Wake up and smell the café con leche: your “most popular rapper” conversation is incomplete despite mentions of Drake, Post Malone, and Eminem. Seated at that table, alongside your American TMZ darlings, your billion-dollar-industry-bred pop phenoms, and your hip-hop mainstays are two unbothered Latino men, with rainbow-colored hair and acrylic nails. Their names are Bad Bunny and J Balvin. The year is 2019, and these are your pop stars.
In previous eras, Spicy Latinos™ came to you for validation. They had to feature alongside artists you knew about, or sing English versions of their songs, to infiltrate your market more comfortably. But now, your market is going to them. Artists searching for new hit-making formulas are flocking to the Ozunas and Daddy Yankees of the world. The seeker has become the sought. Just look at Drake, who sang Spanish to participate in Bad Bunny's smash, "Mia."
All of this begs the question: Are today's most popular hip-hop artists coming from Latin America?
Let's run some numbers.
Post Malone features in one video ("Congratulations") with over a billion views. Drake features in two ("Hotline Bling," "God's Plan"). Eminem's got two as well ("Love The Way You Lie," "Not Afraid"), both of which are nearly decade-old videos. Cardi B features in two ("Girls Like You," "Taki Taki"), and her first solo video, "I Like It," which passed 900 million this past spring, will soon bring her total to three. "I Like It" features Bad Bunny, who, after blowing up in 2017, has two billion-view videos already, and J Balvin, who has five. (The aforementioned Daddy Yankee and Ozuna have five and seven, respectively. Yankee also notably features on Despacito, its music video being the most viewed YouTube video of all time with over six billion).
So, if you're wondering whether J Balvin and Bad Bunny's new collaborative project, OASIS, is genuinely the "Latin Watch the Throne," please know that it is not—it is Watch the Throne. International artists have long been cast aside by American exceptionalism. Stars from other countries usually see qualifiers put on their title by American audiences (i.e., "Latin rapper," "Korean pop star"). These cultural identifiers can be informative but are often used with the subconscious intent to nichify, a practice which no longer makes sense in our globalized culture.
OASIS was released worldwide on June 28, and its first track, "Mojaita," has already surpassed five million streams on Spotify—five times the number of plays earned by the opening track of The Raconteurs' Help Us Stranger album, which is at present atop the Billboard 200 after being released on June 21. "Mojaita" begins apropos: "Bienvenido a Oasis." It's a patient, but hard-hitting Reggaeton jam featuring Bunny and Balvin trading bars and vocal excitement over Sky Rompiendo production.
"I'd say, J Balvin and Bad Bunny are bigger than Drake and Post Malone, when you look at things globally rather than purely through an American or Canadian lens," says Gary Suarez, a freelance music journalist who has been at the forefront of musica urbana coverage over the past two years. "At a minimum, they're quantifiably bigger once you factor in Latin American consumption worldwide. YouTube data proves it, Spotify data proves it. They're not given that credit because American pop and hip-hop suffer from myopia when it comes to Spanish-language music."
Suarez's unabashed Twitter presence has brought him several social media roles, among them being a lightning rod for hip-hop arguments. But perhaps his noblest calling is his recent undertaking as a champion of Latinx music coverage and a staunch fighter of conventional music media's inability to reckon with non-American pop phenomena. Among the publications that he's called out for such aforementioned myopia is this one. Last week, after DJBooth released its top 30 albums list, Suarez responded in kind: "Don't nobody there know Spanish?"
"On Twitter [and] at publications like Forbes and Vice, I've taken on a sort of evangelical role in urban Latin music journalism," Saurez says, adding, "My advocacy means I'll jab at whomever I damn well please in the interest of this music."
Meanwhile, Balvin and Bunny are unique figures in a new era of "this music," but they still passionately celebrate its past. On Bad Bunny's "La Romana," an ode to the Dominican Republic featuring dembow powerhouse El Alfa, he references Voltio and Calle 13 Residente's 2000s hit "Chulin Culin Chunfly" with the line "Ojalai que esta noche tu seas mi mai."
