Few artists have made a bigger impact on Latin pop in recent years than José “J” Balvin. His steamy, insanely popular single “Ginza” – an anthemic love letter to reggaeton from 2016’s Energía– ushered in a new era for the originally Puerto Rico–spawned genre. The track earned the 31-year-old a Guinness World Record for the longest stay at Number One on the U.S. Hot Latin Songs charts, and while the honor may have come as a surprise to the Colombian singer, he had intentionally set out to raise the bar.
“Since the very moment we started making [Energía], the idea was to make a statement in Latin music,” Balvin tells Rolling Stone. His fourth studio LP has achieved an unprecedented level of exposure for a reggaeton release, resonating at trendy European resorts and sound-system block parties alike.
Before reggaeton infiltrated the U.S. mainstream, the hip-hop-infused, dembow-beat-driven genre was banned in its native Puerto Rico during the Nineties. As authorities actively confiscated cassettes from record stores under penalty obscenity codes, the style survived through underground gigs and bootlegs. Tourists discovered the outlawed riddims from albums like Tego Calderon’s El Abayarde and Don Omar’s The Last Don, thus helping to unleash reggaeton beyond the Caribbean. The genre skyrocketed thanks to maximalist, EDM-laden hits like Daddy Yankee’s 2004 track “Gasolina.”
Enter Balvin, a Medellin dweller with big dreams of revitalizing reggaeton. Since his teenage years, he had been taking cues from the aforementioned artists, but also indulging in a steady diet of American iconoclasts like Nirvana, Metallica and Seventies salsa mastermind Hector Lavoe. After scoring several huge hits with tracks from 2013’s La Familia and its companion B Sides album, he surprised fans in 2016 with a guitar rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and he often channels that aesthetic via funky-colored hairdos and vintage rock T-shirts that set him apart from others working in the style.
On Energía, instead of relying on the crass imagery that worked wonders for mid-Aughts reggaeton stars, Balvin gave the Caribbean genre a more elegant spin. The formula seems to be working: His latest venture, a sizzling collaboration with Pitbull and Camila Cabello entitled “Hey Ma” – featured on the soundtrack to the upcoming The Fate of the Furious – has racked up more than 10 million views in less than a week.
RS recently reached Balvin in L.A., where he was gearing up to headline Saturday and Sunday’s L Festival, to discuss his involvement in the Fast and the Furious franchise, how Kurt Cobain inspired his style and how he’s getting American artists like Pharrell Williams to sing in Spanish.
Did you ever think you’d land a Guinness World Record? No, not that one – it was extremely new to me. I always dreamt with music, but I didn’t have a Guinness World Record on my list.
You’ve said that as a mostly Spanish-language singer, you feel like “all eyes are on you,” in terms of the pressure of making music that transcends language barriers. Did you expect Energía to have that kind of crossover success? Yes, actually I did. Since the very moment we started making the album, that was the idea. I said to my team, “Guys, let’s do an album that’s gonna make a statement in Latin music.” And I think that’s what we did. We’re going to keep working and making more music to continue making that dream come true.
Dreams are the ones that really keep me moving all the time. That’s what drives me. The good thing about dreams is that they’re free, so the idea is to could come up with another track, and another one, and just keep them rolling.
Pharrell sings in Spanish on your song “Safari.” Does it surprise you to see American artists crossing over into Spanish-speaking territory? Absolutely, and that’s actually one of my biggest dreams. I want to keep making music and bringing in American artists – not only from the U.S., but from other places like Canada and so on – into our world [of Latin music]. I just want to make a statement, and I’m going to keep singing in Spanish.
“As long as I can take it really far in Spanish, then I’m going to make it.”
Your first all-English track, a version of “Hey Ma,” will drop next month. Yes, I just made the new official soundtrack for The Fate of the Furious. … I wasn’t planning it, and I think that with Spanish-language music we can still take things to another level. But when it comes to these types of opportunities, why not? It’s not that I’m closed to the idea, or that I don’t want to [sing in English] – I’m just not in a hurry. As long as I can take it really far in Spanish, then I’m going to make it. But if there are unplanned opportunities to take my work to English-speaking audiences, I’ll do that too.
How was it working with Pitbull on the track? It’s amazing because I started my first tour in the U.S. opening up for Pitbull, and now I’ve been given the opportunity to be on the same song as him. It just shows that dreams do come true. It’s all a process.
You have a Nirvana tattoo on your leg and your style often channels the alternative-rock aesthetic. Would you say you’re grunge at heart? The tattoo is on my knee, and absolutely, Kurt Cobain was one of my biggest inspirations when I started making music. There are a lot of things that I follow from Kurt. But I just want to be me. The [grunge] aesthetic is not something that I did intentionally to stand out. I like to mix things up, like Pharrell and Kanye and all these big trendsetters have done. I just put my own flavor and style into it.
You were an ambassador for this year’s New York Fashion Week. What was it like to dive into the fashion world? It was an honor because it was the first time that a Latino has been invited as a New York Fashion Week ambassador. Even Pharrell called and congratulated me for that, because he knows that I really love fashion. He’s been teaching me a lot, and that’s been amazing. I think it’s a good step for us as Latinos, because it’s not just me but it creates a new perception for the Latino representation. I don’t think those doors were closed [for Latinos] – it’s just that nobody tried reaching out before. So I’m really grateful that we’re going to keep opening new doors.
Do you plan to open up a clothing line down the road? I’m not in a hurry for that. I’d want to start being a creative director of a specific line, like Adidas, for example. If they called me up to collaborate on something, I would do it.
Are you still based in Medellin? Yes, I’m still based in Medellin, and hopefully I can stay there for the rest of my life. It keeps me real. I’m gonna be real everywhere I go, but I’m with my people, I’m connected to my roots – I’m in my country! I don’t need to live somewhere else. I respect the ones who make it and leave their home base, but I’m good in Colombia.