When he made his way to Medellín in 2008, it was an act of desperation. Needing any gig he could get, Nicky Jam discovered that his songs still resonated here — they had become “oldies” — and that to the Antioquia region’s paisas, familiar with the sting of judgment, his foibles mattered a lot less. He found the people unfailingly hospitable, their Spanish full of pleasantries and honorifics. “They’ll stop doing whatever they’re doing to make you happy,” he says. “Sí, señor. No, señor. There’s no excuses.” He still recalls visiting a restaurant and ordering sancocho, a savory island stew; there was none, but the proprietor dashed out to gather the ingredients and whipped him up a bowl on the spot.
The humility of his adopted city in turn humbled him. He shed both ego and weight, ultimately dropping more than 100 pounds (he stuck with his black-tee uniform, a look he’d originally embraced to conceal his girth). He prayed for the strength to kick his other habits, to show the world that Nicky Jam wasn’t without talent — he had just squandered what talent he had. Even the more severe aspects of his appearance — including the avian neck sleeve that required a three-and-a-half-hour session at the Real Deal Tattoo Studio in Medellín’s trendy Poblado district -- he sees as symbols of recovery.
“I thought, ‘If I start doing things to take care of myself and, you know, giving myself love,’” says Nicky Jam, “‘people are going to recognize that love, and it’s going to be easier for them to love me.’”
Now, he has to worry about being loved too much: Where once he drove Medellín’s streets without an escort, he now slips off his 80-point diamond Rolex before leaving home, darting in and out of buildings lest he be mobbed by cellphone-wielding fans. “It’s part of the job,” he says, “but they don’t ask for one picture anymore -- they ask for Snapchat, they want video for their cousin, video for their side chick. Can you believe that?” And although he has four children from previous relationships (his marriage to Cruz is his first), he found himself soaking one night in his rooftop Jacuzzi feeling utterly alone: “What’s the point of having all this if you don’t have anyone to share it with?” He calls life with his new bride “healthy for your insides, for your heart.”
As he has absorbed Colombia’s musical lexicon, especially the lyrical folk tradition known as vallenato, his songwriting has grown more expressive, even vulnerable. He was already a better singer than most rappers — at his nadir in Puerto Rico, he had resorted to performing Spanish pop ballads in a hotel lounge — and he made a conscious decision to bring melody to reggaetón. Along with kindred Medellín-born artists like J Balvin (who also attended the wedding) and Maluma, Nicky Jam has helped shift reggaetón’s center of gravity from the Caribbean to Colombia. “Nicky Jam to me is a great example of life, of someone who’s shown that opportunities come from within,” says Balvin. Even Yankee, who today calls Nicky Jam a “mature man” with a “noble heart,” makes appearances on two of Fénix’s tracks.
“Medellín gave me so much,” says Nicky Jam. “It gave me back who I am: the person I am, the human being I am.”
“If it wasn’t for Medellín,” says Giovanni Ortega, “I don’t know where Nicky would be.”