The Real Bad Bunny: Offstage and Personal With the Biggest Artist of 2022
With over a quarter-billion grossed on the road and one of the biggest albums of the last decade, he dominated the year — singing in Spanish and redefining global stardom.
During the first of his two sold-out stadium shows in November in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bad Bunny lost his voice.
There he was, standing in the middle of the vast stage, barely able to hear himself through the roar of the very loud 40,000-plus crowd, when his voice deserted him.
“It was all of a sudden, like a click,” recalls Bad Bunny, snapping his fingers. “Like the temperature or something. Seems like one of my vocal cords was suffering, and boom, it happened. And I’m thinking, ‘This can’t be happening. These people are giving me the most cabrón energy. It’s the most euphoric audience I’ve had all tour, and I’m going to lose my voice? It’s not possible.’ ”
Yet he didn’t lose his cool. He briefly left the stage as if nothing had happened, drank warm tea and did vocal exercises until his voice returned. Then he powered through the rest of his nearly three-hour show, and no one was the wiser. After two days of complete vocal rest, he’s now revealing to me for the first time what really happened. It’s our second encounter since his World’s Hottest Tour began playing stadiums in North and South America in Orlando, Fla., last August, and we’re in a trendy Buenos Aires club, where a master sommelier pours us glasses of red wine from renowned Uco Valley vintner Jose Galante. Bad Bunny’s trademark deep bass sounds perfectly normal, and his demeanor is nonchalant as he leans against the bar, a black suit with a rose print draping his tall, athletic frame.
I first met Bad Bunny in 2017, after he debuted on the Billboard charts. Since then, the 28-year-old’s attitude in interviews has remained the same — level-headed, sincere and matter-of-fact — notwithstanding the crescendo of fame and recognition surrounding him. Today, that grace and calm under pressure provide a glimpse into the psyche of the artist born Benito Antonio Ocasio Martínez as he enters the home stretch of an extraordinary year, with two sold-out shows at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca on Dec. 9 and 10, ending 2022 as Billboard’s top artist of the year (a rank based on activity on the Billboard 200, the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard Boxscore for the tracking period of Nov. 20, 2021, through Nov. 12, 2022). Un Verano Sin Ti, his album released in May on independent label Rimas Entertainment and distributed through The Orchard, is the first non-English album to ever top the year-end Billboard 200 albums ranking and ties Drake’s Views and Disney’s Frozen soundtrack for the most weeks at No. 1 on the chart (13) in the last decade. In November, it also became the first all-Spanish release nominated for album of the year at the Grammy Awards, one of three nods Bad Bunny garnered.
And on the road, Bad Bunny was the year’s highest-grossing touring artist, with over $373.5 million in ticket sales, according to Boxscore (with 20 Latin American stadium shows still left to tally). World’s Hottest Tour broke venue revenue records in 12 of the 15 U.S. markets that it played, including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., averaging $11.1 million per show — the biggest average gross by any artist in any genre in Boxscore history (dating back to the late 1980s), as well as the biggest Latin tour. Bad Bunny is also the first artist to mount separate $100 million-plus tours in the same calendar year; his 35-date El Último Tour del Mundo trek played 25 U.S. arenas between February and May, following two stadium shows in Puerto Rico last December.
“It’s something no one had done, or dared do, before,” says Henry Cárdenas, CEO of Cárdenas Marketing Network, which promoted the artist’s U.S. tour in partnership with Live Nation, plus seven Latin American dates.
“It’s unquestionably historic,” says Jbeau Lewis, one of Bad Bunny’s agents at UTA, of the back-to-back arena and stadium tours in a single calendar year. “It hasn’t happened under my purview, if it has ever happened. But we could feel the momentum of everything Bad Bunny was doing, and how much his career was growing and how quickly he was becoming an omnipresent figure in pop culture. And we knew how many people were trying to buy tickets. There were individual arenas with 200,000, 300,000 people on queue.”
