Bad Bunny

How Bad Bunny Took Over Pop -- Singing Exclusively In Spanish

Minutes before Bad Bunny steps into an arena filled with 19,000 fans, he jogs back and forth in the green room, his face stoic. The 24-year-old Latin trap star is the final performer at Calibash, SBS Entertainment’s Latin mega-concert at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. The bill features the biggest names in música urbana -- the umbrella term encompassing genres like reggaetón, Latin trap and dembow -- including Ozuna, Anuel AA, Farruko, even Enrique Iglesias. Bad Bunny is performing for the first time since the surprise late-December release of X100PRE (pronounced Por Siempre, or Forever), his critically acclaimed debut album, which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 in early January and has yet to fall out of the top 20.

Bad Bunny, born Benito Martinez Ocasio, may be pacing like a prizefighter before a match, but he’s not nervous. “I feel great,” he says in Spanish -- he speaks minimal English -- as he offers a hug and a handshake. When the call comes for him, the singer, decked out in a fluorescent orange windbreaker and shorts, snatches an unopened Coke can, yells something that roughly translates to “Let’s do this! Fuck!” and throws it on the floor. He then storms down a long hallway toward the stage and jubilantly dances in the wings as Farruko, his fellow Puerto Rican and sometime collaborator, performs a rendition of the merengue smash “Mi Forma de Ser,” an anthem about owning one’s individuality and not giving a fuck about the haters -- which might as well be Bad Bunny’s ethos. After Farruko exits, Bad Bunny’s totem -- an image of a “third eye” he recently said allows him to “see everything,” including a female red-carpet reporter’s underwear -- unfurls to the roars of the crowd. He breaks into a big smile.

Cover'd With Bad Bunny | Billboard

Twenty years after Ricky Martin led the so-called Latin explosion onto U.S. radio waves, Bad Bunny ranks as one of music’s most exciting new stars, no “crossover” qualification necessary. His ascent -- from a small town on the northern coast of Puerto Rico to the biggest U.S. arenas in two years -- certifies Latin music’s now-central role in American pop, beyond novelty singles and Justin Bieber features. Like his contemporaries Ozuna and Maluma, he grew up influenced by both reggaetón and American hip-hop and rose to global fame as hip-hop became a kind of open-source code, supplying fresh sounds and attitudes for artists all over the literal and figurative map. Holding off on releasing an album as he fired off single after single, he charted 34 tracks on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, twice as many as Ozuna before his Odisea dropped in 2017.

Powered though he may be by the sounds and strategies of hip-hop (Drake and Future in particular), there’s also no one quite like Bad Bunny on the charts right now: a genre-blending, gender-norm-defying, stylistically adventurous rapper and accomplished singer whose lyrics veer from raw vulnerability to street braggadocio. At a time when people of Hispanic origin comprise over 17 percent of the U.S. population (according to the Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey) and Spanish is spoken here by more people than anywhere else in the world but Mexico, Bad Bunny’s success reflects the changing reality of both the pop landscape and the United States itself.

Ramona Rosales
Bad Bunny wears a Human Made shirt and Alain Mikli sunglasses.

In his 30-minute Calibash set, Bad Bunny hurtles through a mix of X100PRE tracks, plus the massive collaborations that broke him here: “I Like It” with Cardi B and J Balvin and “MIA” featuring Drake, which hit No. 1 on three Latin airplay charts and debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 2018. Backstage, his longtime friend Jesus Hernandez (aka Chu) marvels at the ecstatic crowd. “Being from somewhere small like Puerto Rico and being able to have this sort of impact? I mean, look at this shit!” he says. On March 14, Bad Bunny will set off on his 18-date second headlining U.S. arena tour -- an ambassador for música urbana at huge venues like Staples Center and Madison Square Garden, but also in far-flung cities like Portland, Ore., and Reading, Pa., where it has never played to such huge audiences until now.

That morning, amid a welter of clothing racks, stylists and other attendants in his hotel suite at the Aria hotel, Bad Bunny is an oasis of calm, sitting on a couch with a few close friends, transfixed by a fiercely competitive game of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). As the game ends, Bad Bunny jumps off the couch, immediately embracing me in a bro hug. “It’s a pleasure,” he says.

Face to face, Bad Bunny seems younger and more chill than his fierce onstage presence -- or his lyrics about weed, women and even orgies -- would suggest. The faint scent of pot picked up by his crew at a dispensary the night before is the only hint of debauchery. As we talk, he retreats into his hoodie, fiddling with the strings. Keeping his friends close, he explains, “makes you feel like you’re with family, makes you feel at home, makes you feel normal. It gives me that grounding I need to always stay within orbit and not forget Earth.”

