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J Balvin - Vibras Music Album Reviews

J Balvin - Vibras Music Album Reviews
The reggaetonero’s latest sets him up for even more global success. Its infectious vibe is draped in dancehall with a dash of trap production and nods to salsa, bachata, and Afrobeat.

On his first trips to America as a precocious teen, Colombia’s J Balvin didn’t necessarily understand all the words in the pop songs he fell in love with. But he knew how they made him feel, and he’s been trying to bottle that feeling with his music ever since.

The reggaetónero’s global success has dovetailed with the surge of reggaetón’s popularity in his home of Medellin, Colombia. The scene there has helped bring the genre back into the mainstream, often by taking a more suave approach to a traditionally explicit and misogynist aesthetic, not unlike his contemporary Maluma. But the 33-year-old Balvin has his sights set higher than just being the supreme reggatónero romántico. And on his latest album, Vibras, we’re finally getting a clear picture of what that sounds like.

Vibras, or “vibes” in Spanish, is defiantly Latin, but it is also in direct conversation with what’s happening in American pop—especially the pop that draws its direct ancestry from hip-hop. If it’s no longer important for rappers to be skilled lyricists, then the vibe rules supreme. Can you ride the beat? Can you nail the melody and make people move? If you can, it really doesn’t matter what words are said. Just set the vibe.

This aligns well with J Balvin’s plans for world domination. If the words are less important than the vibe, then why should the language matter? While Vibras is rooted in reggaetón, the beats are draped in dancehall and a dash of trap production techniques, with nods to salsa, bachata, and Afrobeat. Even for an American audience, it’s hard to classify this as global music when it often feels strangely familiar.

Much of it is produced by Alejandro “Sky” Ramirez and Marco “Tainy” Masis, the former a frequent Balvin collaborator and the latter a Puerto Rican production powerhouse who broke out with Luny Tunes’ Mas Flow: Los Benjamins. They freak beats with roots in flamenco (”Brillo”), toy with some Afrobeat influence (”En Mi,” “Tu Verdad”), and even somehow to flip a dembow beat into a romantic ballad with a little twinge of guitar (”No Es Justo”). Balvin’s duet with Willy William, “Mi Gente,” was one of last summer’s biggest hits, and rocketed into the mainstream when Beyoncé jumped on the remix, prompted by her 6-year-old daughter’s love for the song. And while Vibras certainly sounds like the future of reggaetón, Balvin’s global reach might best be evidenced by album closer “Machika,” which sees Suriname’s DJ Chuckie contribute a little bit of the up-tempo Dutch-Caribbean dancehall style known as “bubbling.”

Throughout Vibras, Balvin’s sensitive but street-savvy personality is on display. Colombia’s answer to Drake, he seeks to seduce, not subjugate, and seems poised to appeal to an audience at least as wide. Though music that tries to appeal to everyone often appeals to no one, Vibras' inclusiveness is a plus. It is the most accurate representation of J Balvin as an artist; he’s not just trying to seduce the women in his songs, but us, the listener, as well.

Alongside Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi, Ozuna, and Bad Bunny, Balvin’s success in Anglo markets is evidence of something more than just a “crossover” moment. As Latin culture site Remezcla points out, it raises the question of whether we can truly even consider Anglo music as the dominant culture in the international music market. And much like hip-hop did when it was assimilated into the American Top 40, Latin pop is re-writing the rules of what’s mainstream.

While Vibras is certainly engineered for the mainstream, its diversity is crucial to its identity; a straight reggaetón record softened up for mainstream consumption would feel shallow and cynical. And while the blurring of distinct genres often makes for new, exciting music, in the case of reggaetón it runs the risk of erasing the progenitors in Panama and Puerto Rico who built a counter-culture only to watch it run away from them in the mainstream. And it’s no coincidence that as reggaetón moves from the streets to Spotify, its biggest hits would be delivered by light-skinned artists with family-friendly overtones. But Balvin, who grew up wealthy but was relegated to the slums when his father’s business failed, has long straddled both worlds. On Vibras, he’s poised to take his place on the global stage—mi gente in tow.

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