And when people get in line to buy Bad Bunny tickets, they’re not expecting bells and whistles. “It’s him with a microphone, in front of 60,000 people,” says Cárdenas, whose client list in his 45 years of promoting concerts includes touring powerhouses like Marc Anthony and the late Vicente Fernández. “All other artists have a band or a roster of dancers. This man is alone, with a DJ for over 70% of the show.”
Bad Bunny’s minimalist approach to his show — for long stretches, he sits alone on a beach chair surrounded by palm trees — is in keeping with his ethos as an artist with an unwaveringly iconoclastic point of view in terms of both music and aesthetics, who has also managed to explore other creative realms with ease. In 2024, he’ll become the first Latino actor to lead a Marvel film as the character El Muerto.
His manager, Noah Assad, signed him in 2016 after falling for both his voice — a malleable bass that contrasted with the more traditional reggaetón tenor, rapping over sparse trap beats — and name. At the time, Bad Bunny was bagging groceries in Puerto Rico, trying to make ends meet while testing beats in the studio. Assad, who launched Rimas in 2014 as “the first one-stop shop created in the post-streaming era,” developed a combination of methodical data mining, disruptive marketing and a focus on streaming that turned out to be combustible when married with Bad Bunny’s singular approach to music.
“I’m proud to learn every day from Bunny,” says Assad. “Listening to his creative process and seeing the extent he is willing to go to bring his ideas to life and then working with him to make them happen.”
Case in point: Bad Bunny’s now fabled concert stunt where he stands on a small island with a palm tree that flies over audiences. The stunt has its roots in a 2018 show at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Two weeks out, Assad asked production manager Roly Garbalosa to make Bad Bunny fly. Navigating a permit process that typically takes two months in just 10 days would be expensive — and the cost would have to come out of management’s pocket. “But Noah didn’t blink,” recalls Garbalosa. That night, Bad Bunny flew. That said, adds Garbalosa, “Bunny doesn’t depend on the technical aspects. His show isn’t a technical show; it’s a feeling show. And 90% of that is him. The rest is his crew. He has worked with the same crew from the beginning.”
Since his breakout, Bad Bunny has largely retained the same team, including his management, label and publicist — “who always remind him who he really is and where he comes from,” says Assad. “He learned very early on that his happiness and being true to himself were the most important factors for his well-being, regardless of how or what things have changed.”
In Latin America, Assad continues to do business with the same local promoters that supported Bad Bunny from the onset, like Westwood Entertainment in Mexico and Bizarro in Chile. “Noah has a code of honor,” says Fede Lauria, who booked Bad Bunny’s first Latin American tour several years back and promoted his two Buenos Aires shows in November, where he sold 90,000 tickets within a half hour of going on sale. “We could have easily sold 900,000; there were over 1 million people in digital line to buy tickets.”
But, for his stadium tour, Bad Bunny insisted on two key things: no more than two shows per city, both stateside and abroad, so as not to give preferential treatment to one over another; and presenting the same show in every venue in every country.
That’s easier said than done. U.S. shows gross far more than those in Latin America because ticket prices are higher. Plus, in Latin America, the cost of long-distance air travel (versus using trucks) is higher, and replicating a complex tour in venues that often lack the appropriate technology means added costs and less revenue both for artist and promoter. Bad Bunny had to use a 747 cargo jet to carry over 100 tons of equipment, a charter jet for his 130-plus crew members and a private jet for himself and his immediate, five- to six-person entourage. “I haven’t come across another artist that invests so heavily in his career,” says Cárdenas. “Those three planes — he’s paying for them.”
Today, as he swirls his wine, Bad Bunny is fully aware of how that investment has paid off. “I’d say I’m at a point in my life where I feel most centered, most clear in who I am, and who I am as it relates to the music industry,” he says. That was evident throughout the whirlwind of this tour, when Billboard caught up with him twice: after playing Yankee Stadium, at Manhattan restaurant The Modern, and near the beginning of his South American tour, after he played Estadio Vélez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires, at the club Uptown.
