When Barrio Fino first dropped, few could have anticipated where Daddy Yankee would end up in 15 years time. Hardly a runaway success in the U.S., it took some eight months for the Puerto Rican’s seminal reggaetón album to reach its peak at No. 26 on the Billboard 200 chart. To make that happen, it took the ascent of its late-blooming single “Gasolina.” Despite proving one of the most impactful moments in Latin music history, Yankee’s hit offered no guarantee of future stardom, the sort of nationwide ubiquity he enjoys today after 2017’s “Despacito” with singer Luis Fonsi went supernova.
Topping the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-tying 16 weeks thanks in no small part to a remix featuring Justin Bieber, that smash brought the unmistakable sound of reggaetón and its dancehall-derived dembow riddim to a massive international audience. Not surprisingly, further bilingual collaborations and so-called Latin remixes followed. Already a major player in the scene, Colombian urbano artist J Balvin secured none other than Beyoncé herself for a predominantly Spanish version of his “Mi Gente,” elevating the then-already popping single to No. 3 on the Hot 100. With the commercial potential of urban Latin music—a.k.a. música urbana—now confirmed, other pop hits emerged from this cross-cultural momentum, including Fonsi’s “Échame La Culpa” with Demi Lovato and the Benny Blanco / Tainy team-up “I Can’t Get Enough” with Balvin and Selena Gomez. At the same time, artists from Latin America like Nicky Jam and Ozuna were repeatedly charting on the all-genre singles chart without the aid of English-language partners.
Despite these clear crossover wins, American rappers and hip-hop producers remained largely reluctant to work with Latinx ones. Not even Cardi B’s 2018 powerhouse hit “I Like It” with Bad Bunny and Balvin seemed to move the proverbial needle for stateside rap artists. (Nevermind that she was also concurrently making big moves in música urbana on tracks with notables like El Alfa and Ozuna.) With scarcely few exceptions, the hip-hop genre’s historic unwillingness to integrate with reggaetón persisted, and that negative mentality was now also applied to the burgeoning Latin trap sound.
Longtime devotees of this music will assuredly see a parallel with N.O.R.E., who attempted to bridge the styles while “Gasolina” shook the streets of New York. Mindful of the departed Big Pun’s Terror Squad legacy, his 2004 single “Oye Mi Canto” kept that same energy, merging island vibes and uptown vibes with guests Nina Sky, Gem Star, and Big Mato. One version included a Tego Calderón feature, while a second and better-known take boasted a Yankee verse. Even as the track soared to No. 13 on the Hot 100, that success still didn’t prompt non-Latinx rappers to follow suit.
For a while in 2018, it appeared that institutional divisiveness would continue after “I Like It.” Half-Mexican and half-Puerto Rican, 6ix9ine connected with Anuel AA for “Bebe” that summer, perpetuating an almost stereotypical status quo where the only American rappers of Latinx descent would roll with traperos. Having previously signed with Rick Ross’ short-lived Maybach Music Latino, Anuel emerged from federal prison roughly a month earlier a free agent, and the track’s rise to No. 30 on the Hot 100 demonstrated how his popularity with Spanish-speaking listenership could translate to a broader American hip-hop audience.
That fall, erstwhile rivals Drake and Meek Mill became the first rappers to truly partner with urbano artists. Many months after it was first teased, the former’s “MIA” with Bad Bunny arrived and made a near-instant splash. Performed entirely in Spanish by both artists, it promptly reached No. 5 on the Hot 100 and spent 27 weeks on the chart. Then, just ahead of his Championships album in November, Meek dropped two promotional singles, one of which was “Uptown Vibes” with Anuel and Fabolous. Those aware of the vestigial MMG connection perhaps had good reason to suspect it a fluke, yet the Dyckman-nodding cut made for the Philadelphia rapper’s ninth-best showing ever on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, a chart he’s appeared on 68 times to date, and his sixth-highest on the Hot 100. Considering Meek’s heightened profile not just in music but as a key figure in contemporary prison reform discourse, rappers had to take notice.
While it’s still fairly early in the summer of 2019, it appears English-language rappers are finally getting over their música urbana aversion. In just the past couple months, we’ve seen YG tap Jon Z for his 4Real 4Real single “Go Loko” and DJ Khaled add J Balvin to Father Of Asahd’s “You Stay,” both of which made it onto the Hot 100. Just ahead of his comeback album Legendary, Tyga dropped “Haute” with Balvin and Chris Brown, while Gucci Mane secured Anuel for “Special” off the recently-released Delusions Of Grandeur.
In principle and in practice, all of these are more substantive than the Latin remixes that were fashionable the year before. While songs like Chris Jeday’s “Ahora Dice” with Cardi and Offset still smacked of rap siloing and segregation, these recent tracks have not only appeared on the American artists’ albums but also frequently served as their proper singles. And the movement continues to grow, which bodes well for the international prospects of English-language rappers. Basking in the success of his “Taki Taki” posse cut with Cardi, Ozuna, and Selena Gomez, French producer DJ Snake has kept the momentum going with “Loco Contigo,” a fresh single with Balvin and Tyga.
As 2019 rolls on, it seems likely that more rappers, reggaetoneros, and traperos will commingle, to the benefit of all parties. Beyond gains made at Coachella and Lollapalooza, forward-thinking festivals like Soulfrito at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center are unabashedly stacking lineups with these artists, bringing the likes of Arcangel, Farruko, and Ozuna to the same stage as A Boogie, Gunna, and Jeremih. That increases visibility for the latter rappers with audiences ostensibly comprised of U.S.-based Latinx people, who according to Nielsen represent a demographic quantifiably more engaged online. The digital footprint of this young listenership presents significant potential fandoms for these artists, who may have growing profiles and prominence here yet far less of a presence abroad. Música urbana acts regularly dominate at YouTube globally, with video plays that often dwarf those of English-language rappers. Tapping into that viewership via songs like the ones cited here could extend into subsequent releases with or without Spanish-language artists.
Of course, authenticity and respect matters. Much like Wiz Khalifa’s repeated lyrical gaffes about Asian eyes, American rappers who use their Latin collabs to spit about “spicy mamis” aren’t doing themselves any favors. The success of YG’s “Go Loko” comes despite the mixed messaging of rhyming alongside a Puerto Rican rapper in a music video marked with California Mexican signifiers and stereotypes. What mariachi has to do with Caribbean trap remains a mystery, and arguably suggests a mostly superficial engagement with the latter.
Misfires happen as well. Last year, Tory Lanez announced a Spanish-language album of his own with an Ozuna-backed single entitled “Pa Mí,” which performed modestly on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. Not only has the tentatively-titled El Agua full-length yet to materialize, but his next half dozen singles have all been in English. While there’s no clear explanation for the delay or cancellation of the project, any perception of him treating the record as an afterthought won’t help his prospects in Latin America.
In the age of streaming, with its power to reach global audiences in ways musicians once could only dream of, the future of hip-hop isn’t within the borders of the lower 48. International fandoms can facilitate the kind of lucrative world tours that all-but exclusively belonged to rockers and popstars less than a decade ago. Without abandoning his native tongue, Daddy Yankee successfully bridged gaps all over the globe with “Gasolina” back in the day, and he continues to command wide acceptance and appeal with his current work. English-language rappers who seek to follow his example might very well find themselves with bigger bases than previously imagined. And one way to kickstart that process comes from working with the new wave of Latinx rappers and singers.