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Bad Bunny and The Future of Urban Music

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The first time I paid attention to the Bad Bunny phenomenon was in 2018, if I am not mistaken, when my great friend Gabriel Antillano gave a lecture at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas about the Puerto Rican artist and the rise of depressive reggaeton. I do not have the lecture at hand, but I remember that Gabriel delved into how Bad Bunny, after Amorfoda, gave way to the birth of a new avant-garde genre, which disagreed with the whole tradition of urban music. At that time Bad Bunny was a rather regional artist.

More than twenty-four months later, Bad Bunny became the first Latin to become Spotify’s most listened artist of the year. Worldwide. Over 8.3 billion plays. He has been portrayed by the New York Times, Rolling Stones and has profiles in New York Magazine or Vogue. “To say that Bad Bunny is the most radical force in Latin urban music right now sounds like an exaggeration, yet it does not fully convey the extent to which the Puerto Rican rebel has disrupted the industry,” wrote Julyssa Lopez of The New Yorker.

Bad Bunny’s success is undeniable. But above all, there is the merit and invaluable contribution he has made to the music industry (especially the urban music industry). “It’s become clear that he has artistically and culturally outgrown both his peers and the artificial constraints placed on Latin artists domestically in the U.S. by the music industry,” reads a text from New York Magazine entitled Bad Bunny Has Become Bigger, and Better, Than the Industry Knows What to Do With.

Despite the revolutionary careers of icons such as Daddy Yankee and Don Omar, urban music has always found a wall that made it indigestible to much of the Anglo audience. This barrier was transgressed in 2016 by J Balvin and his successful Safari, featuring Pharrell Williams. At that time, although there were precedents, urban music definitely met with English pop and J Balvin became a universal artist. The flirtation between both worlds was followed by an aesthetic revolution in Latin urban music. And the great figures of reggaeton became icons of Western fashion.

Nicky Jam accompanied the Spaniard Domingo Zapata at the New York Fashion Week and Maluma was invited by Dolce & Gabanna to sing (and parade) at the presentation of Its men’s collection in Milan. The renowned Takashi Murakami designed all the artwork for J Balvin’s latest album and they were all invited to the Met Gala, the Superbowl of the fashion world organized annually by Anna Wintour. But meanwhile, a Puerto Rican artist wove a very rigorous career based not only on a complete and totally avant-garde aesthetic proposal, but also on a very solid musical production. Bad Bunny, as we read in The New York Magazine, surpassed his peers and transcended the expectations of any Latin artist.

Yo hago lo que me da la gana is, for now, his magnum opus. Not only for giving his followers an intense journey through what truly makes reggaeton the main Latin American musical phenomenon, but also for accompanying it with a disruptive aesthetic proposal.

Let’s start with the songs: Bad Bunny’s second album manages to concentrate the tradition of reggaeton and combine elements, previously isolated, to build the best perreables songs that have been published in years. However, not all the album is like that. For example, he begins by seducing with “Si veo a tu mamá”, loaded with bossa-nova and rustic digital traces. But the paroxysm of the work comes with the songs that concentrate the most violent and popular components of reggaeton.

Yo perreo sola, Bichiyal and A tu merced are songs that clearly reflect that tradition that for so many years has bothered baby boomers and has made the genre an unprecedented Latin American phenomenon. But Safaera takes this to another level. It is the pinnacle of the genre. The summit of the encounter between the hypnotic swaying that has animated the Caribbean’s nightclubs for years, the experimental quality of a very long song that is waved through by the contrast of different phases that are extremely different from each other, and the aggressiveness of a lyric that talks about sex, alcohol and drugs.

Now, the disruptive aesthetic proposal: why is it so fundamental? Because, without a doubt, it is what makes Bad Bunny a universal artist, respected even by the arrogant snobs who have always seen reggaeton as a decadent and extremely banal genre. It is, in fact, the formula for his success.

Bad Bunny for The New York Times.

Bad Bunny is not only part of that fashion revolution that completely covered the genre. He took it much further and became a symbol of that cultural upheaval. It’s the painted nails, the rings and the color pink. His proposal differs radically from the baggy shirts, jeans, flat cap and chains of Daddy Yankee and Don Omar’s generation, where the traditional Latin American virility was unperturbed and innate to the genre. No, Bad Bunny does not fit that rigidness. His approach is completely elastic and avant-garde. Closer to the glam rock of the seventies than to the hip hop of the nineties and the 2000s. Unthinkable in the territory of urban, aggressive and masculine Latin American music.

But Bad Bunny has not abandoned those elements in his songs. In fact, he has also taken it to another level. His music is just as aggressive and maintains the same rough loads where sex with women and a lot of alcohol are strongly emphasized. What is brilliant is how he managed to conjugate both proposals, disharmonious at first sight.

For example, Bad Bunny publishes an album in which he talks cuando yo te perriaba le metías hasta abajo, and promotes it with a photo session in Paper Magazine in which he appears with long, painted nails, chains and pink suits. In the video of a song in which he says hoy se puso minifalda / y me dice ‘papi’ / borracha y loca, a ella no le importa, he wears a skirt with a leather belt; in the same video he appears dressed as a woman. In his presentation on the Jimmy Fallon show he also wore a skirt. And his masterpiece Yo hago lo que me da gana, where he talks about his bicho anda fugao’ / y yo quiero que tú me lo escondas, was promoted with a historic debut on the cover of Playboy, where he appears, again, with painted nails and a lot of jewelry.

Why is this —which is not limited only to playing with female elements but goes much further— part of the formula for his success? Because it’s what makes Bad Bunny such an attractive artist to the non-Latino audience. For the European scene, used to this elasticity and marked by the steps of David Bowie, Boy George or Elton John, it is a sure-fire bait. And for the American cultural elite as well. It is easy to see New York fascinated by a Latin urban music artist who dares to take risks with fashion as Bad Bunny has done. And then one can understand why the New York Times dedicates a special in its pages to him; or Vulture, from New York Magazine, reviews all his albums.

Bad Bunny for Paper Magazine.

What is so valuable is that Bad Bunny does not stay there. He is a mix of talent that also doesn’t threaten the natural course of urban music. He enhances it, in fact, making it fascinating to the rest of the world who felt alien to the genre, because it was too Caribbean.

Now, several months after Yo hago lo que me da gana, he returns with El último tour del mundo, his so-called farewell album. We see the return of that onanist arrogance, innate to the reggaeton tradition. Bad Bunny reaffirms himself as a creator and gathers his great achievements in an album in which, with all the authority in the world, he explains himself as the most important Latin artist of the moment. He does so, without modesty, and it does not make him annoying. He has to do it. Not only must the world recognize Bad Bunny’s contribution to the music industry. He has to highlight it himself.

He says he will retire. He can do it now. He has marked the future for the universalization of urban music.

Orlando Avendaño is the co-editor-in-chief of El American. He is a Venezuelan journalist and has studies in the History of Venezuela. He is the author of the book Days of submission // Orlando Avendaño es el co-editor en Jefe de El American. Es periodista venezolano y cuenta con estudios en Historia de Venezuela. Es autor del libro Días de sumisión.

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