Nicky Jam on Breaking Shakira's Chart Record, Writing for His Girlfriend & More: Exclusive

Alex Gomez
Nicky Jam

There was a time, barely three years ago, when Nicky Jam (real name Nick Rivera Caminero) wallowed in frustration. Label-less and hit-less, he’d moved to Colombia to get a fresh start after a promising reggaetón career in his native Puerto Rico came to a stop, derailed by drugs, alcohol and bad decisions.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” says the 34-year-old.  “I felt I had so much talent and it was wasted.”

Nicky Jam & Enrique Iglesias' 'El Perdon' Earns Historic 26th Week at No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs

Worry no more. This week, “El Perdón” (Forgiveness), Jam’s single with Enrique Iglesias, notches 26 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, edging out Shakira’s 2005 hit “La Tortura” to become the second-longest running No. 1 in the 29-year history of the chart (Iglesias’ “Bailando” continues to hold the record, with 42 weeks at No. 1).

For Jam, this isn’t about breaking other people’s records, but simply about staying the course and writing “pretty songs.”

Latin music’s comeback kid spoke with Billboard about redemption, forgiveness and writing that perfect song.

How does breaking this record feel?

I try not to think about this kind of success, because it’s too much pressure. I can’t write thinking about besting other songs. I have to write pretty songs; that’s what gets them on the charts.

Why has this song connected?

Normally, people listen to a reggaeton song and the lyrics have more to do with sex or other reggaeton themes. This is a love song and it's a song about sadness but it transmits happiness at the same time. The melody is joyful, but the lyrics are melancholy.

You’ve been living in Colombia for the past several years, a country where a lot of music tends to be melancholy despite the dance beats. Has that influenced you?

Colombia changed the way I write and sing. The essence of Colombian valleanto are the lyrics. In Puerto Rico, people like the rhythm. What I’ve lived in Colombia has made me become a completely different reggaetonero from the artists in Puerto Rico, and the ones here [in Colombia]. My inspiration for lyrics and music comes more from people like Silvestre Dangond and Carlos Vives. I can say it’s a new reggaeton style that appeals as much to kids as to adults.

Describe that new reggaeton style?

The chorus is sweet, it sticks, like gum. You hear it once and you keep on singing it, in the bathroom, while you sweep the floor.  And the lyrics talk of things you haven’t heard before. Even [previous single] “Travesuras” (Mischief). It invites a woman to do mischief, but in a very subtle way. And the word has nothing to do with sex. It’s simple things.

Is that why they’re successful?

It’s the lyrics and obviously the chorus. Even if the lyrics are really basic, if the chorus sends a shiver down your spine…

So, how did you come up with the chorus of “El Perdón”?

I was working on a totally different song, and came up with the chorus refrain [he sings]: “Es que yo sin tí, tu sin mi, eso no me gusta.” I told my producer, ‘I need you to do a beat like this with this piano to make a romantic song.’

I didn’t now what the song was going to be about. I don’t write like that. I first write melodies that will make people shiver, and then, I add the lyrics.

So, what’s your next single?

I have a problem. I have many songs. And they're all -- no exaggeration -- more than great!. I have a song I just wrote for my girlfriend, and I think thats the next single.

Sing a little for me?

“To be a singer. Fame and money, without you, means nothing. A thousand women will seek me, but I love you and no one will take your place. If you want a star, I’ll reach it for you.” When that woman heard it, she cried. I haven’t titled it yet. I always leave the title for last, so it can also be explosive.

You’ve also recorded an English version of “El Perdón,” and a bilingual version of “Cheerleader” with Omi. You lived for years in the U.S. so singing in English is natural for you. Will you be doing more of that?

I liked that concept. I do very well with English and I think I should do that more and take advantage of the versatility I have. I can sing, I can play guitar. It was frustrating to do nothing. I felt I had talent and it was wasted. So now, Im taking advantage. Now, people are realizing what I have and that makes me so happy. I want people to know Ive worked to get to this place.

We’ve spoken a lot of what makes your songs great. Give me five great songs that you love?

“Bailando,” Luis Fonsi’s “No me Doy por Vencido,” John Legend’s “All of Me,” Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” and Carlos Vives’ “Quiero Casarme Contigo.”