When Juan Luis Londoño Arias was a thin but sporty high school sophomore in Medellín, Colombia, his dreams ran big and small. Getting a girl, playing soccer, meeting Shakira and visiting Los Angeles, a 3,300-mile journey, topped the list.
“I was always imagining something,” says the 23-year-old reggaetón star who now goes by Maluma, a combination of his sister’s and parents’ names. Mostly he daydreamed about music. “I filled the margins of my schoolbooks with lyrics. My boys asked me to write beautiful letters for their ex-girls so they could get them back. I thought, ‘I should be writing songs for myself.’” In class, on buses, during any free moment, he sketched out ballads, pop songs and beats. One style stuck.
“Where I lived, reggaetón was on fire,” he says, his heavily tattooed arm draped over a chair at the offices of Billboard. The other one taps out a beat on his leg. In person, Maluma is soft-spoken and exceedingly polite -- holding doors for others, greeting people with eye contact, firm handshakes and traditional Latin cheek kisses -- all of which contrast with the inked arm sleeves, ripped jeans and nearly nude shots populating his Instagram feed. He’s that “cute boy next door that moms and grandmas love, with a dirty edge that girls dream about,” says Jesus Salas, executive vp programming for Spanish Broadcasting System.