“That guy’s a superstar,” NY-based creative Pratap Almaraj thought as he saw a younger Ozuna lip-synch and prance around the New York set of the “El Farsante” video with Romeo Santos in 2018. Almaraj, a lighting assistant on that project, knew absolutely nothing about Ozuna at the time, but saw enough that week to fondly recall him as a natural talent years later. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know who Ozuna is now. The most popular Afro-Latino reggaetonero of the decade is just one of two urbano artists the Chicano bartender pouring me champagne in Las Vegas knows. He’s not a fan of the genre, but scoffs when I get to the Puerto Rican-Dominican artist’s name on my floor-length scroll. “Everybody loves Ozuna,” he professes.
Three albums and about half a decade into the big leagues, Ozuna is perhaps the most aware that – as can be said for just about everyone else – that’s just not the case. At some point between the Latin Grammys and the release of Nibiru, an exhausted yet elated Juan Carlos Ozuna Rosado sits beside me in holiday red slippers and reflects on 2019. “People sometimes think that because we’re famous, we’re not human. It’s been a year of a lot of experiences, a lot of learning,” he says before pivoting to his usual positive self. “Todo ha sido para bien – the good and the bad.”
The Puerto Rican-Dominican artist first announced Nibiru in November of 2018. A little over a year later, he explains that the combination of elaborate production in video and sound alike meant an earlier release would have felt rushed. “I wasn’t satisfied at the time,” he says. “Nor in April, May or August. Plus, God’s timing is perfect, it can’t be questioned,” he declares.
Nibiru, though late, comes right on time – on the brink of a new decade brimming with growth opportunities for urbano. In an intermediate-level collection of trial and error puzzle pieces, Ozuna’s only fallacy is not delving even deeper into the unknown, weird, or both. The 27-year-old’s junior project is muffled in vision, but the artist statement that lives between its lines is clear: Ozuna is committed to evolving. He presents us with a self-aware album that strains itself as it reaches for the future, refreshes the classic qualities that made him a standout in the past and relishes in the growth pains of the present. Rather fittingly, Nibiru – aside from being a term used for a non-existing planet – refers to a point of transition. With four Guinness World Records, a dozen Billboard Latin Music Awards and many crowd-arousing Latin Grammys performances yet somehow no gramophones to his name, life has all but audibly told the San Juan-native that this is what he’s meant to do in life, but he – like most 20-something year olds – is still treading the waters of self-discovery.
Never coy about his faith in conversation, Ozuna subtly lets that part of himself bleed into his work sporadically throughout this album, and overtly on “Que Pena” – the most personal, peeled back fixture on the LP and perhaps his current discography as a whole. “I can mention [God] but it’s always with the respect of not being neither here nor there because the bible says he’ll [spew the lukewarm out if his mouth],” Ozuna explains. “You need to know your position, so it’s always with that respect, and knowing that maybe I’m in a corner that perhaps doesn’t belong to me.”
Maybe God will switch life path gears on him in the future, he considers. For now, he’ll keep letting his tinta and thoughts bleed through on the track. “The bad wants to reach me but God protects me with his mantle//They want to see me with nothing, destroy my dream [and] everything I’ve fought for,” he sings at one point. “Al problema siempre pongo la cara,” he states at another. The album closer, “Qué Pena,” was the first song he wrote for the album, and one he says has no connection to the tension surrounding the extortion case he was victim to in 2017. The singer is careful not to touch on that, nor Kevin Fret’s unresolved murder in 2019. “It’s just about experiences… life experiences,” he says before taking a sip of ice water.
“It’s not about fame, it’s about enjoying every moment – family, your loved ones. Y dar el todo por el todo in everything you do – movies, work, whatever it is. Disfruta cada momento.”