New York, Aug. 29
Last night, you played the second of two sold-out Yankee Stadium dates. How did you feel?
Last night is one of the times I’ve felt biggest in my entire career. Maybe it was receiving [the MTV Video Music Awards’ artist of the year honor] during a show — it was different, and it was in the U.S.! The award was American; the place was the most American place you can think of, Yankee Stadium; and the Yankees are such an iconic and demanding team they wanted me to shave before the show, but I said no. (He’s joking.) I felt big onstage, the moment felt big, and there’s few moments that, even though they’re big, feel bien grande [so big].
And also, New York is New York…
It’s a magic city. It’s the city where I’ve performed the most. When I started my career, I began singing in New York clubs — three, four shows per night — and that was every two months. They were little shows, but big at the same time, because playing in New York is a big deal. My first tour show was at the [United Palace in upper Manhattan]. Then Madison [Square Garden] and Barclays [Center in Brooklyn]. New York is a big inspiration in my career. The first time I came here was with my family, when I was around 12. The second time, I was 22, and I used that trip to reflect on my music and my career, and when I got back to Puerto Rico, the first thing I did was go into the studio and record “Diles.” And my life changed from that moment on.
Yankee Stadium must feel like playing five arenas at once. How do you focus?
I think it’s automatic. I don’t think. If I start to think about other things, I forget the songs. I can’t do two things at the same time. I don’t use a teleprompter; it makes me lose my concentration. The first and last time I used one was in Puerto Rico because I was performing after two years in pandemic, and it was a double-edged sword. It was helpful the first day; I used it a lot. But by the second day, it was just creating a dependency. Papi, I know this. Why am I looking over there when I know the song? I can’t think of anything else when I’m up there.
I was excited to see Romeo Santos perform with you at your show, especially because he was the first solo Latin act to sell out Yankee Stadium.
I felt that way, too. Papi, there’s another guy who played two Yankee Stadiums, and he did it in the same way I did, sticking to his genre, his culture, his bachata. He wasn’t a Dominican singing in English. I thought that was cabrón. Plus, I’ve always been a Romeo fan. He’s cool, con cojones.
Today, you broke another Billboard record. You tied with the Encanto soundtrack for most weeks at No. 1 in the past decade on the Billboard 200. What do you think of that?
Truly, I’m so surprised. I think it’s amazing that Encanto, a movie inspired by Latin culture, is the one that rompió cabrón [kicked ass]. Lin-Manuel [Miranda] did that. Sometimes we’re so involved in just music, and then a Disney movie comes along, a movie with music for kids, and it kicks ass. It’s surprising and interesting, and it pleases me a lot because it gives people another window into being successful through music. It’s not just reggaetón or pop; you can shine in other ways.
So, you love New York. What can you still do here without attracting a crowd?
Obviously, I don’t go to Times Square! We made time to go to Toñita’s, a little Puerto Rican bar in Brooklyn. They didn’t know I was coming, so no one reacted when I walked in. Now, coming out, that was the problem. Thing is, I wanted to be in Puerto Rico for the album release, but my team tricked me and I ended up in New York, working. (His publicist interjects: “Oh, that’s right. You were at the Met Gala.”) Since I couldn’t be in Puerto Rico, we went to Toñita’s, which is like being in a Puerto Rican dive. There’s a pool table, there’s no air conditioning. I felt like I was in Puerto Rico.
Do you remember that first time you came to New York at age 12?
It was my first trip outside Puerto Rico, and I cried when they told me we were coming here. My mom was all happy — she always dreamed of coming here on vacation and told us we were going to New York and Disneyland — and I said, “I’m not going anywhere! I’ll never leave Puerto Rico!” It was the first time I got on a plane. My mom took us to the local drugstore to buy comics to read on the flight and little lucha libre figurines. I put everything on the little tray table in front of me, and even then, when the plane took off, I started to cry.
Do your parents come to your shows?
