From Justin Bieber's "Sorry" to Jack Ü's entire oeuvre, reggaeton's definitive dembow beat has taken over American charts in the past year. However, one person who's preceded the hype is Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin, who's had his sights set stateside for a second. Determined to bring the distinctive Latin genre back into American cultural consciousness, but in a way that's far divorced from the Daddy Yankee "Gasolina" days, Balvin has been compared with Drake, as a new breed of sensitive superstar.
Known for his moody, slowed-down take on the notoriously maximalist dance genre, Balvin's desire to transcend international pop boundaries seems to finally be paying off via collaborations with Justin Bieber, Major Lazer and Pharrell (who he even got to sing in Spanish), as well as a string of non-English video hits and a global campaign with Buchanan's Scotch Whiskey. In the wake of his international efforts, we spoke with him about everything from revamping the genre for everybody via a more "grown up" sound to cultural appropriation to, of course, his feelings about Donald Trump.
You're often cited as the face of this new generation of reggaeton. What differentiates you from the first wave and how is the second wave trying to revamp the genre for Americans who, admittedly, have a pretty limited knowledge of the genre?
I'm trying to show the world my music, [and show them] that I'm really making worldwide music. I'm not just making reggaeton, just for the reggaeton listeners -- I'm making reggaeton for the whole world -- and that's what's going on right now. Besides that, we are inviting these top artists, worldwide artists, and bringing them to our wor -- like having Pharrell [Williams] singing in Spanish instead of singing in English [on "Safari"]. We really feel so proud and comfortable to be Latinos...and just making a new movement in Spanish for the whole world. [Plus] the lyrics are more grown up.
What kind of lyrical subjects are you tackling that are more "grown up"?
Well, you know I think the lyrics, they used to get a little bit vulgar or they were super rated R. And now, the lyrics are just for everybody. Your grandmother can listen to it and the little girls too and the kids, and no one is not going to feel like awkward or weird, because there's a bad word or a bad message. I think it's super family-friendly.
Speaking of accessibility, to make yourself more approachable for an international audience, do you think you will ever take a cue from Korean pop stars and start singing in English at some point?
No, I think there's no hurry for that. I really want to take these reggaeton and Spanish music moments the farthest I can. [But for now I want to be] making history and making a little statement with Spanish music around the world.
On that note, I have a lot of friends who grew up listening to reggaeton, and for them, a big issue lately has been a lot of white American and European producers taking this sound and making a lot of money off of it. What do you think about this?
Well, I don't hate for that. Some of them, they've got some good music going on right now with this reggaeton rhythm and reggaeton patterns. Like Drake and Rihanna and Justin Bieber with "Sorry." I think it's positive. I think it's really positive. I don't hate. It's all about love, and as long as it's positive for the world, to provide with nice music, it feels good.
In that sense, would you ever collaborate with Diplo or something on a track?
Yeah, I've already worked with Diplo with the Latino remix of ["Sorry"] that we worked on with Justin Bieber.
So what other moves are you trying to make to break into the American market other than connecting with Justin?
The new single right now ["Safari"] is with Pharrell Williams, and it's going really, really amazing. It's been less than a month and now is number one in Italy and going everywhere. It's the first time that a non-English video is number one in the States with sales on iTunes, so that's really a new statement. The first time. It's really amazing. That's what we're doing right now. We're representing a culture.
I also know that earlier this year, you canceled a performance at Miss USA because of Trump's comments about Latinos. If he wins, do you think that will change your desire to work in the American market? Will it make you more vocal?
[I'm not going to let anyone stop me from] playing my truth out. I'm the only one who got here myself. That's everything that matters right now.