With New Album ‘Vibras,’ J Balvin is Here to Transcend the Global Pop Paradigm

Lead Photo: Courtesy of Rogers & Cowan.
Courtesy of Rogers & Cowan.
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J Balvin refuses to absorb any notions of existing in a static state. Over the course of his short career, he’s made it his mission to flip the script on conventions for Spanish-speaking artists and rewrite this narrative for himself. Balvin has racked up a slew of now-familiar barrier-breaking accomplishments: he appeared at this year’s Coachella alongside Beyoncé (making him the first reggaetón artist to take the mainstage at the festival); he released the slow-whining, Afrobeats take “X (Equis)” with Nicky Jam, and had it reach number one on Billboard’s Latin Airplay Chart; and counted “Mi Gente” as the first Spanish-language track to reach the top spot on Spotify’s global charts. With these successes, Balvin has renounced limitations for Spanish-language artists quite simply by thriving.

These wins are not coincidental; instead, the parts fit together in the context of Balvin’s calculated design – a steady, transcendent defiance of expectations where Balvin has created his own paradigm. It’s a business model with an understanding of a vast cross-section of identities and intersections not previously recognized by the mainstream, one where Spanish-language and deconstructed Afro-Caribbean sounds exist at once. Vibras, showcasing lyrics almost exclusively in Spanish, demands not only respect for Balvin as a global pop artist, but also a reconsideration of what now constitutes dominant culture in the U.S. and the international music market.

Balvin describes his newest full-length work Vibras as a “world record,” going so far as to explicitly say that he “[doesn’t] even think of it as a reggaetón record.” Balvin’s bravado coexists in an industry where it’s still a rare feat for Latinx artists to excel and entertain the same visibility of their English-speaking counterparts. His dominant presence across streaming platforms demands a crowd-sourced visibility that disrupts the industry standard for market segmentation. It’s a stance that’s steadfast in its aspirations for cross-cultural amalgamations. Balvin is here to take up space, so it’s up to the industry follow his lead and try to keep up.

Courtesy of Rogers & Cowan
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The Colombian artist’s streak of hits leading up to the months-long Vibras rollout is an indication of his plan already fulfilled; his Latin trap feature alongside Bad Bunny on Cardi B’s boogaloo-sampling crowd favorite “I Like It” has already reached gold status. High-voltage “Machika” and dub horns-influenced “Ambiente” explore more deeply adjacent genres, diving into the underreported reggae, ModeUp, and bass soundsystem musical textures of Balvin’s home in Colombia. “Ahora” stays closest to Balvin’s reggaetón romántico format, a formula that’s yet to lose its edge, as proven by its music video racking up 108 million plays on YouTube.

While Vibras unsurprisingly calls on Medellín-rooted, long-time Balvin collaborator Sky Rompiendo El Bajo as co-producer of the record, a less obvious choice was to leverage the #reggaetónveteran expertise of Tainy, a Luny Tunes affiliate whose credits go all the way back to the days of Más Flow 2 and Más Flow: Los Benjamins. Tainy and Luny Tunes’ seminal work in the mid-2000s gained popularity for its masterful integration of samples from across the salsa, bachata, and merengue spectrum, cementing reggaetón as a force across the Latinx diaspora.

Vibras picks up on this aspiration where his predecessors left off, imagining a scale not limited to the traditional Latin music market, instead endeavoring to redefine the sound of global pop at large. When it comes to building on Luny Tunes’ legacy, “I want to do something different this time,” he assures. He hopes to accomplish this with the cinematic, experimental, and fluid integration of the dembow riddim, Afrobeats, 106 bpm moombahton, and deconstructed flamenco references. With features from Anitta, Rosalía, and Carla Morrison, Balvin welcomes a shift that’s more inclusive of women in música urbana. “Things are really changing, there’s a lot more women out there killing it,” he says, citing the careers of Becky G and Karol G.

The title track opens with a feature from Morrison, disrupting doubts of Vibras doing anything but keeping to Balvin’s promise of challenging his status as solely a reggaetón artist. The languid, dripping outro of the track wraps into the instantly recognizable melody of “Mi Gente” before launching into other experiments in pop urbano.

Take “Brillo,” a hypnotizing track anchored by Barcelona-based vocalist Rosalía, whose mission to“revolutionize flamenco” is articulated once again through intuitive hand claps and vocal takes that lend an airy precision in conversation with Balvin’s. “En Mí” and “Tu Verdad” opt for the slowed-down, minimalist pathway with beat structures inherent to Afrobeats, also approximating the blazing (though absolutely slept-on), efficiently saccharine plena takes from Panamá’s Akim and Sech.

Produced by “Ahora Dice” mastermind Chris Jeday and with a feature from Wisin y Yandel, “Peligrosa” grounds Vibras most closely to the Medellín ambiente for which Balvin is a principal exporter. With the uptempo beat and noticeable lack of reggaetón’s elemental snares, “Peligrosa” still manages to reference the genre more abstractly with staple “duro!” samples. As is now a signature of Balvin’s music, the track is a relatively family-friendly take on música urbana that favors such subtle references instead of a heavy-handed explicitness – though the “solo quiere perreo” refrain understandably makes an appearance. Balvin manages to acknowledge his place in dialogue with reggaetón’s canon, while not being bound to it.

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“Noches Pasadas” and “Cuando Tú Quieras” effortlessly showcase the boldly experimental evolution of Balvin’s sound. The seductive tracks employ off-kilter synths, pitched-up vocal stabs, and chime registers punctuating each number. These creations exemplify a well-earned point of leadership in the quiet evolution of the sound that fully showcases the glossy production resources at Balvin’s disposal, a distant cry from earlier FL-Studio powered days. Despite these departures, “Donde Estáras” holds closest to signature Balvin in his pop reggaetonero glory, while “No Es Justo” adds a guitar riff twist for a balada-esque, filtered dembow beat romantiqueo format featuring Zion y Lennox.

While Balvin intentionally strays from being labeled as solely a reggaetón artist, Vibras is perhaps the truest return to the philosophy that powers the genre he doesn’t want to be tied exclusively to. As scholar Petra Rivera-Rideau has put it, “the history of reggaetón is one of transformation.” Reggaetón is and always has stood at the intersection of a multitude of musical cultures by nature, spanning from dancehall to reggae en español to hip-hop and beyond. Vibras picks up on this legacy and does its part to extend and transform it, broadcasting a fluid, always-changing meeting place that’s a deconstruction and reconstruction of diasporas, samples, and identities.

As with previous albums predicting the massive success of Latin trap and Medellín-powered reggaetón inflections, Vibras elaborates on Balvin’s expertise of staying several steps ahead of trends, while also digging deeper into the rhythmic roots of what’s powered him forward as a leader in música urbana. His vision of reggaeton will always be distinct from the genre’s black Panamanian and Puerto Rican pioneers, and critics have pointed out that this new wave of marketable, light-skinned stars represents a shift away from the music’s roots and promise of rebellion. Either way, by moving beyond Latin market labels to produce a record that’s coded as global pop, Vibras opens Balvin up to infinite possibilities for collaborations, audiences, and opportunities for constant self-reinvention, ensuring a longevity that will endure for as long as he has the desire to lead the way.

J Balvin’s Vibras is out now on Universal Music Latino.