I realized I was a first-class passenger on the J Balvin hype train when I watched the video for “Ay Vamos,” a cut from 2014’s La Familia B Sides. In the clip, Balvin prances around a pristine, all-white apartment in Hood By Air gear, exuding next level reggaetonero swag. Something clicked: this ugly-cute blanquito from Medellín wasn’t just another cookie-cutter reggaeton artist; he seemed savvier, more clear of his creative vision and career potential.
Now, Balvin’s hip-hop sensibility is the linchpin of his image. We’ve seen him link with Dominican MC Fuego for “35 Pa Las 12,” and he’s tapped Neptunes mastermind Pharrell Williams to co-produce his new album, Energía, which dropped today. It’s been a two-year ride on the hype train, but one well worth the journey; Energía is an exuberant, impeccably produced record, full of twists and turns we aren’t often offered in the Latino music industry. Peppered with acoustic ballads, pop dancehall bangers, and Drake-like rap-singing, the eclecticism of Energía is an achievement itself, since the industry has been reticent to allow urbano artists to genre hop the way they do in the Anglo mainstream. And while that genre hopping could be a marketing strategy intended to maximize profit, it’s also a mark of versatility and reinvention that Balvin knows he will need to survive this industry in the long-term.
Energía’s multidimensional sound is certainly a milestone, but I can’t help but shake this feeling: Is Balvin just parroting the stylistic successes of U.S. artists like Justin Bieber and Drizzy himself? Is “Solitario” a blatant (but delicious) rip off of “One Dance”? Do I even care, since it’s tight and danceable as fuck? Whether or not the Colombian reggaetonero is biting those styles, it’s evidence of adaptability, something gringo listeners should watch out for, best captured in the mantra from “Ginza”: “Si necesita reggaeton, dale.”
So let’s board the hype train together and see where it takes us. Join me in my fandom as I break down the three themes of Energía. Stream the full album on Apple Music here.
Meeting the Object of Your Thirst in the Club
The first third of Balvin’s new record is primed for late night creeping – lonely boy R&B vibes at their finest. “Veneno” boasts a sinister, mutant trap beat that Balvin rides like a surfer, taking breaths and pauses to sprinkle in some real cute ad-libs (see: “chilling, chilling” and “positivo, positivo”). It’s almost too Fuego, but we’ll give Balvin a pass – he bodies it regardless.
Then there’s “Malvada,” the kind of he-said-she-said reggaeton you listen to when you’re about to meet the object of your thirst in the club. “Safari” is pretty much the soundtrack to a beach orgy with Pharrell, something I am not at all mad about. And last but not least, “Bobo” is going to be blasting from every bodega and Uptown Escalade this summer, while I try to get the “la, la, la” hook out of my and all my coworkers’ heads.
Reggaeton Romántico for Telenovelas
So, I’ll be real: the next third of Balvin’s record is a bit of a snooze, bubblegum reggaeton for telenovela soundtracks. The production remains immaculate, and it’s refreshing to hear some perreo designed with mainstream pop trends in mind, especially on “Primera Cita.” Daddy Yankee’s cameo on “Pierde los Modales” proves the king’s still got it, and it reminds us that reggaetoneros once snarled instead of singing.
Immaculate Pop Bangers
The last seven songs on Energía are some of the most crisp, effervescent pop songs we’ve heard from Balvin yet. “No Hay Título” threatens to be an unabashed, sappy coffeehouse ballad à la Bieber, if it weren’t for Balvin’s rockero past. I, for one, am excited to see the stadium light up with cell phones and teary-eyed teens when Balvin performs this live.
“Snapchat” is a welcome addition to the growing collection of pop songs about social media anxiety. “Ella me tira por la noche/me manda fotos por el celular,” Balvin croons. “Ese booty en 3-D baby.” Am I the only one visualizing Balvin dabbing after he recorded that line? Sure, the melody of Balvin singing “celular” might be a little too “Hotline Bling,” but it was about time we had an anthem dedicated to the app of the moment.
When I first heard “Solitario,” I started hyperventilating. As Remezcla’s resident Drake scholar, my love for “One Dance” is endless (yes, I know it’s a rip off of dancehall and UK funky, don’t @ me), and as another pop dancehall gem, “Solitario” is no different. Catch me drinking on rooftops and curving my haters to this song all summer.
Energía closes with “35 Pa Las 12,” a song that originally appeared on Fuego’s Fireboy Forever II. The quisqueyana in me can’t help but smile from ear to ear when I hear this; Fuego appearing on Balvin’s album is a huge co-sign for one of the most talented Dominican rappers in recent memory (*cues “We Made It”*). I’ll just be here twiddling my thumbs until we get a What A Time to Be Alive-style project from these two.