From Panic Attacks to Family Estrangement, Reggaeton Star J Balvin’s Struggle to Make It to the Top

J Balvin, 2014
Miller Mobley

J Balvin photographed on September 30, 2014 in New York City.

Two years ago, J Balvin should have been on top of the world. A steady stream of tracks that mixed tropical lightness with the heavy beat of reggaeton had made him a star at home in Colombia. Girls climbed the walls of his house in Medellin to get a picture with him. The stars of the Colombian national soccer team hung out there. He was in constant demand, playing one-hour gigs one after another. At his peak he did nine in a night, starting at 7 in the evening and finishing at 7 the following morning.

J Balvin: The Billboard Photo Shoot

And all this wasn't just happening in Colombia. He was beginning to get radio play in the United States, and had signed with EMI, which put together a compilation of his independent singles. When he started in 2004, people would laugh at him, call him crazy. There had never been a Colombian reggaeton star; the music was dominated by Puerto Rican performers. Now reggaeton producers were moving to Colombia from Puerto Rico. Everything he had worked for -- "Step by step," as he always puts it -- was falling into place.

Instead of celebrating, though, Balvin spent his days and nights crying. For eight years he had worked relentlessly to get to this point, but now ceaseless pressure had reshaped his dreams into nightmares. "I became a slave to the game," he says. He was having panic attacks. His heart hammered in his chest. "I didn't want make more music. I basically wanted to quit and be dead."

Balvin explains all this with a slight smile. It's his default expression, as if he's always anticipating joy. So even as he talks in his fluent English about struggling with depression, he's demonstrating how he got past it. Balvin is 29, but his pop-star looks knock a half-decade off his appearance, his youthful face creased only at the brow by three incipient worry lines. His voice has a rough purr, familiar to anyone who has ever heard his records, and no doubt seasoned by a steady stream of Newports. He wears diamond studs in each ear and a gold link necklace inset with small stones. He carries a blue Louis Vuitton backpack and is dressed in a green collarless shirt that hits midthigh, black pants, and black and green Nikes.

Billboard Finalists Debut, J Balvin Rules Tropical Chart

Meditation, therapy and a trip to Thailand helped put his head straight two years ago. And Balvin continued on his path to becoming the biggest breakout act Latin music has seen in many years. He's the go-to Spanish voice on remixes of hits from Ariana Grande and Robin Thicke that have helped spread his fame in Latin America and the United States. His two most recent hits -- "6 AM" and the new "Ay Vamos" ("Come On)" -- have the sort of sinuous, insistent hooks (and mega-million YouTube views) that would make them the envy of any ambitious R&B or pop performer. Their radio dominance is made all the more significant by the fact that Latin music is not welcoming of newcomers, relying on standbys like Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Romeo Santos. Yet he's in the midst of a tour opening for Iglesias, and he's up for three Latin Grammy Awards this year.

On his records, Balvin frequently refers to himself as "El Negocio," and sometimes says it in English: "The Business," or "The Businessman." The sobriquet comes not from the famous Jay Z lyric, but a nickname Balvin acquired in his early teens when he put himself to work to help his family's fortunes, after his father, a businessman himself, had gone bankrupt.

It has all given Balvin, currently single, and his music a greater sense of purpose. His breakthrough album is called La Familia ("The Family") -- the words are tattooed across Balvin's chest -- and his music has both paid his father's debts and damaged his relationship with his dad, who was his manager until eight months ago. "There's no dream without sacrifice," says Balvin, and he says it knowing much more of both is in store.

Until he was a teenager, Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin and his younger sister, Carolina, grew up outside Medellin. "I used to live on a farm," he recalls. "A house in the hills, something like the Hamptons." His father, also named Jose, holds a Ph.D. in international marketing and ran his own distribution company. His mother, Alba, studied medicine, but never worked. "My dad didn't let her. She regrets that, but my dad had the money at that time."

J Balvin: Backstage at the 2014 Billboard Latin Music Awards

At 10, his parents got him an electric guitar for Christmas. It was the mid-'90s, and Balvin was listening to Nirvana, Metallica, Sepultura and Red Hot Chili Peppers. He put together a trio. "We really believed we were Nirvana. Doing covers. Going to friends' houses; doing my show. We didn't have a name. It was all a hobby thing."

