How Danny Ocean's Valentine's Day Song Became a Viral Hit

In 2016, Venezuelan singer/producer Danny Ocean recorded a song for an old flame on Valentine's Day. He had moved to Miami to escape the turmoil in his homeland -- "It's a really bad situation going on economically and politically; it's basically a dictatorship right now," Ocean tells Billboard -- but the woman he liked, still in college at the time, couldn't come with him. "I didn't have money to send her something from Miami," Ocean explains. "So I said, I'm just gonna give her a song."

The resulting single radically altered Ocean's life: to date, "Me Rehúso" has amassed more than 290 million streams on Spotify. To put that number in perspective, it's more than the tally for "La Bicicleta," a radio hit and a duet between two established superstars, Shakira and Carlos Vives. "Me Rehúso" debuted at No. 41 on the Latin Airplay chart this week, as programmers have slowly conceded the track's appeal. In June, Ocean inked a deal with Warner Music Group.

Streaming your way onto the airwaves is now more or less the norm in R&B and hip-hop -- recent examples include Bryson Tiller, Young M.A, Khalid and R.LUM.R. -- and the path is becoming more common in other genres. Ocean's rapid rise from unsigned upstart to major label priority on the strength of just one officially released song (there's also an English version of "Me Rehúso" with a tiny portion of the Spanish version's streams) suggests that the environment is ripe for this kind of trajectory in Latin pop.

And "Me Rehúso," a subtly combustible tune, was well-primed to take advantage of the new landscape. It opens stealthily, with a pair of synthesizers vying for your attention. Their interlocking pattern barely changes, allowing the song to maintain an illusion of stasis. But Ocean adds a lone sampled hand drum sound around the 40-second mark and a whiff of a reggaeton beat right before one minute has passed; suddenly he is singing in a hungry, scratchy register and multi-tracking his own voice, transforming his sleek, bare-bones instrumental into a vehicle for a crushing expression of heartache. "Me Rehúso" is at once gliding and downcast -- yearning elevates Ocean at the same time as it threatens to ruin him.

The single did not explode immediately. Ocean first posted the song on YouTube and his main listeners were friends. But his manager also showed the song to his then-girlfriend, now-wife the Venezuelan TV host Osmariel Villalobos. "She posted the video on Instagram and it had 300,000 views," Ocean remembers. "She didn't tag me, so all the comments were: 'what song is that?' But I had the song on YouTube, and some people figured out what it was."

Ocean had released a pair of EPs in Venezuela before leaving the country, but he had never incited this kind of fervor with his music. "It's a song about, 'hey, I don't want to leave you, but I gotta go,'" he explains. "It's not only about me. There are a lot of people that have to leave somebody behind. It doesn't have to be a love. It can be family. Since there's a lot of Venezuelan people out in the world because of the situation my country is passing through, I guess that helped the song grow."

"It's tough to live in a country like that -- you have this bunch of dreams, there's no security, no food right now," he continues. "Most of the youth in Venezuela is trying to get out because after you finish college, there's nothing else to do. You're in a country that's pulling you back. There are no possibilities in Venezuela. There's no life quality in that place."

"Me Rehúso" scooted quickly up various Spotify viral charts. Ocean ticks them off happily: Colombia, Chile, Peru. Before long, the track was promoted to the streaming service's Baila Reggaeton playlist, which has over five million followers, and labels were fighting to sign Ocean. He chose Warner. "I liked the vibe," he says.

Now Ocean faces the same plight of other streaming wonders: how do you follow up a personal project made in obscurity once it grows into a world-conquering hit? "You do have pressure -- you have a lot of people expecting a lot from you," Ocean acknowledges. "I'm just showing the world: this is me. I really hope people like it."

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