Music by VICE

Bad Bunny and J Balvin's Surprise Album 'Oasis' Could Have Been Better

The current kings of reggaetón and Latin trap give their fans the tag team event of the summer, for better or worse.

by Gary Suarez
Jul 2 2019, 11:00am

Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images for YouTube

In música urbana, collaboration is king. It seems every week that both scene headliners and lesser known acts can’t help but drop single after single with at least one or more features. Even compared to their American hip-hop cousins, no strangers to guesting on one another’s cuts, Latinx artists lean heavily on the collective strength in numbers approach. It has its benefits, commercially speaking, linking international fandoms already significantly engaged in the sounds coming out of cities like San Juan and Medellín. One of the genre’s biggest hits, the 2018 "Te Boté" remix boasts six different vocalists, lasts seven minutes, and shifted more than three million in sales and streaming equivalents here in the U.S.

All things considered, last Friday’s surprise drop of Oasis, a joint mini-album from Bad Bunny and J Balvin, shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise then. First hinted at roughly a year ago and teased repeatedly in the interim, the pairing reunites the Spanish-language stars of Cardi B’s Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 "I Like It." That boogaloo-derived cut existed very much in the synergistic mode common throughout reggaetón and trap en español, and its strong performance left many hungry for more from the pair. Those who know this music well, of course, knew they’d linked previously and potently a handful of times already.

Before "I Like It" elevated the feisty urbano upstart from Puerto Rico and the relatively seasoned yet ascendant Colombian reggaetonero, there was 2017’s "Si Tu Novio Te Deja Sola." With production credited to Mambo Kingz and DJ Luian, the song brought the pair together on record for the first time, showcasing unexpected harmony in the former’s pragmatic poptimism and the latter’s streetwise flair. At the time, Balvin was riding high off the global success of his 2016 album Energía and its Hot 100 charting standout "Ginza," a feat that forewarned that urbano would soon be ever-present in American listening life. Capitalizing on the momentum of the burgeoning Latin trap scene, he teamed up with one of its most buzzed about practitioners, a relatively young talent out of Vega Baja who'd just demonstrated some Drake-esque versatility as both an emotive singer and brash rapper showcased on the breakthrough solo single "Soy Peor."

Shortly thereafter, Balvin hopped on a "Soy Peor" remix alongside Arcángel and Ozuna, before the duo dropped the more accessible "Sensualidad" with the singer Prince Royce, a Bronx-born Dominican singer known previously for his bachata pop hits. From there, Balvin and Bad Bunny largely found their ways up through the música urbana ranks without one another—that is, until "I Like It." The triumph of that bilingual highlight off Cardi’s Invasion Of Privacy album transformed them into the two most prominent urbano acts, at least from the perspective of U.S. audiences. Sure, Balvin had logged Hot 100 hits for "Mi Gente" with Beyonce and "X" with Nicky Jam, and Bad Bunny had made the chart as well with Becky G’s "Mayores" and Farruko’s "Krippy Kush" remix. Yet their back-to-back features on one of the biggest rap singles of 2018 did something those other tracks otherwise couldn’t. It made them household names stateside.

The question that accompanies Oasis is whether it could possibly live up to the chart-destroying standard that Balvin and Bad Bunny have set. Even coming from a scene where stars and standouts record together so often that just about every possible permutation already exists, the eight-song project arrives amid heightened expectations. These are tremendous artists who can headline festivals and fill sports arenas all across America, performing their music entirely in Spanish for audiences happy to shout and sing the lyrics back towards the stage. Radio stations have come to rely on their fairly prolific output, as have content-hungry streaming platforms. Their YouTube videos typically prompt millions of views in the first 24 hours, climbing into the tens and hundreds of millions with ease.

Much like Drake and Future’s Venn Diagram of a mixtape, What A Time To Be Alive, Oasis offers their shared listeners enough to enjoy from the outset. With hit-making executive producers Sky El Rompiendo and Tainy around, the possibility for disappointment here from existing fans seems unlikely. The former has been a fixture on Balvin’s prior albums, while the latter proved crucial to developing Bad Bunny’s style after parting ways with former manager DJ Luian.

Notably, both Sky and Tainy oversaw the sound of Balvin’s 2018 full-length Vibras, and more often than not Oasis feels closer to that aesthetic than that of Bad Bunny’s eclectic Nochebuena surprise X100PRE album. The crunchy dembow of opener "Mojaita" immediately recalls "Reggaetón," a fairly recent Balvin solo track produced by the beatmaking pair. That familiarity extends to the project’s poppy defacto single "Qué Pretendes," its muted rhythm and lowpass filtered melody evokes something beguilingly tropical even as its far less inviting lyrics depict the repudiation of a former lover and her social media spy game. While Balvin carries these solid songs and colors dutifully within the lines, in contrast with his collaborator’s comparatively wilder riffing, one can’t help but suspect this might be a more conservative outing than the highly anticipated urbano blockbuster it’s been billed as.

Oasis doesn’t truly get to the emo heart of Bad Bunny’s millennial oeuvre until track five, "La Canción." Over a distant touch of jazz and a slippery beat, he broods and brays about lost love and the memories of her brought on by hearing a particular song. This is the Conejo Malo that made "Amorfoda" and X100PRE highlight "Solo de Mí" into relatable anthems. By contrast, Balvin’s more measured presence on the cut feels almost intrusive on what amounts to a diary entry. If anything, this is the inherent flaw that prevents Oasis from achieving its full potential—it's a compromise that finds them too comfortable in their own lanes.

Nonetheless, Balvin and Bad Bunny benefit from their differences in approach, and their curated choice of guests represent a shrewdness that defies genre convention. A known quantity for rock en español devotees, Marciano Cantero of the Argentinian group Los Enanitos Verdes comes through with a wizened third verse and a witty yet caustic bridge on "Un Peso." The placement thumbs its nose at those purists who dismiss and demonize urbano, folks who’d assuredly be affronted that such an esteemed roquero would set foot in the studio with such riff raff.

Still, it’s the final track "Como Un Bebé" with Mr Eazi that presents Oasis’ most powerful statement. Considering they could have worked with just about anyone in hip-hop, as evidenced by their respective tracks with some of the wider genre’s major players, the selection of an Afrobeats star comes off as a rejection of a rap world that only now seems to be coming around to the greatness of música urbana. Here, Sky and Tainy cede control to Legendury Beatz, a duo responsible for significant singles by Wizkid and UK drill’s Yxng Bane. The result links Balvin and Bad Bunny with another reggae descendant, closing out Oasis’ with an exciting and mutually beneficial prospect for future expansion. If only the rest of the album were as bold.