After A Breakthrough Year, What's Next For Música Urbana?
By the listening standards of the streaming age, hip-hop has measurably usurped pop in recent years. However, when you factor in música urbana, the broad genre catch-all that includes reggaeton and the still relatively burgeoning sound known as Latin trap, that only strengthens the quantifiable evidence in its favor.
According to a report by music technology company BuzzAngle, consumption of music broadly categorized as Latin surpassed country music stateside in 2018, suggesting at minimum a designation of updated tastes if not a demographic shift. Over those 12 months, the undeniability of Latinx hitmakers like Anuel AA, Natti Natasha, and Ozuna manifested across the Billboard charts, not least of which being the all-genre Hot 100. By year-end, DJ Snake’s “Taki Taki” and Bad Bunny’s Drake collaboration “MIA” were major chart contenders, both fueled by airplay and digital performance.
The phenomenon extends well beyond the U.S. market. Eight of last year’s top 10 most viewed music videos on YouTube were for Spanish-language singles, with the global top slot going to Nio García and Casper Mágico’s “Te Boté (Remix),” handily beating out third place entry Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” with Cardi B. And speaking of the immensely popular Bronx rapper, her Spanglish smash “I Like It” with Bad Bunny and J Balvin may very well be the most ubiquitous single since Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito.” That latter track, once considered by some skeptics as a fluke or otherwise a fleeting trend, remains one of biggest songs in America, by Billboard’s multi-metric standards, as well as worldwide.
For Jerry Pullés, Apple Music’s programmer behind key playlists like La Fórmula and Trap Kingz, the rise of música urbana has been a long time coming. “I’ve been working in Latin urban music since the initial reggaeton boom back in 2005,” he says. “I live it.” That experience keeps him well plugged into the genre’s present and, given his remit, an integral part of its future. “I look for songs that I like and think other people will like. I also spend a lot of time talking to artists and producers to get a sense of which songs or artists they are excited about.”
As the public profiles of certain reggaetoneros and traperos alike soared in 2018, Pullés had a front row seat to the data proving that success. In the case of Bad Bunny’s “MIA,” having Drake not merely feature but feature in Spanish amounted to more than just clout for El Conejo Malo. “We saw it set records on Apple Music and surge in popularity as the largest first week U.S. debut for a Spanish-language song with over 16 million streams after we premiered it on our ¡Dale Play! playlist,” he says. “It shows fans that it’s cool to listen to music in Spanish even if you don’t understand every word.”
With terrestrial radio still largely rooted in limiting formats, playlisting has arguably surpassed its role in modern-day tastemaking. Actively updated by in-the-know curators, platform-specific groupings at Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and elsewhere stack the latest singles alongside proven hits. Given the volume and subscriptions, the built-in and targeted audiences are of obvious appeal to record label representatives like Nima Etminan, vice president at EMPIRE. “Playlisting inclusion is important for everyone, regardless of genre or language,” he says. “It is still crucial for artists to grow a nucleus and expand it, using tools such as playlists or social media accounts.” Still, he insists in his experience that sustainable success isn’t defined solely by getting a song onto one or even a few.
Operating both as a record label as well as a distribution and marketing partner for smaller imprints and independent artists, EMPIRE competes alongside the majors across genre categories, and música urbana is no exception. “EMPIRE Latino was launched years before the mainstream explosion of Latin trap/reggaeton in the U.S.,” Etminan says, citing successes with Tego Calderon and Luis Enrique going as far back as 2012. “The mainstream explosion of the genres has definitely helped bring more eyes to the market and it's beneficial for everyone involved.”
Coastcity, a Puerto Rican duo known in part for their work with Beyonce on her contribution to J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” remix, found their eponymous full-length debut with EMPIRE Latino nominated for a 2019 Grammy, in the Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album category. Citing their bilingual Luis Fonsi-assisted “Pa’ La Calle,” currently on Apple Music’s De Antro playlist, Etminan expects more from the pair throughout the year. “They're a very exciting group with lots of eyes on them so definitely look out for them,” he says, while also shouting out labelmates Yung Beef, a rapper from Spain, and pop R&B singer Cierra Ramirez, familiar to fans of the TV show The Fosters.