But his music dreams would change, and so would his situation. When he was 14, his father went bankrupt, and the family moved to a more modest house. "It was a middle-class neighborhood, really close to a big ghetto," says Balvin. "I was studying in the best high school in my city, but when I got out of school, I was hanging out with kids from the ghetto. I learned a lot from both worlds."

Balvin describes himself as a good student ("Except math -- I hated math") and the class clown. But this was also a time of great anxiety. "I saw my dad [spend] too many years without sleeping. And I was suffering a lot, because I wanted to help him." So, he began selling things after school. "Not drugs. Forget about it." Candy, clothes, anything he could find.

At 18, Balvin went to the United States for a school exchange program. He would perfect his English, and maybe chase his music dream. But he ended up in a tiny Oklahoma town, a place he describes as redneck and racist. That was the least of his problems. He says the woman who hosted him effectively kidnapped him. "She fell in love -- not as a woman; as a mother to a son." She took his passport, cut off the Internet and told his high school to keep him away from computers so he wouldn't backslide with Spanish-language media. It took him months to snatch his passport back, reach a friend nearby, get out of town and call his father.

J Alvarez vs J Balvin: Which Reggaeton Star Has the Hotter Single?

Balvin recalls, "I was crying. 'Dad, why have you not called me in all this time?' He started crying. 'Where have you been? We tried to reach you, no one answered. Your emails; you don't respond to them.' "

At first, Balvin wanted to come straight home, but his parents told him to take advantage of his student visa. He went to live with an aunt in Staten Island, N.Y., and though his visa didn't allow it, found a job. He would ride the ferry into Manhattan at 7 a.m. every day to walk dogs in SoHo. "Everything was hip-hop to me," he says of his daily walks. "Graffiti, freestyle battles on the streets, all those big billboards with Jay Z's face. I was like, 'Wow. This guy has his own clothing line. Hip-hop is an entire business.' "

A friend lived in Miami, and Balvin moved there with the idea of pursuing a recording career. He painted houses during the day and made the scene with a hip-hop trio, MDL (for Medellin), at night. He knew it wasn't working, but he was scared to go home. "My friends, and the people from my city, they thought I was living the superstar life," he says. He was anxious, taking sleeping pills, getting more and more lost. Finally, he had enough of pretending to be a star when he wasn't. "I don't like the movie shit," he says. "I just got to be real." He went back to Medellin to start over. He was 20.

Balvin brought a new sense of purpose, and a new hustle, back home with him. In New York he had seen rappers sell their CDs on the sidewalk. No one had done that yet in Medellin. So Balvin sat in his house with his friends, burned CDs, slapped on a sticker with his picture and took them out into the streets.

Enrique Iglesias Announces Tour With J Balvin at Billboard Latin Music Conference

His music was different. Not just the sound, but the lyrics. He sang about friendship, about love. "I never had a song about a car," he says. "I never had a song about a watch." In a city still marked by the shadow of drug lord Pablo Escobar, he avoided gangster talk. "We were born in that place. That's nothing new for me." He went from radio station to radio station, city to city, building his rep from underground sensation to homegrown superstar. Step by step, he fulfilled his goals, including paying his father's debts. He slid a check into a pizza box and gave it to his father as a birthday gift. "He hates pizza," says Balvin. "He opens it, he sees the check, and he starts crying. I had to leave. I worked my ass off for two years to make that shit happen. My mom called me: 'You know what? This is the first day that your dad is sleeping in peace.' "

The next time his father had business trouble, Balvin was in a position to offer an immediate solution: have his dad become his manager. He told him, "You've always been a businessman. Do what you used to do. Just with your son." Adds Balvin, "He took me to another level in my country."

Balvin hated the idea of signing with a major -- labels had been no help when he was starting -- and when he finally learned to trust EMI, the label evaporated in a corporate shuffle. He explained all this to Universal when it inherited his contract, and the company offered a fresh start. "We sat down at the beginning of 2013 with him and his dad to create a new business model," says Universal Music Latino GM Luis Estrada. "We said, 'Let's build a brand together. Understand that this is going to be a process and it will take some pain. No pain, no gain.' He was making a lot of money in Colombia and we told him, 'You need to stop playing Colombia so much and start focusing on the rest of the markets.' " Universal wanted to emphasize the United States -- going to radio with the Ariana Grande and Robin Thicke remixes, and tapping TV awards shows like Univision's Premios Juventud for more exposure -- along with Mexico, Argentina and other Latin territories. The label spoke Balvin's language. "We have to do it step by step," Estrada told him.

