Just two weeks into 2020, música urbana’s biggest stars are already fully engaged in a battle for reggaetón dominance. Coming off a landmark year of global commercial wins, J Balvin unveiled his second straight color-themed single in a row, trading the ascetic purity of last year’s “Blanco” for the violaceous excess of “Morado.” Around the same time, an official Bad Boys For Life movie soundtrack reveal promised the imminent release of a remix of “Ritmo,” his Billboard Latin chart-topping Black Eyed Peas team-up, with none other than Jaden Smith. And with a star-studded new remix of DJ Snake’s “Loco Contigo” that scraps Tyga’s verse for fresh features by Natti Natasha, Ozuna and Sech, among others, he starts out the new decade in a pretty stellar position.
Yet none of Balvin’s formidable tracks of the moment packed quite the emotional impact and inherent sense of history-in-the-making of the reunion of Los Cangris. Largely estranged for over a decade-and-a-half following a devastating schism, the erstwhile duo of Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam made their reconciliation official with the release of “Muévelo,” a thumping reggaetón cut that overtly links their shared past with their respective contemporary successes as urbano soloists. As if getting the proverbial band back together wasn’t enough to make it a hit, their joint track interpolates Jamaican singer Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” a reggae smash that topped Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 singles chart back in 1995.
If hearing Daddy Yankee on a dancehall throwback tip has you feeling déjà vu, rest assured that’s a valid response. After all, “Muévelo” comes on the coattails of one of the biggest songs of his lengthy career, one that not coincidentally also relied heavily on a very familiar reggae cut. Borrowing liberally from Canadian act Snow’s “Informer,” his “Con Calma” dropped last January and swiftly proved a worldwide sensation, logging more than 1.6 billion YouTube views in its first year and, after Katy Perry jumped on a bilingual remix, peaking at No. 22 on the Hot 100.
Having overcome any concerns of a post-”Despacito” slump, Daddy Yankee now seems singularly if perversely fixated on recreating the magic of ubiquity dancehall reggae gems, possibly fueling a problematic trend in the process. He features prominently as part of a supergroup-level posse on Anuel AA’s catchy copycat maneuver “China,” which flipped Shaggy’s impish hit “It Wasn’t Me” into a splashy Latin pop banger that continues to thrive on the charts. On the solo side, he followed up “Con Calma” with “Que Tire Pa’ ‘Lante,” which samples the comparably less recognizable but still undeniably nostalgia-inducing Cutty Ranks classic “A Who Seh Me Dun.” Keen followers of the genre know that Ranks’ catalog has been fertile ground of late for Latin acts, as we learned when El Chombo’s goofy single “Dame La Cosita” topped Billboard Hot Latin Songs and reached the Hot 100 as well.
And now, mere days after “Muévelo,” we have Shakira and Anuel AA’s “Me Gusta,” the latest in the current dancehall reggaetón craze. Much like “China,” it opens with a distinct reworking of the Inner Circle single “Sweat (A La La La La Long),” which charted internationally in 1993 and peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 that year. But behind this superficially innocuous hit parade are a number of fundamentally toxic and potentially damaging consequences, including but not limited to undermining of música urbana’s rise from the regional to the mainstream. In short, these quick wins have a deeper negative impact.
Part of what drove the so-called Latin Explosion narrative around the millennium was the idea of Spanish-language music as novelty. A perpetuation of the biased views that anglo audiences had towards prior iterations like boogaloo, the successful Spanglish crossover bids of artists like Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias, and Ricky Martin were counterintuitively perceived as faddish or otherwise momentary, due to depart soon enough and make way for more conventional English-language pop stars. (For proof of this in action today, Google some of the reactions to Shakira’s 2020 Super Bowl halftime show announcement by those who assumed her career stopped sometime after 2006.) Indeed, when Justin Bieber hopped on “Despacito” and helped make it No. 1 across the planet, these sentiments of ephemerality arose once again, only to be thwarted again and again and again by quantifiable gains from Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Ozuna and others.
Though Latin music’s stateside naysayers wrong-headedly downplayed the bilingual remix as a 2010s trend with diminishing returns, there actually is a finite end to this dancehall throwback fad in música urbana. Simply put, while reggae has no shortage of incredible material for today’s producers to potentially mine for new interpolations, that genre suffers from the very same sort of mainstream mistreatment as reggaetón or Latin pop. Outside of the U.K., where dancehall has historically had some sort of foothold in the charts, the anglo-centered U.S. market has maddeningly limited its exposure. Thus, most Americans have only a handful of such singles they recognize on cue, formerly charting tracks like Sean Paul’s “Temperature” or Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote.” This regrettably state of affairs puts limitations on how much longer Daddy Yankee or Anuel AA or whomever else can keep depending on the prior globally known glories of Afro-Caribbean artists to trawl for new Latin hits.
Reggaetón has long owed a debt and, quite frankly, its very existence to dancehall reggae, thanks in no small part to Shabba Ranks’ “Dem Bow” riddim providing the foundation on which the genre blossomed and to this day depends upon. Yet more often than not, the predominantly Black innovators and pioneers who made the transition have been overlooked or undermined in favor of white or white-presenting Latinxs in the industry. After exploiting that work for so long, further plundering from reggaetón’s precursors comes off especially cannibalistic, keeping down those in the urbano community actively making non-derivative music.
As with DJ Mustard’s mid-2010s run of throwback novelties, Latin music’s self-sabotaging fetishization of dancehall reggae’s past cannot last forever. An exit strategy is needed sooner rather than later, lest we invite uncomplimentary comparisons to the Latin explosions of the past. If anything, a respectful way forward would be for high-profile artists like Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, and Anuel AA to connect credible with the genre’s present, teaming up formally with artists from Jamaica or others making exciting contemporary fusions in the broad and fruitful Afrobeats scene. Just as J Balvin and Bad Bunny made a good effort by partnering with Mr. Eazi and Legendury Beatz on Oasis, assuredly the genre elders fortunate enough to still be making hits could do the same.