Photos by Jason Favreau
Style is everything to J Balvin. When the reggaeton superstar swings by the VICE offices, he’s in the midst of making the rounds at New York Men’s Fashion Week, where he says that “Everything I’ve seen has something special.” He’s decked out in a blue flannel-patterned button-down with a gray tee underneath, a fairly casual ‘fit—and when I ask him what he dons when he’s really trying to relax, his response is both serious and punctuated by a brief fit of laughter: “Nothing.”
When he’s in the studio, though, Balvin’s far from a minimalist: over the last seven years, the Colombian artist has achieved international fame with his smooth, dusky vocals and sonic adventurousness. Songs like “Ay Vamos” and “Ginza” are global hits on the scale of cuts from Rihanna or Justin Bieber, and increasingly Balvin is in the same conversation as these artists, even going so far as to hop on a remix of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” late last year.
Balvin’s approach to genre-blending, which is perfectly crystallized on his second LP Energia, is as much a bold maneuver as it is a natural progression. LP cuts like “Veneno” and “Snapchat” combine the bounce and slither of current-day US chart pop with Balvin’s smooth reggaeton cadence, disintegrating the borders that previously left many English-speaking Americans to file any Spanish-language music under reductive catch-all terms like “world music.” Balvin draws these audiences in while still remaining uncompromisingly devoted to expressing himself in his natural language and cultural environment.
And anyway, reggaeton and hip-hop have always possessed a relation to each other—largely in rhythmic cadence—and Energia pushes the multifarious aesthetic of 2013’s La Familia a few steps further. More than ever, Balvin’s dipping his toes in the waters of US chart-ready pop and hip-hop as much as he’s staying true to his sterling reggaeton sound—a move that, as he described in a FADER profile from earlier this year, represents Balvin “invit[ing] the mainstream into my world.”
Noisey: Tell me about your thinking behind making Energia and pushing your sound forward.
J Balvin: Since I was a kid, I was listening to hip-hop. It’s always been a part of our culture, so we could blend it, mix a little bit of everything, and that’s the sound we’re making. That’s why people from the States are feeling the music. There’s something in common—the beats, the flows, the melodies. There’s something that they don’t have to try too hard to feel it. They’re like, ‘This sounds like what I listen to, but there’s just some Spanish in it. I don’t know what he’s saying, but it feels right.’
Hip-hop has replaced rock music as the cultural force in America—but globally, it’s always been a strong cultural force. What do you think makes it universal?
I think it’s because of youth. I don’t know why, but they feel well-represented by the movement. Because it’s not just the music—it’s the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they dress.
There’s a long history of hip-hop being a cultural force for change. These days, young people are more interested than ever in activism and politics. Do you see that?
Yeah, I see that, and I feel that the responsibility to do that, too. I’m from Colombia, and we’ve been through a lot of hard situations. We’re just tired of the same shit. We forget about that and focus on new vibes and better energy for the country. How to make the world better.
How do you think the rest of the world sees Colombia? When I see something like Narcos, I think to myself, “We just keep seeing Colombia’s story being told through an American lens.” Do you think Colombian society is being misrepresented through that lens, or that there are elements that are overlooked?
The thing about Narcos is that the information is real—good writing and research. When I was watching it, I was like, “Let’s see what they’re saying,” because I live in Medellín, where everything started. It was that time, the 80s—but we’re not in the 80s anymore. There’s still always going to be drug lords, but it’s not like it used to be.
What’s your earliest memories of growing up in Medellín?
It was amazing. Nothing to complain about it. I’m still there, and I’m not scared of it. I feel good. It’s my home.
Have you ever considered moving to another city?
For a couple of months. But at the end of the day, I don’t live nowhere. I’m always moving.
The phrases “global pop” and “world music” have been used in the music industry for decades now as catch-alls to describe music that sounds foreign to American ears. Lately, though, American pop is sounding more like what people typically call “world music.”
