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J Balvin Won't Settle For Anything Less Than World Domination

"We proved to the world that a completely Spanish song can take over the world," J Balvin says. "This is just the beginning."
Orli Arias
Courtesy of the artist
"We proved to the world that a completely Spanish song can take over the world," J Balvin says. "This is just the beginning."

In the history of world domination schemes, there hasn't been a conqueror that took over the Earth in Spanish since Christopher Columbus. J Balvin is ready to reclaim the music world for his people.

The 33-year-old Colombian reggaeton artist is still riding the success of last year's internet-breaking "Mi Gente," now at over 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In its wake, he's released a slew of collaborations and hits in 2018, including "X" with his close friend Puerto Rican-Dominican rapper Nicky Jam, "Familiar" with ex-One Direction member Liam Payne and a verse on Cardi B's "I Like It" that culminates with the line: "Y no te me hagas / Que en cover de Billboard tú has visto mi cara / No salgo de tu mente / Donde quieras que viajes has escuchado 'Mi Gente.' "

Don't start with me / Because you've seen my face on the cover of Billboard / I don't leave your mind / Wherever you travel you've heard "Mi Gente."

"Travel" is a key word here, speaking to the truly global reach Balvin hopes to achieve with his newest album, Vibras, which comes out on May 25. "We speak facts," Balvin tells Alt.Latino in an interview for this week's episode at the ritzy environs of a Manhattan hotel (you can listen to the full conversation at the audio link.) "If you really want to flex, you have to be real." The Balvin flexicon is full of words befitting his hypebeast persona, like "real," "moves" and Balvin's personal favorite, "vibes."

"Every song is a different vibe," he says of the tracks on his latest release. The album adopts the catch-all word, it seems, to encompass the diversity of sounds that run the gamut of what J Balvin does best. On one end of the spectrum are standard reggaeton radio hits; on the other, a genre experiment that fuses the familiar dembow beat with R&B, flamenco and jazz simply because he can. Spiked-up summer jams like "Mi Gente" and "Machika" sit squarely in the middle. Maybe the project of world domination justifies the use of such a vague title, because Balvin plans to boldy go and where few Latin pop stars have gone — and stayed — before.

Vibras proves that Balvin and longtime producers Sky and Tainy can do more than write a radio-hit reggaeton song. Collaborations with genre veterans like Zion & Lennox on "No Es Justo" and Wisin & Yandel on "Peligrosa" most closely resemble his older tracks, but Vibras also reaches across the gap between Latin radio and SoundCloud with more experimental tracks like "Brillo," a three-minute flamenco R&B ballad with Catalan singer Rosalía and the title track, a prelude to the album that floats Mexican singer Carla Morrison's ethereal vocalizations above a sparse, wavy beat that eventually, in the greatest surprise of the album, becomes the familiar five-note riff of "Mi Gente."

"One day I just woke up and I was like, Carla Morrison should open my album," Balvin says. Right off the bat, Balvin subverts his audience's expectations by taking what they already thought urban Latin music should sound like and cranking it up a notch.

Like the album, Balvin himself is full of seeming contradictions: He's humble and a family man, but isn't afraid to brag about taking over the world; he criticizes world leaders in his art regularly, but says "it isn't political"; he tells Alt.Latino that this is just the beginning, but it's also just a matter of time.

But Balvin doesn't have to resolve these inconsistencies; "Mi Gente" speaks for him, which is saying a lot, considering how much of his audience can't actually understand what he was singing. He knows he's part of a tectonic shift in popular music at large, and doesn't need a short-lived Latin "explosion" to fracture the plates that keep Spanish-language hits siloed. Instead, he's waiting for the slow quake.

"We proved to the world that a completely Spanish song can take over the world," he says. "This is just the beginning."

It isn't really, though. With the rise of Luis Fonsi's and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" in 2017 and the subsequent success of "Mi Gente" came the resurgence of buzzwords heralding the cultural moment for Spanish-language hits a Latin "explosion," "takeover" or "revolution," not unlike the "Latin booms" of decades past that produced Carlos Santana in the '60s, Gloria Estefan in the '80s and Latin-lover Ricky Martin and bellydancing bohéme Shakira in the '90s and early '00s.

