The Grammy nominated artist is making Latinx music mainstream, while expanding what it can be.
Once again, Bad Bunny is breaking records. His latest album, Un Verano Sin Ti, is the first Spanish-language album to ever receive a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. The feat in and of itself is huge — acknowledging the sheer growth and dominance of Latin music in the American mainstream in the last decade, regardless of whether he wins Sunday night.
It’s a nomination well deserved, after what can only be described as a blockbuster year for the Latin trap artist. Bad Bunny kicked off 2022 wrapping up a stadium tour for his previous album, followed straightaway by launching Un Verano Sin Ti with a sold-out world tour. He then co-starred alongside Brad Pitt in Bullet Train, and won a Video Music Award, becoming the first non-English language performer to become Artist of the Year. He accepted his award moments after smooching a male and female dancer during a livestream performance of his song “Tití Me Preguntó” at Yankee Stadium.
“I always knew that I could become a huge artist without changing my culture, my slang, and my language,” he told the audience in Spanish. “I am Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, from Puerto Rico to the world.”
Generating more than 4 billion US streams across several platforms last year, Un Verano Sin Ti (A Summer Without You) was arguably the biggest album of the year. Globally, that’s true, too, according to Spotify. The ambitious album boasts 23 tracks, spanning electronic dance and reggaetón, dembow and indie pop. It’s banger, after banger, after banger. There’s a reason it catapulted Bad Bunny to global stardom after years of steady, genre-defying work: the vibes are immaculate. It feels like getting ready for a party on a hot August night, after spending all day toasting on the beach. You can feel it even if you don’t entirely understand what Bad Bunny’s singing about (depending on the song: heartbreak and partying, gender violence, or Puerto Rico’s political problems).
But the album wasn’t nominated for a Grammy because it has the right energy (although that’s certainly a part of it). Un Verano Sin Ti is a historic heavyweight — it refuses to pull punches or dumb itself down for English listeners. As Bad Bunny has declared in the past, he’s going to do whatever he wants. That goes for sticking to Spanish, as well as rejecting the misogyny and homophobia that’s rife within reggaetón and Latin trap. His unapologetic politics, sonically experimental approach to genre, and dedication to making music for Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans alone defied cultural norms. At first, it made him generationally divisive. Now, his music is popular internationally because he has playfully transgressed against the crutch of machismo and the burdens of the American imagination — in a way no other Latin artist has been able to achieve.
“These political and feminist narratives split him from the rest of the pack, making him a more palatable artist for global consumption because he’s not necessarily pigeonholed like all the other reggaetón artists,” said Carlos Chirinos, director of the NYU Music and Social Change Lab. “He stands out.”
Who is Bad Bunny, explained
Bad Bunny’s rise to stardom is folkloric in the way that most modern musicians these days are: he got his start on SoundCloud. Growing up in the projects in the Almirante Sur barrio of Vega Baja, Benito was very much a child of the late ’90s and early 2000s, witnessing the crossover of reggaetón into American markets courtesy of Daddy Yankee’s iconic “Gasolina” and the birth of Latin trap into the 2010s. Being in the periphery informed his fluid style, which had started to form by the time he started college at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, where he studied communications. He dropped “Diles” — the sexy trap track that grabbed the attention of record label Hear This Music — in 2016 while he bagged groceries at ECONO.
His first few songs and features, “Soy Peor,” “Te Boté (Remix),” and “I Like It” acquainted both Spanish and English-language audiences to his heady, slurred vocals. He racked up even more features, ditched his label, and finally released his debut album in 2018: X 100Pre (“Por Siempre” or “Forever”). It’s a bombastic entry in conversation with the rest of the diaspora, with tinges of hip hop, reggaetón, dembow, and even a little pop punk. (Latin trap, of course, is a direct progeny of Atlanta’s trap music scene.) X 100Pre’s raw melancholia superimposed over dreamy drone synths also flirts with tradition before spinning it on its head.
In doing so, Bad Bunny became perfectly positioned to be a trailblazer in Latin trap. Not only is his music offering an emotional and technical complexity to the genre, he successfully brings English-language artists (Diplo, Drake) into Spanish, instead of the other way around. It doesn’t hurt that Benito opts to sing about loneliness and centering female pleasure in a deeply relatable way that braggadocio alone couldn’t support. It makes for perfect Gen Z and young millennial bait.
Given Latin trap’s vulgar lyrics around sex and drugs, it’s not always easy, radio-friendly listening. Reggaetón, too, is still pretty sexual, but it’s softened a bit since moving out of the underground and into the international spotlight. Both genres, however, have treated women horribly with objectification, disdain, and sometimes even violence. (It’d be remiss to not mention the women reggaetón artists, like Ivy Queen, who challenged sexism and highlighted the contradictions within urbano music.)
