Nicky Jam Rises From the Ashes of Reggaeton’s Old School on ‘Fénix’

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With the opening of Nicky Jam’s first full-length album in 10 years, he steps out with a dramatic entrance to remind you exactly who he is and where he’s come from, should you have forgotten. “El Ganador” claims this space over a trap flow instead of the reggaetón beat that built the foundation of his career. While trap-en-español artists sometimes struggle to find their legs amidst an eagerness to be a part of the sound’s movement, Nicky Jam wastes no time in identifying himself as el fénix amidst the noise.

From enduring substance abuse in his family growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to battling depression, to facing jail time, right from the start of the ambitious 26-track album “El Ganador” offers more than a few trap-en-español mantras that seem battle-tested. “Soy dueño de lo mío y nadie le tengo que dar mi porciento,” he raps. “Yo me caí y me levanté porque yo quise.”

He’s talking shit, sure, but it seems to come from a place that’s intended to be motivational rather than aspirational, from a vantage point of having successfully become one of the leaders of the old school to new school urbano transition. Much of Fénix makes good on Nicky Jam’s trajectory to make a clear departure from his early 2000s days as he’s integrated the smoothed-out, Colombian sound fully, the result of him relocating to participate in Medellín’s new perreo industry infrastructure that’s emerged thanks in part to the other recent successes of J Balvin and Maluma.

Nicky Jam’s newfound sound seems to dig deeper, however, than just the industry level of reallocated resources from what was previously Puerto Rico or mainland-based artists. Fénix makes apparent that the artist and his team have been listening closely to Colombia’s young local artists, as well as the country’s long-standing tradition of contributing to dancehall innovation. This may be largely thanks to him partnering up with local producer Saga WhiteBlack of the now notable La Industria, Inc. production crew, or even from listening closely to the self-reflective storytelling style inherent to vallenato. “The mentality always in reggaeton was ‘I’m the man,’” he told The New York Times last week. “I made that cool to say, ‘I messed up, I’m not the best.’”

Fénix digitally archives two of his biggest moments: “El Perdón” with Enrique Iglesias and “Hasta el Amanecer,” after weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart. The success of these singles may be a testament to the identification of the Nicky Jam sweet spot – lyrics that illustrate him asking for forgiveness, or chasing women with just the right amount of a saccharine tone, driven by a neo-perreo reggaetón beat that falls slightly to the back of the N-I-C-K-Y narrative. The appearance of these singles also marks an attempt to make these pop culture moments last; “El Perdón” gets an English translation as “Forgiveness” and “Hasta El Amanecer” gets the King Daddy treatment with a remix, alongside an English version called “With You Tonight,” with Kid Ink lending a melodic hip-hop flow as scenes merge closer and artists share bylines.

“Estrella,” “Mil Lágrimas,” and “Cuando Quieras” make good on Nicky Jam’s signature romantiqueo à la “Travesuras,” while “El Amante” moves the artist a step closer to essentially making reggaetón baladas. The track was an obvious choice to be a lead single for the album, though it’s hardly the most interesting of the lot. “No Te Vayas” makes clear Nicky Jam’s well-established songwriting tradition of apologizing for the “idiota que hay dentro de mi.”

“Amor Prohibido” and “Me Enamoras” are dancehall filtered through the Medellín effect, pulling inspiration from the country’s forward-thinking, homegrown scene. The track could be thought of as Colombia’s localized dancehall movement translated, this time with a serious budget – Sean Paul returns to the Latinx music industry again to lend a feature (recent collaborations with Farruko and of course Enrique Iglesias indicate that this will be a long-running trend) and verses from well-known Jamaican singjay Konshens round out the track.

Fénix reveals what Nicky Jam has made of himself and where he’s going, but it also functions as a record of who he’s grown with along the way. “Por El Momento” brings fellow old school-to-the-new-school duo Plan B into the fold, who have been spending some time experimenting with lowering the BPM range and leveling up the whine potential, similar to their take on “La Groupie” last fall in their “1.5” edition flip of the track with Arcángel and De La Ghetto. “Si Tú La Ves” brings along fellow reggaetón ride-or-die Wisin, while “Tu Hombre” features Daddy Yankee on the track for a feature that morphs into a duet, lending a grounding effect to Nicky’s sometimes too-sweet vocal style.

“Superhéroe” lends a soundtrack to the bromance between Nicky Jam and J Balvin that goes well-documented on their social media accounts; however the track illustrates the potential danger of committing too heavily to the Medellín sound. Smoothing the sound out too much may erase the edge completely and make certain tracks sleepy (as also heard on the stripped-down ballad “Without You” and “I Can’t Forget You,” reminiscent of Don Bieber’s forays into dembow-inspired rhythms with inklings of an EDM twist), which is a risk artists are clearly willing to take due to the potential for plays. “Despacio” balances this evolution artfully, with Arcángel taking advantage of the slowed-down tempo range to spit flows double-time, before hopping back and forth between a few bars of a trap beat.

A few of the moments that shine through the most are when the featured artists extend from other scenes; “Mi Fantasia” calls on Uptown rapper Messiah to lend his swagger, proving that delivery of a flow can sharpen an edge on the track, even if the beat is laid-back. “Nadie Como Tú” relies on my personal dembow chameleon of choice El Alfa, while “Tu Cuerpo Me Ama” brings a female vocalist in for the first and only time on the album to deliver a hook à la J Balvin’s “Safari.”

As with Nicky Jam’s now decades-running career, Fénix contains its highs and its lows. He is proof that a career can be reborn through the same hustle mentality that put him on the map to begin with. After a series of hit singles, features, and ongoing touring, in its most powerful moments, Fénix is a sort of working document of the artist’s role in pushing the culture forward, and innovating the format for baladas urbanas with a pop sensibility. As he said it clearly on “El Ganador,” “Que venga lo que venga/ me siento un ganador.”