Pure Energia: Colombia’s Reggaeton Ruler J Balvin Returns

Pure Energia: Colombia’s Reggaeton Ruler J Balvin Returns

It’s 3:05 p.m. in the 305 and Colombian reggaeton superstar J Balvin just landed on American soil. It’s his only two days off that he’s had in two months, after a quick two day stay in his hometown of Medellin, Colombia. He is in Miami to start the press tour for his new album, Energia, [his newest album since 2013] drops today (June 24). And after two days of promo, then comes a brief trip to Los Angeles for a special listening party for his new work. Amid his hectic paced travels, there isn’t room for any complaints. “It’s all good. I’m grateful. This is my dream, so it’s worth it,” he says over the phone while on the road from the airport.

Balvin’s work ethic coupled with determination is what has catapulted him from a virtual unknown into the newest heir of the reggaeton thrown in just three years. Back in 2004, Balvin began to pursue his musical dreams, most argued that a Colombian kid wasn’t going to infiltrate the predominantly Puerto Rican genre. Besides the cultural differences, it also didn’t help that he grew up in a completely different--more privileged--world far away from the slums that raised La Isla Del Encanto’s most prominent voices like Tego Calderon and Daddy Yankee. Still, Balvin credits Yankee as a major influence in his career. “For me he is a teacher and a living legend,” the 31-year-old says. “He deserves all the honors because thanks to him, I’m in reggaeton.”

In 2004, the reggaetoñero changed the genre forever with the release of Yankee’s critically acclaimed third album, Barrio Fino. The album’s first single “Gasolina,” was a radio mainstay that summer. The whole project ended up making history with its slew of hits including “Tu Principe” and “Lo que paso, paso.” The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Album chart on July 31, 2004, making it the first time a reggaeton album reached that spot. The project went on to becoming the top selling Latin album of 2005 and the decade.

While Daddy Yankee relished in that huge era of success, Balvin kept working and joined a production team, named Infinity Music, that helped hone his musical skills in Medellin.
By 2010, Balvin made a strong name for himself, which led to inking a deal with Universal Music’s subsidiary label Capitol Latin in 2013. On October 29th of that same year his debut album La Familia took the reggaeton world by storm. It was something that the masses have never heard before coming from the most unexpected locale.

Balvin’s laid back vocals infused with rapping and singing to upbeat reggaeton tempos—and his ability to craft catchy songs—is a skill he’s mastered over the tenure of his young career. Themes that sit on the cusp of heart-melting relationships and emotional vulnerability tend to place Balvin in the same sphere of Canada’s native son Aubrey Drake Graham.

The album spawned singles such as, his first, “Ya Te lo Dije,” followed by “Tranquila,” then the chart topping “6AM” featuring Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Farruko. The I-don’t- remember-what-happened-last-night hangover story, earned Balvin the top spot on the Latin Airplay Billboard chart in May 2014. But before the burgeoning success, label reps knew Balvin was going to go far, despite the odds. Luis Estrada, the former General Manager of Universal Music Latino and Universal Music Latin Entertainment, who also spearheaded the campaign for La Familia, says they never saw the music he was making or his background as an obstacle. “Going back to 2013 when we started working with Balvin, it was very clear that what he was doing was of very high quality,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles. “So in that sense, we were not thinking to ourselves: ‘Oh but this is Colombian reggaeton; Colombian reggaeton doesn’t work.’ We’re always thinking if a song is good or not. Yet the good part was that we knew we could develop him in the long term, because there was more than one good song.”

With Energia we went a lot bigger than my last album because not everyone has a family, but they have energy. -- J Balvin

After the success of “6 AM,” Balvin decided he needed another hit, and it wasn’t going to come from the album. He got back to the studio and pushed his pen to produce “Ay Vamos,” which details the common break-up to make-up story; it garnered nearly a billion YouTube views. At press time, the video for the single has 885,038,716 views. In addition to the virtual eyeballs, the single earned him a Latin Grammy for Best Urban Song in November 2015.

All of these accolades were just the beginning of a bright future and now, with his upcoming new project, the expectations are higher. Yet you can bet for sure they are already being met.

By the time you read this Balvin’s second single “Bobo,” off the new album will have already reached No.1 on the Hot Latin chart. And its contender “Ginza” also on the new album, broke Billboard chart records staying at No.1 for 21 consecutive weeks.

I remember when I got to Times Square the first time I went to New York,” he recalls. “It was just like the movies. Then I saw Jay Z and I saw the force that he had—with billboards everywhere and the marketing that he had; seeing that motivated me to think, ‘Wow, one day I’d like to be like that.’ And well...here we are. -- J Balvin

At this point, saying that J Balvin is engulfed by good vibes is an understatement. In fact, it’s all he really wants to give to the world through his music and existence. “Everything that surrounds us in this world, and everything that we are and dream about and give to is Energia,” he explains of the meaning behind the album title. “With Energia we went a lot bigger than my last album because not everyone has a family, but they have energy.”

Sonically, the album is the perfect compilation of an array of mood swings, feelings and real life digital vignettes encapsulated into selfie infested Snapchat accounts. “Energia is a blend of who J Balvin is,” says Angel Kaminsky, the EVP for Latin America and Iberian Peninsula at Universal Music Group. “It’s a genius mix of an album with songs that are going to make us dance, and others that are more romantic, more street, or more fun.”

For every braggadocious “Veneno” there is the pleading “Acercate” (which features Yandel) for female attention. Amid these two polar opposites, comes the somber “No Hay Titulo.” Here, in the midst of guitar strings played by Juanes, Balvin shows off his pipes and vents off the pain that inexplicably comes after the loss of love.