In the past, Ozuna has been known for sweat-wicking, single-saluting hymns. That hasn’t particularly changed, nor will it. Though it doesn’t feature divine dembow bops like his take on Kiko El Crazy’s “Baje Con Trenzas,” Nibiru has ballad-adjacent seductores, reggaeton romantico, and even reggae lite. That “dile que tu me quieres, no quiere enamorarse” flavor is still very much the one, he confirms. For him, evolving is about balance — incorporating the new, returning to the classic, and finding the right combination of the two to appease the public.
It’s in “Fuego,” the final addition to the tracklist and his current favorite, where Ozuna feels most at home. Though not a particular standout of the batch, its simplicity in production and lyrical rumination on anything and everything but love, recalls the genre’s, and artist’s foundation. Meanwhile, in “Temporal,” a smooth reggae track featuring Willy Rodríguez from Cultura Profética – a pioneering Puerto Rican reggae group who just released a beautiful, timely collection of their own – Ozuna surprises music lovers as he digs into his roots with a longing ode to a fleeting romance meant to be everything but. Ozuna’s band came up with the arrangement, Alex Killer hopped on production, the sound reminded him of childhood staples, he knew he had to reach out to Willy, and the rest is history. It’s in moments like these that a cure for monotony can bloom.
Collaborations, he rightfully notes, have and continue to be a key part of modern-day urbano’s prominence (think “China,” “Con Calma” and “Tusa”). Yet, as evidenced in solo-tracks like “Siguelo Bailando” and “Unica” on Odisea and Aura respectively, it’s in solo moments that Ozuna really shines. A testament to his talent. Still, in true to form style, he tapped a few gents to get a seat at the table. Though soirees with English-language hip-hop artists like Swae Lee and Snoop Dogg reach for world domination and radio play, it’s in unforced moments like his collab with Sech where we’re reminded of why Ozuna is a global sensation. Unlike Snoop Dogg’s awkward, spoken-sung inclusion on “Patek,” Sech and Ozuna exert natural synergy on the most memorable discotheque-prime song on Nibiru, “Yo Tengo Una Gata,” produced by Panamanian hit-flinging producer Dimelo Flow. Ozuna laughs coyly recalling the song’s core and says “es una letra bien fuerte… for an older audience.”
In April, Ozuna told Billboard he looked forward to a couple of things in 2019 – working on this album at home, and seeing more Latin music and art go mainstream. Both came to fruition. “Eres Top,” which features a Diddy appearance and sample of his 2002 hit “I Need a Girl (Part 2),” is one he fondly remembers recording en casa. An upcoming behind the scenes video will show what makes that one particularly special to him. “I usually record at hotels, on tour and then take everything to the studio and mix and all that, but this album is personal and made at home,” he says. He took his time with it, and made it his primary goal to savor the process. “La vida se trata de eso,” he says. “It’s not about fame, it’s about enjoying every moment – family, your loved ones. Y dar el todo por el todo in everything you do – movies, work, whatever it is. Disfruta cada momento.”
As for how the next generation can assure our music, and this particular riddim, continues to soar? The father of two advises originality, and staying true to your essence. “I could like, for example, malianteo and heavy stuff but maybe that’s not the right fit, not what my public likes. Your sound is always going to have a touch of what’s already been done,” he says, “but always look for your own sound and a way to please the audience in a new way.”
Over the last year and a half, Ozuna has worked on building a universe of his own, in both his personal life and this long-awaited album. Though evolving, he makes it clear that he hasn’t changed. “There are people who may see [me] differently, pero siempre siendo el mismo,” he utters. A lot has changed – his malleability, madurez musical and priorities, for starters – but a few things remain: “same circle, same hunger, same person.”
In Ozuna’s world – which he invited listeners to through the songs’ cinematic pairings directed by Colin Tilley (J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Selena Gomez) – and this one, his only competition and fear is losing his focus on faith and family on the climb. When asked if he thinks all of this is his life’s calling – a question every human, but especially Christians, grapple with at more than one point or another in life – he says “no” and pauses. “Ósea, no te podria decir… I can’t predict the future but if it is – let it be.”
Nibiru is available now.