Packaged in shiny sneakers and glow-in-the-dark tennis-ball hair though he may be, Balvin hasn't been swallowed by the crossover problem that plagued his predecessors, pressuring them to sing in English or fit a stereotypical persona to "cross over" to the American market. The language of explosions and takeovers is the positive face of words like "invasion," "illegal" and "dumping ground" that smiles over the shared notion that Latinos ultimately don't belong on American soil. The use of these words in the positive only highlights the otherness that Latin America still represents to the American ear.

And it isn't the beginning for Balvin, either; He's been making music for well over a decade, and released his earliest singles in 2009. He's been active since 2004, on the heels of moving to the United States temporarily at 17, citing Kurt Cobain of Nirvana as one of his childhood idols simply because of how "revolutionary" he was at his time. "He changed the game," he says. "That's what I want to do too."

Balvin is no longer the kid that vibed to Nirvana in his hometown of Medellín. Yet he knows what the teenage José Álvaro Osorio Balvin would say about his current success: "I was right," he laughs. "I was right, I was right. I wasn't crazy. The crazy [ones] were the others."

When Alt.Latino visited Colombia in 2010, Balvin had only just released his first singles a year earlier. Even then, he was always talking about the future and had an eye for the business of getting big. A couple years later, songs like "6AM" and "Ay Vamos" from 2013's La Familia and its subsequent reissue became favorites at Latinx house parties around the United States. 2016's Energía saw "Ginza" and his collaboration with Pharrell, "Safari," bring him to the No. 1 slot of the Billboard Hot Latin Albums chart for the first time. Then, on June 30, 2017, he released "Mi Gente" with French producer Willy William, climbing to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart and No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100. Then, it got a boost from an unexpected source.

"Beyoncé jumped when the song was already a huge success," Balvin says of the remix that ended the 35-week monopoly of "Despacito" on the Hot Latin songs chart. Beyoncé was prompted to sing on the track by her daughter Blue Ivy's love of the song. "So the move with Beyoncé was more like a cultural thing than anything else."

That's the thing about explosions, though: They end. The difference between Balvin and the giant "Despacito" is that Balvin remains a clean enough slate for the world to project its different interpretations of what the Perfect Latin Pop Song should be, and for Balvin to put on any of those faces in service of that hit.

"The most important thing is the music. Without the music, there's no world domination," he says with the just-so logic of a schoolyard ringleader. "The key here is that we've been showing the world that we're not one-hit wonders when it comes to global [reach]," he says. "That's why the album [Vibras], the sound and the music has to be at the same level as the hits that we're making. So we made it with the fact that we want everybody to love the album, even though they don't understand what I'm saying."

J Balvin, <em>Vibras</em>
J Balvin, Vibras

Like rap, hip-hop and many other genres created by people of color before it, there are historical barriers to reggaeton's entry to the world stage. "I don't see what's the hate for reggaeton, you know? There's always going to be somebody that don't like you. It's life," he demurs, though he's been a vocal defendant of the genre against criticisms of it being "pornographic" in the recent past.

Balvin has also made no shortage of political statements in defense of Latinos, though he shies from "political" as a descriptor. In 2015, he cancelled what would have been his first performance on mainstream national television at the Miss USA pageant after Donald Trump, then-co-owner of the Miss Universe Organization, made comments about Latinx immigrants bringing crime, drugs and sexual assault to the United States. More recently, Balvin collaborated with Bad Bunny, De La Ghetto, Revol and Arcangel on "Dime," a business-as-usual reggaeton single that somehow winds up in the four men giving Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro the finger after Balvin compares him to a burro. "I think it's all about love," he says of his "human" rather than "political" obligation to call Maduro out for "being an animal." It's this tenacity under the guise of pacifism that strikes a chord with Latinx audiences, certainly, but can provide a useful thread for Americans navigating the role of art in national dialogue.

The kind of people that seek world domination aren't often keen on sharing how they plan to get there. Balvin is going to use his many-vibed strategy of infusing reggaeton with different genres on Vibras to maintain the momentum of "Mi Gente," but why, ultimately, is it necessary? Why bother with cracking the American market at all? He responds with a rare bluntness.

"We need to win the Grammys this year," he says, perhaps obliquely referencing "Despacito" being snubbed by Bruno Mars' "That's What I Like" at this year's Grammys despite being the most streamed song of all time. It's important to note that Balvin speaks almost exclusively in wes. At the intersection of we and us are his gente, keepers of the knowledge that Latinos will always have to work that much harder in this country for the same recognition.

"You know, to be a legend, we have to make a lot of right moves and great music," he says assuredly. "We on that."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stefanie Fernández
Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
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