“Sin expectativas aqui no cabe el dolor/no hay titulo/no hay titulo/llegan los mensajes en tu cara se nota la confianza…dime que diablos paso,” he sings.

Asked if the song at all pertains to his personal life, he modestly offers, “I expressed myself, vented, and I sent her the song as well,” he says dissolving into laughter. “It’s very hard at this moment of my career to give myself 100% to someone. Because there are a lot of factors that don’t permit you to stay focused in a relationship. So then that is where the song, ‘No Hay Titulo’ comes from.”

While alluding to being involved in a semi-relationship for about a year, Balvin doesn’t have a concrete title or label for the situationship. Though expressing his heartaches on wax, what Balvin really wants to do with this album is make history. And with tracks like “Safari”, which has some musical assistance from Pharrell Williams singing in Spanish, he plans on bringing a slew of other prominent artist into his world, instead of him having to travel to theirs. “Yes, I am interested in a crossover, but not at this very moment,” he admits.

My dream is to have Justin Bieber sing with me in Spanish, then have Drake and Rihanna sing with me in Spanish as well. I want to invite them into our world, and get the importance that we deserve just like they get the importance that they deserve. -- J. Balvin

In comparison to many Latin artist out there, J Balvin doesn’t feel the need to make an English singing cameo on a mainstream artist’s track just yet. He wants to first cement himself firmly in the Latin market, and go as far as possible with it—to the point where English-performing pop artists will come knocking on his door to sing in Spanish on his work.

“Let’s take Spanish music the farthest that we can, so that everything will be more natural and organic. I don’t want something like ‘Now he is popular in the Latin market, so now he wants to sing in English,’” he explains. “My dream is to have Justin Bieber sing with me in Spanish, then have Drake and Rihanna sing with me in Spanish as well. I want to invite them into our world, and get the importance that we deserve just like they get the importance that they deserve.”


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Born on May 7, 1985 Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin was raised in a neighborhood called Belen Malibu in Medellin, Colombia. As a child, Balvin’s father worked as an economist, and his mother was a stay at home mom. He grew up in a nice home with good schooling. But that all changed when his father lost his job. The family had to relocate to a more modest neighborhood and live by another set of means.

At 18 years-old, he moved to the U.S. to an Oklahoma suburb as part of a foreign exchange program. In a freaky turn of events, he was held hostage by his guardian there—as she hid his passport from him. He found it in a jacket pocket and fled to one of his friend’s house. Then, he later traveled up north to New York City to go live with an aunt in Staten Island. There, he walked dogs and painted houses for funds. In that time Balvin developed a new appreciation for hip-hop, seeing how immersed the city was with the pulsating culture.

“I remember when I got to Times Square the first time I went to New York,” he recalls. “It was just like the movies. Then I saw Jay Z and I saw the force that he had—with billboards everywhere and the marketing that he had; seeing that motivated me to think, ‘Wow, one day I’d like to be like that.’ And well...here we are.”

After about eight months in NYC, and a brief stint in Miami, he returned back to Colombia, where he enrolled in college majoring in Mass Communication and International Business. Initially, he thought he wanted to be a president of a record label, but that soon changed when his musical dreams outweighed his CEO aspirations.

But like everything in life, things aren’t always what they seem. In the midst of reaching superstardom, and supporting his family, Balvin became depressed. He remembers conversations with his dad—who managed him for a while—becoming just business transactions, instead of father and son dialogues. It got so bad that he would suffer from anxiety attacks, and had to fight to get out of bed.

Did you ever have any reservations about being so open about your anxiety?

"[No] because like myself, there are millions of people out there that are scared to acknowledge that they are depressed or are scared of the taboos and myths that come with seeing a psychiatrist," he said. "They won’t go because they think it’s for crazy people, but it’s not for crazy people. It’s something that I myself had to learn. Speaking about it, makes others feel like they are not alone and not the only ones who go through it. Which is why I wanted to say something because I’m a human being just like everyone else is, and I too get sick and have my problems. I need love and affection. I get lonely."

That sense of compassion and realness with his fans and the world, has garnered him a loyal fan base. From his antics like drinking coffee on Snapchat, to his inspirational Instagram posts encouraging fans to keep on dreaming—it’s no surprise as to why he has more than 10.8 million followers on IG and 3.7 million on Twitter. In an industry obsessed with image and material things, Mr. Osorio isn’t afraid to be himself and always remain humble.

I feel like I haven’t beat anyone. Dreams don’t have a limit, everyday you find yourself wanting more and more. I think it’s good to feel like I haven’t beat anyone, because like that I’ll remain grounded and I’ll keep on dreaming.” -- J. Balvin

In a recent Snapchat video (June 18), Balvin is seen in his hometown at the elite Campestre country club. In the short snaps, he reveals some of the employees at the club told him some people don’t say hello to them because of their higher social status. “Nada le da derecho a uno si uno tiene mas poder economico. Al la final todos nos vamos a morir y nos vamos para el mismo hueco, no?” he said. “Hay que estar tranquilo en la subida. Para que no lo tengan en cuentan en la bajada.”

In addition to making hit records, Balvin is also one of the coaches on La Voz Mexico [the Mexican version of the popular singing competition, The Voice], along with Gloria Trevi, Alejandro Sanz and Los Tigres Del Norte. The program taping has the Colombian now living in Mexico.

With such a demanding schedule, when asked if he ever chills and has a day or a moment where he thought he made it, his response is pure Balvin hilarity. “I could say, today,” he answers as he erupts into a wave of laughter. “I don’t know. I feel like I haven’t beat anyone. Dreams don’t have a limit, everyday you find yourself wanting more and more. I think it’s good to feel like I haven’t beat anyone, because like that I’ll remain grounded and I’ll keep on dreaming.”

 

Main Image Credit: Botero Photography