J Balvin is on day eight post-recovery from COVID-19 when we speak in late January, a period he refers to as “six months of hell.” There’s a sleepiness in his eyes and a touch of raspiness in his voice. His hair, usually cropped close and dyed in rainbow hues and playful patterns, is now in its natural state, grown out on top in a tuft of lightly frosted curls. We meet over Zoom—him in Medellín with tropical foliage in the background, me in New York, a city the thirty-five-year-old reggaeton sensation has also called home since he moved there in his twenties and took odd jobs like dog walking and roofing to make ends meet.
Balvin spent much of the lockdown at his serenely minimalist, Japanese-inspired retreat in the mountains outside of Medellín, which he calls The Temple: “A house should be a place where you can rest your spirit. I’ve tried to create places that feed my soul, not my ego.” It’s an idyllic antidote to the otherwise hyper-hued warp-speed juggernaut that his career has become. “It’s inspired me in a lot of different ways,” he says of his time in quarantine, which forced him to stay put in his native Colombia. “I was like, either I go crazy or I have to be more creative and try to be moving all the time and thinking about music and thinking about ways to connect to the world. That really helps me a lot.”
In pre-pandemic times, Balvin, a.k.a. José Álvaro Osorio Balvín, could be found jetting around the world, playing sold-out shows like he did at Madison Square Garden in 2019, and making history as the first reggaeton act to play Coachella’s main stage as well as the first Lantinx headliner at Lollapalooza that same year. Balvin was the third top streaming artist of 2020, right behind Drake and his collaborator and fellow música urbana star Bad Bunny. His is a level of affluence and stratospheric stardom that entails front row seating at fashion week, private jet transportation, an enviable contemporary art collection, collaborations with Pharrell, Rosalía, and Cardi B, and, perhaps most emblematic of his breakthrough success in the US, a limited-edition signature J Balvin Meal at McDonald’s.
No matter the state of the world, if Spotify listening data is any barometer of the collective psyche, the majority of people are looking to escape through the kind of bombastic beats, rousing rhythms, and catchy choruses that Balvin serves up in quick succession. Although his career has seemingly exploded in the past few years, his deep and varied discography shows a prolific catalog that dates back to his first single release in 2006. His music, traditional Puerto Rican rhythms infused with pop, dancehall, hip-hop, and rap influences, is infectious, hip-swinging, head-bopping stuff. Where I live, in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Balvin’s songs blare out of car stereos and blast from stoop party boomboxes, and were a bright note in the soundtrack to a summer of discontent.
“It’s the sound of the new Latino generation; the youth,” says Balvin when asked why he thinks his music has so zealously captured people’s attention.
“The youth are like a virus . . . if you’re a dad and your kids are listening to reggaeton all the time, you’re going to catch it, same with your grandma. It’s going to keep growing, and I think it’s definitely just the beginning of a new history, and it makes me very happy that we made part of that history.”
History and legacy are of great importance to Balvin, who bows down to the genre’s pioneers such as Daddy Yankee, Wisin, Don Omar, and Tego Calderón. “There’s a lot of OGs out there, and there’s a lot of them that are still relevant and working and killing it,” he says. “So, they inspire me a lot to just keep working.” Breaking with tradition, Balvin sees himself and Bad Bunny as the misfits of the genre. “We were the weird ones, the different ones, with different colors in my hair every time. It’s the fact that we’re adding something new to it; we’re doing something that wasn’t happening before in the Latino market.”
Reverential to reggaeton’s roots while pushing its boundaries, his generation has not only crossed over into the mainstream but infiltrated—and now dominated—the US music market. Balvin and his compadres such as Bad Bunny are achieving dreams that people thought were impossible, he says. “Like, I have my own Jordans, or being at the Super Bowl, or being the most streamed artist on the planet. And, singing in Spanish—we want to cross over, but we want people to cross over to us, too. That’s the real thing we’re doing. I’m not doing music in English. I’m not saying I hate it, or I don’t respect it . . . but I just want to keep elevating the Spanish language around the world and bring another vibe.”
His relationship with the fashion and art worlds are another facet of his bricolage approach that further underscores his crossover appeal. “You know, rappers did this before, with the collabs with Murakami and things like that, but never in the Latino market . . . I was the first one who started working with KAWS on a chain, and with master Takashi Murakami doing the [Colores] album cover, and doing a lot of jewelry with Ben Baller . . . just trying to be creative and show different sides of this stereotype that we used to have as Latinos.”
Most recently, he joined the Givenchy family as the perfect ambassador for creative director Matthew Williams’ graphic printed shirts and deconstructed tailoring. “I love to collab,” he says. “One of my mentors is Pharrell Williams, so I think I got one of the greatest mentors I could have when it comes to cool things and collabs, and nice vibes, and spirituality, too.” I ask him about his impressive timepiece collection, which has been frothed over and ranked by fans online. “Let’s say I’m one of the few that doesn’t flex on this game,” he says with a laugh. “I love everything that is this lifestyle, because I’ve been dreaming of it ever since I was a kid. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t give me happiness. If I’m what I have, the day I don’t have it, so what? Who am I? I’m no one? The day I die, I want people to be like, ‘He was legit. He was around all these things that people dream of, but he never changed, he was just something beautiful.’”