The funny thing is that Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Drake’s “One Dance” are reggaeton. The drum patterns are reggaeton. So people from America are like, “Oh, it’s the new wave,” but for us, it’s been that way for 30 years now. All these global hits right now are basically reggaeton. I think right now, we’re closer to the point where people will feel more music and what we’re doing right now. What we just did with Pharrell Williams, “Safari”—he’s singing in Spanish. He’s a smart guy. He knows what’s up with reggaeton and where we’re going. Maybe it’s not all the artists, but some of us know where we’re going and where we’re going to take it.
What was it like working with Pharrell?
You gotta be 200 percent all the time. But it’s good because it takes you out of your comfort zone. Everything was flowing perfectly. The good thing about him and what I really like about him is how humble it is, being a superstar. He’s not just a musician, he’s an icon in fashion and a producer. He’s got a lot of things going on, and people listen to him. Plus, he’s a good guy. I was really impressed at how he presented himself—how peaceful he is, how humble. We talked every week, and I’d ask for advice, and he’d just be there. He’s amazing. I just met him a couple of months ago, but we really clicked. It was organic. “Safari” wasn’t a label thing—it was just chemistry.
You mentioned Drake before—“Snapchat” sounds like a Drake song, to me. When I hear what Drake’s doing lately, he sounds a lot like you, and other artists from other cultures.
I think he’s just doing what he likes. He’s just following his team. Behind every big artist, there’s a big team. He knows where he’s going, and all his team is taking him to that level. He’s smart.
What’s the most important thing to you when it comes to your team?
Being grateful. That’s the first thing that I tell them. No matter what, you always say “Thank you” and be grateful. We gotta be happy during the process, because when you’re on your way to the time and you don’t enjoy the process, you regret that. I’m just enjoying the whole process.
You have a Nirvana tattoo on your leg. Tell me about the first time you heard Nirvana.
I just fell in love. I didn’t understand a word, honestly. I felt like it was what I was looking for, and I didn’t even understand no words. The whole world was happening with English music. In Latin America, 10 percent of people speak English—maybe 5 percent or less, because they don’t have education or are unable to fly overseas as an exchange student. That’s why I believe I can be worldwide. I used to listen to all this shit and not understand a word. I was just mumbling. That’s the same thing that’s happening with our music right now—we’re number one in Greece, we’re number one in Italy, we’re number one in Romania and Bulgaria. Places that didn’t even understand what I’m saying—Nigeria. They just feel it right. That’s why I really believe we can take it to another level—and now with social media, I don’t know if it’s easier, but it’s more of a ritual than it used to be.
It’s interesting how other cultures take to English-language music, whereas American culture doesn’t seem to reciprocate that appreciation.
I think the US has the part of the media, and everybody just follows. What they say is cool is cool for the world. Maybe that’s why I’m doing the right moves. I’m doing things here in the US in Spanish, but I don’t want to sing in English. I just want people to respect what I do. Maybe their perception isn’t the same as the world, but that’s cool. There’s a strategy for everything. At the end of the day, it’s good music. That’s all that matters. My lyrics are my lyrics—they’re not just talking bullshit. Everything has common sense.
You mentioned social media earlier, I know you are engaged on it. Have you been playing Pokémon Go?
I was just talking about that. I’m about to start playing it. I want to start playing Pokémon. Have you played it?
Yeah! It’s fun. I think you’ll have a good time with it. You’re 31, so when Pokémon became a thing, you were at the age where you could get into it.
Yeah, I loved it.
Did you play it when you were younger?
The cards, yeah. I used to play that, and I played the Nintendo games too.
Who’s your favorite Pokémon?
The bolt, the energy, the good time.
It’s been over a year since you pulled out of performing at the Miss USA pageant because of Donald Trump’s comments about Latinx immigrants. Did you think that, a year later, he’d officially be the Republican candidate for President?
Honestly, I thought it was a joke. And he’s still a joke to me, and he’ll always be a joke. I just don’t respect that, no lie. Any type of discrimination, no matter what, it’s a joke. That’s what I see from my point of view. It’s a human being situation.
Larry Fitzmaurice is a writer for VICE. Follow him on Twitter.