They were here in New York. My mom dances, but then she cries. She dances, she cries.
Does she ever give you feedback?
No, no, no. I always thank the Lord that my parents aren’t into showbiz. They’re like me; they stay humble. My mom is always proud. She congratulates me: “¡Qué bonito te quedó!” [“Everything was so pretty!”] But she’s never critical. She’s always happy.
Making your parents proud is something we always strive for, isn’t it?
It’s the first thing. Once your parents are proud of you, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. Shouldn’t be that way, because not everyone is blessed with good parents.
Buenos Aires, Nov. 8
When we spoke in August, we were in New York and you had just played Yankee Stadium. Now we’re in Argentina. Do you feel any different?
Not really, but the feeling of being in Latin America, and in Argentina specifically, is special because I hadn’t come since 2018. Argentina has been crazy. My favorite show, perhaps in my entire life, was Saturday in Vélez [Nov. 5 at Buenos Aires’ Estadio Vélez Sarsfield]. Aside from Puerto Rico, which is something else, it was an incomparable feeling.
Why is that? New York was also very visceral, wasn’t it?
New York is New York and I love it. Plus, all Latin communities come together there, specifically boricuas and Dominicans, so it’s like family to me. But I’d forgotten how cabrón Argentina is. When I go onstage, I have a sort of ritual: I walk on and I don’t look at the fans. I just walk straight ahead with my little cooler, looking at the floor so I don’t trip; I put down the cooler; I sit down; I take a breath; and pop. That’s when I look out. And every time, it’s like being punched in the gut. I can do that 100 times, and the impact of looking at that sea of people always shakes me. And when I do that in Argentina, and the music starts and they start to sing along… I couldn’t hear myself. They were singing so loud.
It amazes me that your show is so long: over 40 songs. That’s a lot on you, especially because you’re alone up there the whole time. Why not make it shorter?
It could also be longer. There’s a lot of songs I don’t perform, like the songs from El Último Tour. But yeah, in terms of vocals, it’s me performing because I don’t have backup singers. The show is long because the hits pile up. I sing practically the entire Un Verano Sin Ti. I just get up there, I go out to have fun, and if the audience is with me, I could sing all night. Real.
Do you find that fans react to different songs in different places?
I think the reaction is similar, the passion is similar. They greet me with the same emotion I feel. Remember, at the end of the day, the majority of people who go see me are Latin. Yes, there are many other nationalities, but the majority are Latin. So it’s the same audience, spread around the world.
I confess I get scared seeing you fly over the stadium. Were you scared the first time?
Yeah. It scared me a lot! I’m scared of things like that. But for some reason, maybe because it’s my show, once I’m there, I’m in, and I do whatever I need to do. I focus on singing the song, living the song, and I see the fans below me and behind me and the emotion is super genuine and sublime, and I get excited as well. All these people who’ve been watching you all night, but from really far away, and suddenly they’re really close and all that reaction, that energy and singing that song just inebriates you. I forget I’m flying.
Back when the tour started out, was it stressful transitioning from arenas to stadiums in literally a few months?
I felt it was going to be a bit complicated, but I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. The El Último Tour del Mundo tour was very, very, very, very special because it was the first tour after the pandemic and the first tour after a flip. My career has had many flips, many points of inflection where I’m here (He gestures.) and then suddenly I’m there. So that tour was very, very cabrona, very euphoric. When I went to the stadiums, my only point of reference was the stadium shows in Puerto Rico [in December 2021]. Those two shows in Puerto Rico were hard, hard, hard. I aged three years, I swear. I enjoyed it in the end, but there was a lot of pressure. And I thought this tour would be the same, but from the very first show in Orlando, it has been so much fun. I generally don’t go out much, but on this tour — both in the U.S. and here — I’ve spent time with the crew and the dancers, we’ve gone out to dinner, it has been more chill. I’ve tried to really enjoy the moment.
Do you ever sit down and think about how to deal with the pressure?