His interest in clothes, in art, in cross-pollinating with other artists, belies ostentation and serves to create a culture beyond music, something Balvin mentions multiple times during our conversation. “It’s always been like that, since I was a kid,” he says. “I always wanted to impact and connect to people, not just through music. We can inspire this new generation to be more open-minded.” He cites hip-hop and Nirvana, whose songs were the first he learned on the guitar as a kid, as early influences. He even has a tattoo of Nirvana’s smiley face with x’d out eyes on his knee.
“Kurt Cobain was always one of my biggest inspirations in everything, in fashion—his fashion was the last thing, but it was amazing—in music, and the way he created a new, different type of generation in music. And at the time I didn’t even understand what he was saying, I didn’t know English, but I was just vibing to it,” he says.
Later on, Balvin got heavily into hip-hop and started rapping in Spanish. Again, it was the holistic nature of hip-hop culture, “as graffiti, as break dance . . .” that became a north star for Balvin.
Soon after, he discovered reggaeton, “and it just blew my mind,” he says. “Since then, I’ve been loving different types of vibes. Like, I love reggaeton, but I love trap music. Or I can do a ballad, a pop song, I don’t have a problem as long as I feel comfortable with what I’m bringing to the table. And that’s basically what I’m doing, just being me.”
Moments before our interview, Balvin’s label sent over two tracks from his forthcoming as-yet-untitled album, the follow up to 2020’s monster hit, Colores. These tracks feel a little more sensual and low-slung, I offer. “My last album was a color concept, and I had to be more closed creatively, because I was just focusing on a constant,” he says. “This album that we’re doing, I just want to show versatility and that we can surf in different waves.”
Indeed, while Balvin’s technicolor stylings—which extend to his music videos, album artwork, and cartoon-esque stage sets replete with giant bobble heads and kawaii characters—are bursting with the saccharine energy of a packet of Skittles, there’s a more somber and contemplative side to the artist that he’s begun to reveal lately, especially when it comes to his struggles with mental health.
In September last year, The Boy from Medellín, a documentary about Balvin directed by Matthew Heineman, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. It followed the singer during the week leading up to his sold-out homecoming stadium shows, which happened to come at a time of political turmoil with protesters filling the streets in an uprising against right-wing Colombian president Iván Duque.
Balvin appeared to be the only entertainer not canceling gigs at the time and received his first major backlash, most fervently on social media, drawing him to take a political stance in support of the protests—a bold move for a marquee name. The film also highlights Balvin’s ongoing dance with anxiety and depression. Sitting at a conference table with his business manager and two assistants, he discusses the impending sold-out show at Medellín stadium while writing his to-do list, which includes exercise, meditation (“make that double meditation so I don’t forget”) and seeing his parents.
In the candid scene, the singer reflects on a time before he had these coping mechanisms in place. “All my dreams . . .” he says, flipping through his notebook. “Ninety-nine percent have been accomplished.” His manager wonders why then, is he so nervous? “In Puerto Rico, I was in a bad state of mind,” he says, shaking his head. “Yesterday at the gym, I started to get that sensation again. And I thought, fuck, this shit is back.” He describes the feeling as “like you’re not there. Like you’re not in your body. Everything outside is OK, but not inside your mind. It’s hell for real. It’s a fear of fear. And only when you focus on the present, can you trick the brain.”
These days, Balvin gets up at the crack of dawn to meditate for twenty minutes, followed by an hour of cardio and an hour of weights. He doesn’t drink alcohol. His coffee is decaf. And for all the panache he put into his rendition of “I’m lovin’ it,” it’s hard to imagine a Big Mac (no pickles) with medium fries, ketchup, and an Oreo McFlurry passing his lips. “I’m just looking at ways I can elevate myself and my world,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes … like I bet me and you, being face-to-face, I have two million more mistakes than you for sure.” I counter that he’d be surprised. “I don’t know, I think I have more,” he responds with an eyebrows-raised smile. “The fact that I’m open about all these things is because I came to the world to be of service, to show the youth and teach them. Sometimes people think that depression is being sad and it’s not that. One thing is being sad, and depression is a chemical imbalance in your brain. Something that is more powerful than you, even if you have everything. What’s everything? Everything’s health. Everything’s inner peace.”
“When I was on my way up…you know, I still feel that I’m an up-and-coming artist every day,” he continues. “At that time all these artists had the perfect life—nothing [bad] happened, everything’s beautiful, you know: luxury, girls, guys, concerts, happiness, popping champagne bottles. Yeah, that’s nice, but they never showed that they were fragile, you know? I don’t feel weak when I talk about my weaknesses. That just makes me human.”
For someone already at the top of his game, it seems that chemical imbalance, that glitch in the matrix, has allowed him to foresee what could happen if the balloons burst, the colors fade, the seams start to fray, and the diamonds lose their luster. And so now, perhaps, J Balvin can just sit back and enjoy the flight.
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