In the crowded pop and trap landscape, Bad Bunny takes risks few young male Latin stars would, whether painting his nails bright yellow or calling out misogynistic behavior on social media and in his music. “When I came into this industry, I was never afraid to be myself,” he says. “There were others who would advise me to tone down a bit, but I just always thought, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”

Bryan Steffy/Getty Images 
With friend and collaborator Balvin in Las Vegas in 2018.

As provocateurs go, Bad Bunny is fairly progressive. He has gone on daylong body-positive Twitter rants encouraging women to abstain from shaving for a man’s benefit; seemingly advocated for polyamory (tweeting that an unspecified woman deserved two boyfriends); and more recently, indirectly confronted reggaetonero Don Omar’s homophobic comments about the leaked sex tape featuring an underage Ozuna. “Homophobia in this day and age?” he tweeted in Spanish. “How embarrassing, guy.”

He has also used his music videos, the most-watched of which have views exceeding half a billion on YouTube, as a platform for social issues. “Solo de Mi” (“Mine Alone”) tackles the rampant violence against women in Puerto Rico, showing Venezuelan model Laura Chimara’s face slowly bruising as Bad Bunny sings, “I’m not yours or anyone’s/I’m mine alone” -- a declaration of freedom from an abusive relationship, and also a nod to Colectivo Feminista, the Puerto Rican activist group that recently occupied Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s mansion, demanding that he sign an executive order declaring a state of emergency against domestic violence.

“I saw [Colectivo Feminista’s] occupation. I saw the news about how many murders [against women] had occurred,” says Bad Bunny. “It motivated me to try to say something.” His most recent video, “Caro” (“Expensive”) -- which in its first two weeks racked up over 45 million views -- features plus-size, trans, nonbinary and disabled models strutting down the runway, plus a man kissing Bad Bunny on the cheek. “Maybe people would have imagined a video filled with jewelry, money -- you know, dressing ‘caro,’” he says. “But ultimately the video changed the concept of those lyrics completely,” turning it into an anthem of acceptance and self-love.

Courtesy of Rimas Entertainment
Getting a manicure in the “Caro” music video.

His attempts to chip away at machista culture haven’t always gone over well. Last summer, when a nail salon in Spain refused him service because he was a man, he called it out on Twitter, writing, “What year are we in? Fucking 1960?” -- then, when internet trolls attacked him for wanting the manicure in the first place, he offered to impregnate his detractors’ wives. (He immediately apologized.)

“Nobody is perfect,” says Bad Bunny today, reflecting on that response. “You don’t have the same mentality as you did five years ago -- even one year. People are always changing, and I believe that everyone deserves the space to change and for people to recognize their change. Maybe someone made a mistake and they want to do the work to ensure it never happens again.”

Growing up middle class in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Benito Martinez Ocasio envisioned a career in music from an early age. At 5, he joined a church choir, but around the same time became enthralled with rap en español after receiving the rambunctious Vico C record “Ángel Que Había Muerto” as a gift. As a teenager, he immersed himself in both the music his mother listened to -- master vocalists like salsa legend Hector Lavoe and Juan Gabriel -- and the reggaetón his friends loved: Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel, Ivy Queen and Calle 13. Those early influences are still present in his music, from his own roundly sonorous voice to his most subtle lyrical touches: In “La Romana,” he pronounces the words ojalá y (“hopefully, and...”) as “ojalai,” a reference to Voltio’s “Chulin Culin Chunfly” featuring Calle 13, in which rapper Residente uses the same pronunciation.

Courtesy of Rimas Entertainment
Next to Drake in the video for “MIA,” which has been viewed on YouTube over 600 million times.

By 2016, he was posting tracks on SoundCloud as Bad Bunny, while balancing a grocery-bagging job with college classes. That’s when Noah Assad, founder of Rimas Entertainment, and Hear This Music label head DJ Luian heard his self-produced single “Diles.” Luian connected Bad Bunny with his powerhouse production team, Mambo Kingz. Less than a year later, a remix of the song featuring Ñengo Flow, Ozuna, Arcangel and Farruko debuted at No. 15 on the Latin Rhythm Digital Song Sales chart.

Since then, Bad Bunny has appeared on over 70 singles (46 of which charted on Hot Latin Songs, and seven on the Hot 100). Somber anthems like “Soy Peor” and hymns to marijuana like “Krippy Kush” with Farruko and Rvssian -- the latter reached No. 5 on Hot Latin Songs and inspired remixes with 21 Savage, Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott and others -- not only captivated a Spanish-speaking base but also cultivated a wider English-speaking millennial audience. Then came “I Like It,” last year’s buoyant, boogaloo-inspired number with Cardi B and Balvin. With his first Hot 100 No. 1, Bad Bunny sailed into the mainstream American zeitgeist, while rapping mostly in Spanish.

