You hear that beat on “Querido Río?” It’s a subtle, almost swooshing sound that appears, disappears, then beats steady as Balvin sings, not raps, building to an emotional chorus that’s a major departure for a reggaetón icon.
Buried at No. 18 inside J Balvin’s monumental 24-track new album, Jose, “Querido Río (Dear Rio)” is a letter from Balvin to his then-unborn son Rio; the beat is Río’s heartbeat, recorded during an ultrasound.
“I had never cried so hard making a song,” Balvin tells Billboard during a conversation two days prior to the Sept. 10 release of Jose. “I had to take pauses between takes. I wrote it before Rio was born [this past June], but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
There are many things in Jose that go deep into its namesake’s DNA, beginning with “7 de Mayo,” Balvin’s birth date, where, to a moody, minor backdrop, he raps his life’s story in intricate detail, something he’s never done before in song.
“The album was made thinking about myself and what I like to do,” says Balvin. “When I realized I didn’t have to box myself into a concept, like I did with Colores, I said, ‘The concept is me.'”
And “me” is many things: Old-school reggaetón, hardcore rap, dance-infused tracks, ballads. This me pairs up with big stars like Ozuna and Yandel, newcomers like Tokischa and María Becerra, up and coming stars like Myke Towers and Jhay Cortez and a couple of mainstream acts like Khalid and Skrillex.
Overwhelmingly, Jose sounds real and often raw, very different from the sometimes overworked sound and aesthetic of Colores. And yet, it’s anything but basic. Instead, by getting personal, Balvin has managed to produce some of his most universal fare yet.
While navigating 24 tracks could be daunting, here are five starters, handpicked by Balvin himself.
1. F40: Balvin is not given to boastful tracks. In “F40,” which opens the album, he does it in unique fashion, inviting Puerto Rican icon Arcangel not to sing or rap with him, but to talk about what it means to be a legend. “It’s the first time I do a track like that. It has all that nostalgic old reggaetón sound in the beginning, and the slow parts, [emulating] when they would slow down the drum beat. It has a lot of nostalgia and a lot of character.”
2. “Una nota” feat. Sech and “Te acuerdas de mi” feat. Yandel: The two tracks go together because they are one and the same, in different versions. “First came ‘Una nota’ with Sech and I, and then we brought Yandel in and he continues the song. But he does it alone. I don’t sing in it. Yandel is very special to me, as an artist and as a person. He’s a very humble, very real person who’s had to win his battles. Everybody who deserves respect, should receive it.”
3. “Bebé qué bien te ves,” feat. Feid: “Sky already had this song pretty much done. I think it was for Feid’s album, but when I heard it in the studio, I loved it.” Feid had already recorded a version with Lenny Tavarez, who agreed to let Balvin take the song. “The fact that Feid is from Medellín and has always been part of the ‘family,’ made this the perfect moment to have a song together,” says Balvin. As for Tavarez, “there is a possibility of doing a remix,” he says.
4. “Billetes de 100,” featuring Myke Towers: The title itself speaks to the song’s street vibe. “People love this song; they love the attitude and strength it has,” says Balvin. “What I speak about in this song – money and the process and attitude you need to have to not let fear take over in this business — that’s something I’d never spoken about before. It’s a very definitive song, as is its interpretation. From the moment we wrote this song, we thought Myke was the perfect person for it. We sent it to him, and he’s a great rapper, so he did it quickly and smoothly. He didn’t even know a track was coming.”
5. “Si te atreves,” feat. Zion & Lennox : If you’ve heard past Balvin with Zion & Lennox collabs, you know this will be a fun, party track. “We’ve never had a miss when we record together,” says Balvin, deadpan. “Songs with them are guaranteed hits. That’s the perception. It’s like when I record with [Bad Bunny]. For me, Zion and Lennox were, are and will be always staples in reggaetón. They are inspired and they are very stable; they’re not a fad. And that voice of Lennox’s …that voice was born to make you dance, while Zion has this very melodious voice. It’s a very cool contrast.”