nice gets for a young artist, especially if you consider he played three nights in Washington Heights and sold out the Prudential Center. But in 2019, he’ll play Madison Square Garden, a stage artists often cross at the peak of their careers, or at least after a significant leveling-up. It’s bound to sell out, too.
Aside from his tracks with J. Lo and Cardi, in 2018 el conejo malo also had his late-night talk show debut, appeared on multiple red carpets and made the same face, was invited to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and popped up on Drake’s 2018 tour. This year, Bad Bunny got a taste of having a No. 1 song thanks to his feature on “I Like It”—but in 2019, he’s likely to have his own chart-topping smash; “MIA” recently peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100. Mainstream America is making more and more room for him.
In fact, his brand of emotive, synth-heavy, and often weird Latin trap may have an easier time making inroads in the U.S., given how much his sound owes black creators. It has arguably taken on contours of its own now, and stands as a grungier and more X-rated foil to reggaeton and reggaeton-pop: where much of contemporary Latin pop gestures broadly at sex, choosing to be more sensual than explicit, Latin trap offers a space to get right to the point. (“Do you remember how we used to fuck in the elevator?” Bad Bunny—quite literally—bellows in Spanish on the track “Dime Si Te Acuerdas.”) If we need an indicator of how far Bad Bunny can spread among Anglo audiences, it would be helpful, ironically, to look towards the more buttoned-up, conservative institutions of Latin America and how they’ve embraced him. This year, Bad Bunny appeared at the Latin Grammys to perform his bouncy, sunshine-y track “Sensualidad”—which was definitely out of the awards show’s comfort zone, given how bad they are at recognizing new talent and not just rewarding the same handful of artists every year. He will undoubtedly be at the 2019 Grammy Awards. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see him onstage, too—performing, or potentially celebrating a win for Record of the Year, for which he’s nominated with Cardi B for “I Like It.”
Bad Bunny’s specific vibe can range from resplendent—like on the choir-backed “Estamos Bien”—to brooding—like on the post-breakup anthem “Soy Peor” (the hook, roughly translated, goes: “If you thought I was a son of a bitch before, now I’m even worse”). But across all of his music, no matter how hard it goes, it’s clear that Bad Bunny has a bias towards having fun. His Cinderella story is inspiring, then, if it makes more room for other fascinating Latinx oddballs to come up and start the party—at home and in the States.