But Bad Bunny’s spirit had yet to catch up with his fame. “It was everything new in my life that perhaps I wasn’t ready to handle,” he says today. He enjoyed creating, but “I was pumping out music just to make it. It’s not like I was really sitting down to work on music like I [later] did with my album. It was like everything had become very monotonous. Like I was just on autopilot and forgot what I really wanted.” At around the same time, he stopped working with Luian, left Twitter and checked into a mansion on the beach in Vega Baja, just a bicycle ride away from where he grew up.

He sequestered himself there, far from the chatter of social media and anyone outside his tight-knit circle of childhood friends. He smoked weed and played video games, but mostly he worked in an upstairs studio, dedicated to X100PRE. Instead of roping in a slew of marquee-name producers, he chose to work mainly with one of his longtime friends, La Paciencia, and Tainy, a member of the reggaetón vanguard who also produced “I Like It.” “It influences not just the quality of the album, but also the sentimentality of it,” he explains. “That energy translates. You feel like you’re listening to an artist, not just music meant for radio play.”

Kevin Mazur/AMA2018/Getty Images for dcp
From left: Balvin, Cardi B and Bad Bunny performed “I Like It” at the 2018 American Music Awards.

On June 28 of last year, after a monthlong hiatus, Bad Bunny released the video for “Estamos Bien” (“We’re Good”), much of it shot with his friends on the beach near the mansion. A few months later, he would perform it on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, backed by footage of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria -- an exultant declaration of pride in his island and its people. “Estamos Bien” appears on X100PRE at the end of a semiautobiographical three-song arc that starts with “Como Antes,” a wistful number on loss of youthful innocence, and continues with “RLNDT,” a tribute to a young boy whose disappearance shook Puerto Rico for years. In the latter track, Bad Bunny questions who he has become and wonders if hopelessness will consume him. “Estamos Bien” offers some hope -- the sound of an artist who has emerged from the shadows. The track “pulls you out of a dark song and makes a complete switch,” says Bad Bunny. “You’re listening to my reality there. You’re listening to my truth.”

X100PRE dropped after months of fans speculating about what a Bad Bunny album might sound like after so many standalone singles. “I finished it, like, four days before it came out,” says Bad Bunny with a laugh. But it sounds anything but haphazard: At 15 tracks, it’s a carefully curated, genre-fluid tour through an emotional labyrinth of Bad Bunny’s creation, touching on the Latin trap he’s known for but also reggaetón, dream-pop, pop-punk and even Dominican dembow on “La Romana” featuring El Alfa, a very early contender for song of the summer.

“The album is a tribute to my generation, both musically speaking and the pop culture from when we were young,” says Bad Bunny, who was just nominated for 12 Billboard Latin Music Awards, including artist of the year. Millennials who, like him, grew up listening to veteran Latin acts were no doubt ready for an artist of their own age. In the past two years, Bad Bunny contemporaries like Ozuna and Balvin broke onto the mainstream charts and began filling American arenas. “Despacito” became a global hit in 2017, but not merely thanks to the Justin Bieber remix. Over the past decade, the number of people stateside who speak Spanish at home has grown by more than 20 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. But only recently have lanes seemed to significantly widen for Latin trailblazers on multiple levels in American culture, from Cardi B to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who is not related to Bad Bunny).

Ramona Rosales
Bad Bunny wears a Norse Projects shirt from Sportivo Madrid, ALYX Studio coat, Beautiful Fül pants, Vans shoes and BONNIE CLYDE sunglasses.

Cardi, AOC and Bad Bunny share more than just Latin roots: They’re unapologetically, even joyfully genuine and honest, at a time in this country when voters and music fans alike seem to be craving authenticity.

It’s his authenticity that Bad Bunny is most concerned with preserving as his fame increases. Around midnight on Jan. 11, he marched down the streets of San Juan toward the governor’s mansion, accompanied by his friend Residente, the Calle 13 rapper he grew up idolizing. The two hoped to talk to Rosselló about the gun and domestic violence ravaging their island, and for a couple of hours, Bad Bunny documented on Instagram Live their attempts to enter the mansion. (Eight days after our interview, Bad Bunny’s friend and bodyguard, Jeffrey Ayala Colón, was murdered by gunfire in Guaynabo.)

After several hours, Rosselló let the duo in for a 5 a.m. coffee and chat. But for Bad Bunny, that wasn’t the only notable part of the night: Fans freely approached him in the street, the way he says he wishes they always would. “That’s the whole point -- that’s how it should be,” he tells me. “Like, fucking trying to connect with people.”

The morning of Calibash, he says as much when explaining the concept for the “Caro” video, with its unorthodox models. “Did seeing the video change your idea of the song?” he asks me, hopefully. I tell him it did. “At the end of the day, these are basic messages,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m not doing that much. I’m only doing what a human being who feels wants to do -- in my way, without stepping out of my flow, while staying in my lane. Without, I guess, boring people.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 16 issue of Billboard.