But Bad Bunny is among the first men to embrace a more progressive approach in Latin trap. In X 100Pre, he’s rocking nail polish and crooning about how women belong to no one. Most of his songs remain sexual and explicit, but challenging to the norms present. His style of gender presentation and defiant music became a source of controversy within Latin media, making him especially controversial among older people. He didn’t start his career with such a feminist and quasi-queer perspective, but his growth is parallel with the political bubblings in Puerto Rico over the years.
“What we’re seeing is the evolution of an artist as he’s growing up with us,” said Vanessa Díaz, a Chicano/a studies professor at Loyola Marymount University. She’s currently teaching a class on Bad Bunny and political resistance in Puerto Rico. “What’s so appealing about him is his refusal to accommodate. It’s not as if he’s out there saying, ‘I’m an out queer man.’ He’s not identifying as such. But we are getting an openness, a flexibility, a fluidity. I don’t think that it’s about shock value. It’s actually about the refusal to be confined.”
Come 2019, Bad Bunny is much more active politically. He’s moved past broad, feel-good proclamations that American audiences tend to expect from musicians. At his core, Puerto Rico is what’s important to him. The island, post-Hurricane Maria, had become mired in another political scandal. Gov. Ricky Rosselló’s Telegram group chat leaked, revealing his disdain for hurricane victims and sparking protests across the island. Bad Bunny was one of the few Puerto Rican celebrities who were in the streets. He released a song with Residente and iLe — “Afilando Los Cuchillos” or “Sharpening The Knives” — calling for the governor’s resignation. Rosselló stepped down within 15 days. Soon after, Bad Bunny began speaking out against femicides and transphobia that plague Puerto Rico.
“There was a particular audience consuming this and it was divided along generational lines,” said Jorell Meléndez-Badillo, a Caribbean historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is penning an article for the Bad Bunny Enigma, an academic journal analyzing the star. “It’s really interesting how Bad Bunny became this global superstar while in conversation with things that were happening in the archipelago. He was basically making music for people in the archipelago, referencing things that only Puerto Ricans would understand.”
Then Bad Bunny does something absolutely phenomenal: drop three albums in a year. And not just any year. Just before lockdowns in early 2020, Benito released YHLQMDLG (A Spanish acronym for “I do whatever I want”). It’s a garage-y, nostalgic ode to early reggaetón and hip hop with powerhouse features from Daddy Yankee, Anuel AA, Arcángel, and more. In May, Bad Bunny followed up with Las que no iban a salir, a compilation album of unreleased songs as well as ones written during quarantine. Finally, he dropped El Último Tour Del Mundo, a Latin trap-rock baby.
The songs from YHLQMDLG and El Último Tour are stronger conceptually than his first album, reflecting that political and personal growth. “Yo Perreo Sola” — an anthem for women everywhere telling men to fuck off when they’re dancing — features Benito in drag with body prosthetics, to much acclaim and controversy. “Maldita Pobreza” chronicles the struggle of wanting to shower your lover with expensive gifts, but not being able to. El Último Tour became the first all-Spanish album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
“Bad Bunny is one of those phenomena that contributes to changing culture because it challenges stereotypes,” Chirinos, the NYU music professor, said. “It creates a body of work that’s genius in the way he raps, the way he sings. It’s also the simplicity of his music. His music is very elaborate in terms of production, his performance is very simple — that’s why people connect with it so much.”
The strategic brilliance of Un Verano Sin Ti
Everyone loves a summer album, and 2022’s Un Verano Sin Ti proves it on an international scale. Right as travel became a more viable option globally in early May, Bad Bunny drops Un Verano Sin Ti with immersive 360-degree visualizers on YouTube. The first track, “Moscow Mule,” opens with gulls cawing, atmospheric synths, and an undeniably tropical beat. You know instantly this album is going to be played on beaches everywhere.
From the infectious electronic mambo of “Después de la Playa” to the breathy bittersweetness and indie pop sensibilities of “Otro Atardecer,” there’s something for everyone. If you couldn’t gel with Bad Bunny before, it’d be hard to find something you couldn’t vibe with on the 23-track album. It bridged the generational gap that eluded him before. “You know, I was a bit resistant to Bad Bunny — I’m an old Latino man,” said Chirinos. “At the very beginning, I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t get this guy.’ I didn’t know why people were so crazy about him until I listened to Un Verano Sin Ti. It became my number one album last year by far. There are some songs that I think are some of the best songs not just on the album, but ever.”
The album, easily, is a love letter to the music of the Caribbean. It pulls from bachata, bomba, merengue, dembow, reggae, cumbia, and bossa nova with electricity. It features reggaetón greats like Tony Dize and Plan B’s Chencho Corleone while also advancing the next generation of Latinx music makers, like The Marías, Buscabulla, and Bomba Estereo. (Bad Bunny probably could have put more effort in featuring Afro-Latinos, given how heavy their influence is here.) The breadth of genre and interplay in Un Verano Sin Ti was sonically familiar globally — after all, who hasn’t felt the irresistible tug of bachata drums, begging you to dance?
