J Balvin: how the Latin superstar is taking reggaeton across borders

Saeed Saeed takes a look at the skyrocketing global supremacy of the singer before his Abu Dhabi concert tomorrow

J Balvin, pictured at Coachella this year, will perform in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, September 5. AFP
J Balvin, pictured at Coachella this year, will perform in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, September 5. AFP

When J Balvin lands in Abu Dhabi for his performance on Thursday, chances are it will be in his own plane.

This is what phenomenal streaming numbers and the approval of Beyonce can get

you, which in the Colombian pop star’s case is reportedly a $4 million (Dh14.69m) Dassault Falcon 2000.

The private jet will likely depart for the capital from his European base of Sardinia. Balvin is renting a mansion on the Italian island over the summer (he also has other properties in his home city of Medellin and in the US), from where he can travel to his European shows.

This is not only impressive for an artist that dominated South American charts and is beginning to make inroads into the English-speaking market, but is another example of how reggaeton music is slowly challenging hip-hop for global music supremacy.

Balvin is the linchpin of that industry shift. No longer does a Latin artist have to change their style or sing in English to appeal to an international fan base.

Born in Medellin before spending his youth in the US, Balvin unapologetically sings in Spanish and the fans are seemingly ready to sing along.

Four of his music videos achieved more than a billion streams each, and last year, he pipped Drake to become the most streamed artist on Spotify.

That trend is only growing. Balvin, 34, is part of a cadre of pop stars, including fellow ­nationals Maluma and Carol G, as well as Puerto Rican Ozuna, making music from Latin America less a curiosity and more a mainstay of popular culture.

Over six albums, Balvin – born Jose Alvaro Balvin – developed a brand of reggaeton that stays true to the genre’s hip-shaking ethos, while melding the melodic nuances of western pop music, particularly modern R&B.

While it took him a good five years – and two ignored albums – to get going, Balvin eventually found success with his 2014 single 6 AM. A bouncy collaboration with Puerto Rican singer Farruko, the single is a fun romp in which Balvin recalls the blurry night before, reminiscent of a song version of the 2009 film The Hangover.

The track became his calling card in the US and Europe. It also set the scene for his 2016 album Energia, that become a big seller with its Pharrell Williams collaboration (Safari) and the chart topping Ginza.

Dressed in designer threads and often sporting colourful hairstyles, Balvin represents the latest development of reggaeton music.

Emerging from Puerto Rico’s underground music scene in the mid 1990s, the genre’s sound was honed from its fluid mixing of hip-hop and reggae rhythms with Spanish rapping and singing.

This led the medium to be hailed as the Latin brother to the US born hip-hop genre, with stars such as Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam hitting the charts with a steady stream of macho and testosterone-filled party tracks.

Balvin, on the other hand, is taking a more tempered and soulful approach to the genre. His music is not simply made to fill the club (which indeed it does); it is more about capturing a feeling.

“It’s about the vibes,” he said in a 2016 interview promoting Energia. Such an emotional approach, he says, allows the music to transcend borders. “Right now, we are breaking those barriers. People are really feeling it and starting to ask: ‘Who is this guy and why does he sound so familiar?’”

Such an approach resulted in tracks such as Sigo Extranandote and Bobo displaying a type of vulnerability rare in male reggaeton acts. Balvin is also upfront about his life off stage; in interviews he describes how fame has heightened his struggle with depression and anxiety. With his career set to rocket even higher, one hopes he has the right management beside him to keep him on an even keel.

When Abu Dhabi fans see Balvin perform at The Arena, they will witness an artist in his prime.

His performance will cap off an exhilarating summer when he became the first Latin solo act to headline Coachella in April (a year after Beyonce brought him on to the stage as her special guest), in addition to performing to more than 50,000 people at Morocco’s Mawazine in June. And if you don’t know the words to the songs, that does not matter. As long as you are moved by the music, Balvin will be satisfied.

“I know I have got a mission and that mission is to be inspiring,” he told The Guardian last month, before dropping his favourite line: “good vibes.”

J Balvin performs on Thursday, September 5, at The Arena, Yas Island, 6pm. Tickets from Dh190. More information on Abu Dhabi Showdown Week, which runs from Sunday, September 1 until Saturday. September 7, is available on www.adshowdownweek.ae

Updated: September 3, 2019 12:04 PM

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