Karol G kept things G-rated for the majority of her adult life. A few days before the release of the 26-year-old’s debut album, she finally felt like she could reveal her true self to the world. In late October, the Colombian musician took to her Instagram, where she has 3.5 million followers, to post a picture of herself topless in a bathtub wearing only a tiny black bikini bottom. “The hardest part of any process is learning to love yourself more than anyone. From that love comes confidence and success,” read her caption on the pic, which racked up more than 350,000 likes.
“My phone exploded,” says the Latin star, lying on a white rug at a recording studio in North Miami. “Everyone” — including her family, management and label — “was in a tizzy over that photo. But I didn’t take it down.” It’s a far cry from where she was just a year ago, when she considered the idea of becoming a bit more risqué, like Nicki Minaj, a no-no. “A lot of kids follow me,” she told Billboard at the time, blushing. “I have to be careful.”
But times have changed. Alongside Latin artists like Becky G and Natti Natasha, the Medellín native (born Carolina Giraldo) is tapping into her sexuality as she pursues mainstream success — a counter to the male-driven dominance in Latin music. The approach is working: The video for the trap-inspired “Ahora Me Llama,” featuring rapper Bad Bunny, has been viewed over 500 million times on YouTube, while the single, her third on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, rose to become her first top 10 with help from a remix featuring Migos’ Quavo. (Shakira was the only woman in a lead role to reach the top 10 of the Hot Latin Songs chart until Becky G, Natasha and Karol G reached that frame starting in October.)
“If you look at the ‘Casi Nada’ video, I’m, like, a good girl,” she says, referring to an older song and its March 2016 visual where she’s all smiles, clutching a puppy while brushing off the paparazzi. “Every day, I feel I can do more things — not as a character but as myself.”
Describing her sound as “urban pop,” Karol G started in music 12 years ago, when she first appeared, at age 14, as a contestant on Colombia’s X Factor. Her songs then were decidedly pop. In the years that followed, she put out one-off singles and discovered the burgeoning reggaetón scene in her native Medellín, collaborating with local acts and signing with Universal Latin in January 2016. The pivot to urban and a confident, powerful voice on the cusp of crossover stardom is evident on her debut album, Unstoppable, which was released Oct. 27. The 13-track set features “Hello,” which spawned a video (with over 112 million views on YouTube) where she picks up featured act Ozuna, the Latin reggaetón star, at a club and the next day sabotages his wedding.
Many of the songs on Unstoppable stem from a breakup, although Karol G won’t disclose much about her ex except that he’s not in the music industry. (“Breaking up was the best thing that could have happened to me in order to [make] this album,” she says.) The reaction from fans — she estimates that 70 percent are women — to her edgier look and more personal songs has been mixed, but Karol G considers all feedback a win. “To have a woman follow you, buy a ticket and sing your songs? That’s really my mission with this project.”
J Balvin, who recently tapped Beyoncé for a remix to his smash crossover hit “Mi Gente,” sees Karol G’s progression to the front lines in a male-dominated field as a testament to her talents. “Karol is an example of discipline, self-improvement, of always moving forward,” says Balvin, who publicly endorsed her music early in her career and helped introduce her to producers and fellow artists. “She’s always dreamed about music, and now it’s a reality. She represents new blood among female artists, and she’s an inspiration to all those who dream of doing this.”
The growing presence of women in Latin urban pop music contrasts with when Karol G was getting her start and women were mostly absent for many reasons, including the sexualized content of male-driven material. She’s aware that the barriers to success are greater in a male-dominated genre, and she’s ready to address them. “I do feel [that], hey, I’m a woman, and I’m going to bring the delicate part, the feminine part, the sexy part that’s missing.”
Through her vivid visuals and evocative sound, Karol G realizes that with the growing presence of Latin artists in the top 40, the lane is open for women to level the playing field in Latin music. “It’s time,” she says. “There’s a strong wave of songs by women. Even if the songs are collabs, women have the intro and the chorus, which is what people can sing. We’re getting the credibility, the spaces in the award shows, and people want to hear our point of view. This can only get bigger.”
Latin’s Fiercer Sex
After a sizzling performance in October at the Latin AMAs (which she also hosted), the 20-year-old got her first top five on Hot Latin Songs with the racy “Mayores” (Sony Music Latin), a song about liking older men, featuring Bad Bunny. “I wanted people to talk,” she tells Billboard. “And I wanted people to see I am growing. I am a woman now.”
The Dominican reggaetón/pop singer, 30, spent time on the top 10 of Hot Latin Songs in 2012 with Don Omar’s “Dutty Love,” and is signed to his Orfanto Music Group imprint. She recently returned with “Criminal,” a sultry track featuring Ozuna, whose video has nearly 500 million views on YouTube.
?At just 14 years old, Trevejo got her start as a social media star — she has 4.7 million followers on her Instagram account — before signing with UMLE imprint In-Tu-Linea. Her debut single, “Luna Llena,” a danceable pop track with a reggaetón beat, entered Hot Latin Songs at No. 27.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of Billboard.