“You can hear the Dominican Republic, the Lesser Antilles, and of course, Puerto Rico,” Meléndez-Badillo said. “Although he is paying a tribute or an homage to the Caribbean, particularly summers in the Caribbean, it’s a record that did not have a particular listening audience. That is why it made it such a huge deal when it came out.”
It’s a funny paradox: Un Verano Sin Ti is simultaneously Bad Bunny’s most global album and his most Puerto Rican. While the music clearly brings in influences from elsewhere that can attract listeners from around the globe, lyrically Bad Bunny is singing to the specifics of the Puerto Rican experience. In “Andrea,” he sings alongside Buscabulla’s Raquel Berríos about a woman who wants to live her life free from societal pressure. The album’s star song, though, is “El Apagón,” a lively EDM track where Benito champions the beauty of Puerto Rico and critiques the gentrification and regular blackouts happening on the island. “I don’t want to leave / let them go,” sings Gabriela Berlingeri (Benito’s partner) in Spanish. “This is my beach / this is my sun / this my land / this is me.”
Authenticity like that can’t be manufactured. The music video for “El Apagón” could have been a cute little dance number, but is instead a 22-minute documentary explaining the context behind the song. When he launched his sold-out world tour, Bad Bunny started in Puerto Rico with affordable tickets and streamed the first of three nights on public television. No matter where you were, it was a massive party.
“He is making music for the people of Puerto Rico, and if other people enjoy it, then wonderful,” Díaz, the professor teaching a course on Bad Bunny, said. “But the music is for them. And guess what? Other people have enjoyed it. It’s this really beautiful example of the fact that you can create for a particular people, you can create for your nation, you can create with this particular kind of purpose. You can deal with it or not. And everyone is dealing with it and loving it.”
The rise and rise of Latin music
Bad Bunny does not need the American Grammys. For all intents and purposes, he is already at the top of the charts, has a burgeoning film career, and moonlights as a WWE wrestler when he finds the time. His two tours last year combine for the highest gross earnings for an artist in a calendar year at a slick $435 million. And he’ll be headlining at Coachella this year. He will be fine whether or not he wins. But what Un Verano Sin Ti means for the future of music consumption cannot be ignored.
If Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” remix with Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee cracked open the nutshell of American markets, Un Verano Sin Ti might absolutely pulverize it. “Despacito” was the first Spanish-language song to be nominated for Song and Record of the Year in 2018, but lost to Bruno Mars on both counts. You might be thinking: Okay, who cares, the Latin Pop and Latin Urban categories are there, too. But language shouldn’t be siloed, when you can sing any song in any language. If Shakira sang “Hips Don’t Lie” in Spanish, she wouldn’t have been nominated for Best Pop Collaboration in the 00s. It’s historic that Bad Bunny’s album has the honor of going up against Beyoncé.
The nomination also signals a readiness and openness for American audiences to embrace non-English music. We’re already seeing this happen with Pharrell singing in Spanish and the proliferation of K-pop with BTS (although K-pop stars do tend to incorporate English). Bad Bunny sticking with Spanish is exciting, and indicative of a cultural shift. “We might start seeing other folks who are artists who don’t speak or don’t want to speak English in their music getting huge at this global level,” Díaz said. “He’s setting a completely new precedent that actually is going to change the trajectory of global music.”
According to data from music tracker Luminate, consumption of Latin music grew by 28 percent in 2022, and Bad Bunny’s responsible for the top four albums in the genre. That’s only expected to grow as Latinx populations grow in the next few decades, says Chirinos. Latin genres are spreading far and wide, with streaming only increasing the possibilities in genre fusion and exploration.
“Reggaetón is becoming, in a way, a dominant pop music format, or a format that many international artists would probably choose to use because it appeals to international audiences,” Chirinos said. “Streaming is opening the doors that were perhaps closed before in Latin America. Right now, one of the largest markets for streaming music consumption is Mexico. Another one is Brazil. And these are markets poised to grow. It’s an appealing idea for the music industry, looking at Latin America as well as Africa, as the emerging markets for music consumption. That’s where young people are being born.”
Latin music or culture can’t be ignored in a world where Bad Bunny is a superstar, which is true regardless of how the Grammys shake out. He’s an artist who’s helping to explode the reach of his genres, while simultaneously exploding what the genres have to offer. That kind of expansion, it can’t be denied.
“We can’t take that for granted or underestimate the long-term cultural value of the moment,” Díaz said. “All of these things create this really important cultural opening. On a Puerto Rican level, on an American level, on a global level.”