I feel in control. I’ve been doing this five, six years, and I’ve been acquiring experience. Yes, six years is nothing. But we’re living in a digital era, where everybody can upload their music and if you explode, you explode, and suddenly, you’re huge with a single hit and you have no experience. You haven’t crashed against anything. I’d say I’ve acquired that experience little by little. I’ve been able to overcome and heal many things in my life, and now I feel that security. I’ve never felt as centered in both my life and my career. I’m clear on what I am and who I am in terms of the music industry.
And who are you?
Benito Martínez, el más hijueputa [the biggest motherf–ker]. (Laughs.) At the beginning, I didn’t even know how to behave, what to do. It’s like, “Wait a minute, cabrón. I’m famous, I have to act this way, I have to hide, I have to pretend.” But no. I’m me, and that’s that. This is me, and this is what I do — music, what I like — and that’s it. Sometimes I see people saying stuff: “He did this for that reason.” No. I do everything I do because I want to.
Has having a strong family background helped you remain grounded and true to yourself?
At the end of the day, it’s not about coming from money or having a humble background. It’s about whoever has a heart and has values and has empathy for others. But maybe it does have an influence. Coming from a barrio in Puerto Rico, from a working-class family; the fact that I wasn’t rich, that I had a job, that I had to work for minimum wage, that has an influence.
What will you be doing next year?
I’m taking a break. 2023 is for me, for my physical health, my emotional health to breathe, enjoy my achievements. We’re going to celebrate. Let’s go here, let’s go there, let’s go on the boat. I have a couple of sporadic commitments, and I’ll go to the studio, but there’s no pressure. Remember yourself, cabrón. You’ve worked your ass off.
You’ve done so much already. What’s on your bucket list?
I’m at a point where, no matter what happens, I’m not looking for anything to happen. For example, I wasn’t looking for a collab with Drake. It was very spontaneous. Now it’s different. Now everybody — the biggest artist you can think of — wants to collaborate with me.
I would say you’re the biggest artist I can think of…
And I collaborate with myself. I see collabs in a very different way, as something very special. For me, a collaboration is almost like, I don’t want to sound like an a–hole, but it’s almost like having sex with someone. Making a song is a serious matter. You’re saying things, and you’re with someone, and it’s not going to go away. It’s there forever; it’s not like pressing “delete” if you change your mind. At the end of the day, collaborating with Drake, or whoever, is as special as a collab with Buscabulla, or Chencho, or Rauw [Alejandro], or Jhayco. Each has a specific moment and a specific feeling.
The bigger you get, the more you collaborate with artists outside the box, not just with those who will give you more hits with the algorithm.
Mano, that’s what the music industry has become: “Let’s collaborate with so-and-so because they have a ton of numbers; we put them together with mine and poof. We’re not doing well in Brazil, so let me remix the hottest artist in Brazil so my numbers there go up.” That doesn’t interest me. I’m not experimenting or forcing things in order to get streams. If there are 300 people in India who listen to me, they do it because they like my reggaetón, and they like my trap, and they like the music I make doing what I do. It’s not that I made a song with a Hindu artist to be played in India.
When you first started, how big did you dream of becoming?
I don’t know how this is going to sound; maybe people will say, “Oh, this cabrón is already talking sh-t, he’s not being truthful.” But I never dreamed I wanted to be the biggest one or No. 1. I simply wanted to make it. Why? Because I love what I do. I’ve been doing rhythms since I was 13 years old, writing, singing songs in my head. I never said I want to be the biggest or the best or the richest. I did it because I loved it, and my only dream was to be able to make a living out of it.
And that’s what happened. The first time I saw people connect with my songs, that was big. The first time I sang in front of 50, 60, 90 people, I felt big. I was happy. So these stadiums, I enjoy them in the same way I enjoyed singing in Mayagüez for 100 people, in Santurce for 70. I swear to you, if I had to live my life singing for 100 people every weekend, I would have been perfectly happy with that. Real.
This story will appear in the Dec. 10, 2022, issue of Billboard.