As urbano stars dominate playlists, genre charts and now the Hot 100, Latin’s more traditional pop artists are adapting -- and collaborating -- to keep up.
Over the past 10 years, Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Pedro Capó has built a steady career on the strength of his romantic lyrics and pop-rock sound. He has recorded soulful duets with the likes of Thalía and Kany García, and on 2017’s En Letra de Otro, he paid tribute to ’90s Latin classics -- scoring both a No. 5 peak on the Top Latin Albums chart and an HBO Latino concert special.
Then in October 2018, he released a remix of his song “Calma” that featured reggaetonero Farruko -- and in the process landed his first-ever Billboard Hot 100 entry, peaking at No. 71 in May. He’s well aware that an assist from the world of urbano -- the umbrella term for more rhythmic-leaning Latin music, including reggaeton and hip-hop -- helped send “Calma” far beyond the Latin charts. “As a pop artist by definition, you have to learn to adapt,” says Capó. “[Urbano’s] popularity pushed me toward change and influenced my new sound.”
As Latin music has moved ever closer to the pop mainstream, the definition of Latin pop itself has evolved, increasingly shifting from balladeer artists like Ricardo Arjona and Juanes to urbano stars like J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Maluma. The top 34 entries on Billboard’s 2018 Hot Latin Songs year-end chart were all reggaetón, and major non-urban Latin artists like Juanes and Arjona didn’t even make the list. In the same year, a record 22 Latin songs appeared on the Hot 100 -- 20 of which were by urbano artists.
Though the shift hasn’t upended the whole business -- the latest round of Latin Grammy nominations features almost no urbano artists in its major categories -- it is posing a challenge to many artists and label execs who operate in the traditional pop realm. “While reggaetón continues to thrive, there is less wiggle room for other genres,” says Diana Rodríguez, CEO of management agency Criteria Entertainment, whose roster includes Chilean singer-songwriter Francisca Valenzuela and Grammy-winning rocker Draco Rosa. “Labels and publishers are searching for [new Latin talent], but for the time being, ‘Latin’ refers to reggaetón. Until that attention shifts to the discovery of all genres that encompass Latin, we will be hard at work.”
On streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, urbano leads the global playlists. Spotify’s ¡Viva Latino! is the third-most-followed playlist on the platform, with more than 10 million listeners; Baila Reggaeton is close behind, with over 9 million. Apple Music’s reggaetón-dominated ¡Dale Play! is its top Latin playlist globally, according to Jerry Pulles, a Latin music programmer at Apple. “That’s what listeners and artists are moving toward,” he says.
To some, this move away from traditional pop is just another step in the ongoing evolution of Latin music -- one that already has seen urbano fluctuate in popularity. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, crossover pioneers like Shakira and Juanes ruled Hot Latin Songs with pop- and rock-leaning tunes. Reggaetón remained in the margins until Daddy Yankee’s 2004 breakout hit “Gasolina,” which peaked at No. 32 on the Hot 100 and paved the way for artists like Wisin y Yandel and Tego Calderón to dominate radio.
By 2005, Univision had launched 10 all-rhythmic stations called La Kalle in major markets like Chicago and New York. But over the following years, the pendulum swung back. La Kalle rebranded as a more diverse format that played pop, bachata and reggaetón. “Reggaetón softened down, and we ended up evolving to a broader pop/rhythmic station,” says Ismar SantaCruz, vp/managing director of radio strategy at Univision. “Sometimes we forget that pop music literally just means ‘popular.’ It’s not just reggaetón or urbano or traditional pop. It’s all of those collectively.”
To reflect urbano’s current dominance, Univision switched six Latino Mix radio stations from pop to fully rhythmic, though it still has pop-only and pop-leaning playlists on its Uforia app. “Music naturally evolves, and that is exciting,” says Valenzuela. “Ideally, there would be space to pursue a creative career without having to be like everyone else or do what everyone else is doing.”
Gabriel Buitrago, a top radio promoter and founder of product management company Summa Entertainment, says these kinds of changes are not unusual. “It’s always a cycle, especially in the U.S., where there is no format for ‘traditional’ pop,” he says. “For many artists right now, it’s in their best interest to collaborate because it gives them more outlets to get played in.”
Which is precisely what some of Latin’s less urban-leaning pop artists are doing to keep up. In 2016, melodic pop-rock trio Reik collaborated with Nicky Jam on “Ya Me Enteré,” which hit No. 6 on Hot Latin Songs. Last year, the Mexican band featured Ozuna and Wisin on “Me Niego,” which became its first No. 1 on Latin Airplay.
Meanwhile, Grammy-winning duo Jesse & Joy paired up with Balvin on their single “Mañana Es Too Late,” a pop song with subtle rhythmic elements that became the group’s first entry on Latin Rhythm Airplay and one of its biggest Latin Pop Airplay hits. “I don’t think genres are in a fight with each other,” says Joy. “Pop continues to change, evolve, and I think it’s interesting to see how creators will continue to create alongside reggaetón.”
The artist who’s perhaps most successfully striking the balance is Universal Music Latin’s Sebastián Yatra, a Colombian singer-songwriter who has placed eight tracks on Hot Latin Songs since 2018 -- some are more rhythmic, like “Ya No Tiene Novio” with Mau y Ricky, but some are like the more traditional ballad “Un Año” with Reik. The music video for “Runaway,” his collab with the Jonas Brothers and urbano stars Daddy Yankee and Natti Natasha, has racked up more than 200 million YouTube views.
“The truth is that we do not think reggaetón became an obstacle for other genres,” says Alejandro Reglero, Sony Music Latin’s vp A&R. “On the contrary, it opens more opportunities and opens the spectrum to work on other projects.” And just because an artist breaks from current trends doesn’t mean they can’t cut through. As Reglero notes: “Everything starts with a great song.”