One of the biggest breakout acts Latin music has seen in years, J Balvin? is not some wide-eyed, fame-hungry teen that got here overnight. Rather, he’s a meticulous student of the game whose success has been gestating for nearly a decade. The 29-year-old Medellin, Colombia, native didn’t simply borrow the dembow beat; he put his own spin on it, while still showing deference for what reggaeton’s forefathers like Daddy Yankee built in Puerto Rico in the early days.
Balvin is now a mainstay on the charts, with two No. 1s on Billboard’s Latin Rhythm Airplay chart and one No. 1 — “Ay Vamos” — on Hot Latin Songs. His tropical-flavored brand of reggaeton has the kind of melodic flow and catchy hooks that are impossible to resist. And his lyrics stand out too. Coming from a country that lived through decades of drug-related violence, he eschews singing about the thug life and instead focuses on the ladies and the lovers.
In 2014, Balvin opened for Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull on their U.S. arena tour, and was nominated for three Latin Grammys. On the digital front, his most recent hit, “Ay Vamos,” surpassed 300 million views on YouTube, and he boasts more than 16 million followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram combined.
Things didn’t always look so bright for the artist born Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin. When he first got serious about pursuing a career in music in 2004, there had been no precedent for a Colombian reggaeton star with international appeal. With the help of his father, who managed him at the beginning of his career, Balvin built a name for himself locally, going from radio station to radio station and peddling his mixtapes to whomever would listen. In 2009, EMI Colombia signed the budding reggaeton star.
Balvin came to his record deal with a hip-hop mogul mentality, cultivated from the few years he lived in New York. “Everything was hip-hop to me,” Balvin told Billboard of his life in the Big Apple. “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.'”
Balvin would gig endlessly in Colombia, but the pressure proved exhausting, and led to depression and panic attacks. He bounced back through meditation and therapy and in 2013, Universal Music Latino, which inherited his existing contract from EMI, approached him with a “step-by-step” strategy that was more concerned with longevity and building a loyal fan base than becoming an overnight sensation.
Balvin’s big breakthrough came with the single “6 a.m.” feat. Farruko, which topped Billboard’s Latin Rhythm Airplay chart for 10 weeks. With the help of his new management team — Rebeca Leon of AEG Live and Fabio Acosta — he landed the opening slot in the Iglesias/Pitbull tour and now is readying his own headlining U.S. tour.
This year, Balvin is a 12-time finalist in 11 categories at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, and will perform at the show. He is also headlining the “New Latin Urban Movement” panel at the 2015 Billboard Latin Music Conference and is a featured artist on Billboard’s En Vivo Tour this month, making stops in Los Angeles (April 15) and Miami (April 29).