In tandem, Balvin never lacks for references to Latin legends. On "I Like It," one of the biggest songs of 2018, he begins his verse with the line "Cómo Celia Cruz, tengo el azucar," a reference to the Cuban Queen of Salsa's signature adlib.
Balvin brings these stylings to OASIS, collaborating with Enanitos Verdes frontman Mariano Cantero on "Un Peso," wherein he references the Argentine band's lasting hit, "Lamento Boliviano," in the closing line of his verse: "Y tu corazón idiota siempre me extrañará, baby." These references are not accessible to your average American listener; the Colombian superstar takes the Pusha-T IYKYK approach. Balvin dares to appeal less broadly at times, knowing that his slick, baritone vocals and melodious bangers will always be capable of making chart-toppers. He hasn't missed yet.
Where Balvin's demonstrates his cultural significance is in streams and views, Bad Bunny's relevance is vastly more sociopolitical. He called out reggaeton legend Don Omar for homophobia, as well as a salon in Spain that refused to service his signature painted nails. He also hangs out frequently with sResidente, who today plays the role of activist more regularly than a musician, and took President Donald Trump to task for his neglect of the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In a few short years, he's made the transition from an up-and-comer to a political figure that most artists spend their whole career developing into.
On OASIS, a less politically charged endeavor, Bad Bunny showcases the personality and the musicality that propelled his ascension to fame in the first place. The second track, "Yo Le Llego," is a call to Bunny's Latin trap wheelhouse, and his verse does not disappoint. He begins with a motherly falsetto exclamation of his full name ("Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio!") which he rhymes with "Me pongo Rolex como si fueran Casio." The record also features plenty of romantic laments, which Bunny has made a signature of in his career with smash hits like "Soy Peor" and "Amorfoda."
Neither artist is infallible, but they are figures with vast dimensionality, and that we acknowledge and celebrate their range in American discourse is a triumph. Typically, people of Latin descent see their heritage pigeonholed; even now, words like spicy and fiery are used to describe Latinx public figures, Latinx songs, and Latinx foods. The lazy, stereotypical word often serves as offensive in a similar vein to Angry Black and the Sassy Gay prefixes.
It feels obvious to say Latinx people are not always "fiery," but when a community becomes marginalized, their prevailing stereotypes become ingrained amongst an untrained majority. And Latinx people are not merely a marginalized group in present-day America; they are a historically marginalized group in a global context—in the legacies of colonialism, the genocide of Native Americans, and the Atlantic slave trade.
The children of these politically charged atrocities, born (and torn) from mixed identities, were left reclaiming and rebuilding their exploited lands, a process which continues to this day. To be Latinx is to be, in some way, in the margins. Latinx music, however, has never been and can never be marginalized; despite the odds, it regularly claims space in the global cultural landscape.
In realizing that content has globalized and markets have shifted, publications, including DJBooth, are giving international artists the thumbs-up. Americans who haven't already peeked behind the curtain take these stamps of approval as gold, but artists like Balvin and Bunny never really needed support.
These are two artists who have created the wave; they didn't ride it in. Even OASIS, as capitalistic as it is in theory, was born not from opportunism, but the natural power of artistic symbiosis. When interviewed by Angel Vera through Complex, Balvin spoke of his genuine excitement for learning of Bad Bunny: "I was like, 'Thank God this loco came out.' Because I was the only loco." They see each other as two peas in a pod; two rulebreakers who care about creation and honesty as much as they care about success.
Part of that honesty means celebrating where they came from—Balvin from Medellin and Bunny from Vega Baja. Their Latinx identity not only unites them with each other but an entire diaspora. On "Yo Le Llego," they shout out country after country: Chile, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela. They see it as part of their responsibility to positively represent and celebrate the marginalized communities that birthed them because they know how big their platform is; they know their stature, even if gringos don't.
OASIS is a study in stardom; it follows in the footsteps of hip-hop's biggest collaborative albums, as a project in which two rappers-slash-pop-stars collaborate at the height of their powers.
Next question: are either of them bigger than Ozuna?