Ariana Grande: The Billboard Cover Shoot

Last November, La Familia debuted at No. 14 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart, driven by the success of "Tranquila" ("Calm Down"), a top 10 Latin Rhythm Airplay hit with 125 million views on YouTube.

But no pain, no gain; no dream without sacrifice. The panic attacks returned, and on Christmas Day Balvin was in agony. He had a show that night and begged his father to cancel it. He said, "I feel like I'm dying, Dad. My dreams are gone. I just want to be dead. Don't make me go."

His father agreed. But a few hours later he called back. "I'm sorry," his father said. "But I'm your manager, and they're going to sue if you don't do this."

"That day, everything changed," says Balvin. "I said, 'This is the last time. I don't want to work with you.' " He knew he had to find a new manager, before his hero became someone he hated. "That was a hell. It is still a hell." He's in close contact with his mom and sister, but things remain strained with his father. "I love him. I think time is going to be the answer."

Balvin turned to AEG Live/Goldenvoice vp Latin talent Rebeca Leon. She had offered him advice the first time they met, in November 2013 at the Latin Grammys, where he performed to prerecorded tracks at a Universal afterparty. "He came offstage, and I said, 'You're amazing, but that show was shit,' " remembers Leon. " 'You should never do that again.' "

 Ask Billboard: How Has Enrique Iglesias' 'Bailando' Become Such A Big Hit?

Leon and Fabio Acosta, founder of Akela Family Music, took over as his managers in April, and Balvin does indeed perform with a live band now. Leon gave him an opening slot on the current Pitbull/Enrique Iglesias tour before she started managing him, and building a headliner profile for him in the United States is dead ahead. "AEG is putting him on a theater tour on his own next spring," she says. The goal is to "establish him as a ticket seller. Do the right-size venues, the right price, sell it all out, build your fan base. We're betting on him."

The growth of his live business will be crucial. Recorded-music sales in Latin music are slim. La Familia, which was rereleased to include Balvin's current hit, "Ay Vamos," peaked at No. 10 on the Top Latin Albums chart dated Oct. 4 and has sold 15,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And though his summer single "6 AM" topped Billboard's Latin Rhythm Airplay chart for 10 weeks, it has sold just 82,000 tracks, compared with its 100 million views on Vevo and 10.8 million streams on Spotify.

Balvin's digital profile is substantial. In all, he has more than 343 million views on YouTube and Vevo, which Billboard estimates generates some $1.7 million, shared by Balvin and Universal in a 360 deal. Brands are starting to take notice -- a Toyota deal will carry over into 2015, and discussions are underway with telecom, soft drink and spirits companies.

For Balvin, the next step is a tricky one: growing his Latin stardom while eyeing a mainstream crossover. Universal Music Latino's Estrada says an English-language version of the La Familia hit "Tranquila" could arrive early next year. Republic Records helped arrange a meeting for Balvin and hip-hop's hottest producer, DJ Mustard, in early October in Los Angeles. Balvin talks about wanting to work with Drake, with Rihanna, to follow his love of fashion the way Kanye West has. Those around him observe the potential for a bigger star than Latin music has seen in many years. "I think he'll eventually get into film," says Leon. "He's got a big appetite. And he's got the goods to back it up."

Drake Extends Rap Airplay Chart Record

Balvin knows he has to be careful and not lose himself in all of this. "I forgot about my happiness," he says when he talks about his panic attacks. "I forgot about Jose." Sometimes the panic attacks return, milder than they used to be, without the hammering heartbeat. "It's still a lot of stress," he says. "But I'm not as afraid as I used to be. Now when bad things happen, I'm just like, ‘OK, I got over it once. I'm going to get over it, until it's done.' "

Still, there are no dreams without sacrifice. "I sacrificed my family. I sacrificed my friends -- I don't see them. I have a dream house, and I'm never there. I wanted to have a family, younger. But I'm going to make it. That's my dream. I know where I'm going."

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of Billboard.