Presently appearing prominently in a number of the Apple Music playlists programmed by Pullés is Farruko, whose presence in música urbana spans over a decade. Despite his role as lead artist on the “Krippy Kush” remix with Bad Bunny and Nicki Minaj (which proved the first Latin trap song to cross over to the Hot 100), he’s since largely pivoted away from that sound on the bulk of his subsequent solo singles. Instead, cuts like “Coolant” and his latest one-off “Nadie” share more in common with dancehall reggae and the poppier side of reggaeton.
While Bad Bunny’s month-old X100PRE album wasn’t strictly a trap outing, Farruko’s current approach reminds less of his “Krippy Kush” cohort and more like scene veteran Daddy Yankee, who followed 2017’s colossal “Despacito” with the reggae hit “Dura.” Both artists appear together on “Inolvidable,” a defiantly accessible single that also employs vocals by Akon and Sean Paul. Though the year remains wide open for the standing Sony Music Latin signee to drop a major hit, the most likely contender of his current crop appears to be “Calma,” a remix of a single of the same name by Latin Grammy-winning singer Pedro Capó. In recent weeks, their joint track has made steady if considerable gains on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs, inching closer and closer to its oft-elusive top ten.
Also hotly tipped for a memorable 2019, Colombian singer Karol G entered the new year with a highly anticipated single on deck. The second collaboration with her real-life partner Anuel AA after last fall’s hit “Culpables,” her dembow-driven “Secreto” builds on the momentum of their prior track. Their apparent romance — as displayed throughout the song’s rather candid music video, coupled with the trapero’s string of Hot 100 appearances alongside bachata king Romeo Santos and controversial rapper 6ix9ine — only seems to have fortified her already recognizable presence as a música urbana power player.
While Karol’s sole Hot 100 showing to date has been on a remix of El Chombo’s viral novelty single “Dame Tu Cosita,” she has ten Hot Latin Songs singles as a lead or featured artist to her credit, four of which cracked the chart’s top 10. Just the other week, “Culpables” became the latest from her to do so, and early signs from the just-released “Secreto” suggest that it too will contend. Both songs presently feature on La Fórmula, and Pullés cites developing female stars and fresh faces as paramount to the overall genre’s success in the coming year. “If the Latin urban genre doesn’t develop new stars every couple of years, listeners will get bored,” he says. “We did a great job over the last few years with Ozuna, Bad Bunny and now Anuel but I’m already thinking about who the next three or four are.”
Two of the acts on Pullés’ radar for 2019 are Rauw Alejandro and Lunay. He cites the latter singer/rapper’s “A Solas,” a breezy reggaeton pop hybrid, as indicative of things to come out of the scene this year. As for Alejandro, his recent offerings like “Que Bien Te Ves” and “Road Trip” recall the broad R&B and tropical house of Chris Brown and Justin Bieber bolstered by a Latin trap foundation. Together, Alejandro and Lunay guested on Ozuna’s “Luz Apaga,” their bright tones complementing that of the established Latin pop superstar.
Putting favorites aside, the sheer volume of songs dropping week after week keeps música urbana in a constant state of activity. With fans streaming videos by the millions each day and new high-quality clips emerging at a rapid pace, supply and demand appear harmonious. As more and more Americans turn on to the voices of Bad Bunny and Ozuna, whetting their appetites for the contemporary sounds of Latin America, the chances for comparatively less heralded acts to make major chart moves in the U.S. seems extremely likely. And with J Balvin, Tomasa del Real, and more Spanish-language artists playing this year’s Coachella, there’s no telling just how big música urbana could get.