Maybe you’ve heard, but this longtime weekly column is about to go monthly. While I’m excited to mix up my contributions to this site, I definitely couldn’t let a pop-column pivot take place without a long-overdue tribute to Bad Bunny, who has no doubt enjoyed the most successful year in pop so far . In fact, last week Billboard declared that the Latin trap / reggaeton innovator’s 2022 album, Un Verano Sin Tihas overtaken the once-unassailable Encanto soundtrack as the year’s most popular album in the US. Also this past week, former President Obama added Bad Bunny and Bomba Estereo’s “Ojitos Lindos” to his 2022 summer playlist. Not bad for a start, and the rabbit hole goes much deeper than that.
Yes, an Obama cosign is just barely scratching the surface of everything Bad Bunny (born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) has achieved, both in 2022 and since he found international success about half a decade ago. Bad Bunny is starring in a Marvel pro-wrestling superhero movie (something about a Spider-Man antagonist; I’m seriously losing interest in the ever-expanding Marvelverse). He’s fighting Brad Pitt in the much-hyped Bullet Train. He joined Rosalia on Saturday Night Live. Back in 2020, Bad Bunny became the first artist to have an all-Spanish-language album (El Último Tour Del Mundo) top the Billboard 200. Oh, and no big deal, but he was Spotify’s most-streamed artist of 2021.
As expected, Un Verano Sin Ti (A Summer Without You) also debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and achieved the biggest streaming week for any Latin album in history. Last weekthe album became the first since Adele’s 2015 blockbuster 25 to move more than 100,000 album equivalent units in its first 11 weeks. Yesterdayit logged its seventh nonconsecutive week at #1.
In terms of overwhelmingly positive statistics, Bad Bunny’s got them. And for a really good reason: In addition to making really, really ridiculously catchy pop music, Bad Bunny — and Un Verano Sin Ti in particular — is representative of a historical moment steeped in cognitive dissonance. On one hand, in 2022 Latin pop continues to reign supreme on the charts, and Spanish-singing performers really don’t need to record in English to see crossover success. At the same time, the American Latinx community — which is vast and made up of numerous cultures and traditions — is at risk of being reduced to San Antonio”breakfast tacosby US politicians. (Technically Jill Biden in this case, but that poorly phrased statement is reminiscent of the time Tr*mp posed with a taco bowl.) In other words, the Spanish-speaking community makes up approximately 13.5% of the US population, and yet when a stadium-filling, globally obsessed-over artist like Bad Bunny opts not to sing in English, somehow that is still regarded as revolutionary.
On the other hand, cultural blend is top of mind for Bad Bunny on the beach-playlist-ready Un Verano Sin Ti. Upon releasing his fourth solo album, Bad Bunny sat down for a deep-diving profile in GQ where he spoke about his costume for the 2022 Met Gala. His interpretation of the amorphous-sounding theme “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” was to select a look inspired by Latin America. “Because it’s America too,” he said. Therein lies Bad Bunny’s entire artistic ethos, and arguably explains his widespread appeal. He’s proudly Latin (hailing from Puerto Rico) but is not reined in by boarders, sonically or otherwise; Un Verano Sin Ti was partially recorded in the Dominican Republic and features a wide selection of sounds, drawing from reggaeton, reggae, cumbia, Caribbean (bomba, mambo, bachata), dancehall, dance-pop, and techno. The best part? It’s all funneled through Bunny’s futuristic vision. Plus, Un Verano Sin Ti is just plain fun.
I’m always saying (to my husband mostly, who is contractually bound to listen to me theorize about pop music when I’m not doing it here) that it takes a balance of elements to produce a global pop star: obviously, you need some core talent, but it can’t go anywhere in a vacuum. It’s a mix of practical and creative. You need an ear for hooks, strong industry relationships, some understanding of social media, in-person charisma, personal style — and you need to make it all look easy. Even accidental. And once you get to the top (wherever the top looks like for you), try not to get complacent. “Maybe, for some people, it’s different in that the higher they go, the less pressure they feel, because maybe they’re confident that everything they do will be a success,” Bad Bunny told GQ. “But I’m the opposite — the more I acquire an audience, the more I go up, the more pressure I feel to keep going. Sometimes, I can’t sleep thinking about that. I go days without sleeping.”
As his international fame has exploded over the past six years, Bad Bunny has expanded his subgenres while not caving to the presumed pressure to sing in English. Every guest on Un Verano Sin Ti has a Latin background: the reggaeton duo Chencho Corleone, rapper Jhay Cortez, Tony Dize, and Rauw Alejandro (all of whom are Puerto Rican), Bomba Estéreo (Colombian), and Buscabulla (based in NYC but originally from Puerto Rico), and the Marías, an LA indie-pop group who sing in Spanish and English. Bad Bunny has collaborated with the likes of Dua Lipa, Cardi B, and Drake, but one gets the sense that he does those not due to numbers or necessity but because why not?
Bad Bunny’s genre versatility, agile delivery, and clever wordplay has been well-documented for years, beginning with X 100PREmoving through the canon-nodding YHLQMDLGand expanding on the alternative-leaning El Último Tour del Mundo. On Un Verano Sin Tiwe get warmth — literally, because it’s absolutely a summertime album, and figuratively, as every song exudes emotional intimacy and introspection.
Boasting 23 tracks (the most of any Bad Bunny album), Un Verano Sin Ti can easily get the beach party started or wind it down, with its easy beats, soft synths, and celebratory horns, which show up with actual wave crashes on the Obama-tapped “Ojitos Lindos.” There’s sun-dappled joy and late-summertime sadness on the bachata/tropicale jam “Después de la Playa,” which is both a horn-packed blast with eerie undertones. Like if you move too much, you’ll dehydrate, pass out, and get yanked into the surf. There’s also soothing bossa nova (“Yo No Soy Celoso”), sweaty dancehall (“Agosto”), joyful dance-pop (“Neverita”), and grooving reggae (“Me Fui de Vacaciones”).
As Carina del Valle Schorske pointed out in a 2020 New York Times profile of Bad Bunny, “Technically, reggaeton isn’t really ‘from’ any one place — Jamaica, Panama and New York City were all crucial sites in its development in the early ’90s — but it established itself as a commercial force in Puerto Rico, which is uniquely positioned to amplify diasporic music.”
Clearly, borders have never meant much to Bad Bunny either. In terms of both music and fashion, his style is constantly evolving with every album rollout. This album’s title is similarly amorphous. As he told Apple Music’s Ebro Darden: “I think ‘without’ [is] a lot of things. Can be like a person, can be like friends, can be like something that you miss a lot about summer. This whole album is [the muse, the inspiration comes from] all my summers. The vibe, the sound, even the features.” Plus, when we think of a “summer album,” we tend to think of the music as only being about the good times: vacations, long days, tans, pools, BBQs, whatever. For Bad Bunny, though, this time of year is not boiled down to one thing, feeling, person, or place. It’s for all of us, wherever we happen to be.