In 2014, the singer Maluma took the stage at Madison Square Garden as part of a show hosted by Alex Sensation, an artist and DJ at Mega 97.9, New York City's most popular music station in any language. At that time, Maluma was riding on the crest of "La Temperatura," his first major hit outside of his native Colombia. "He was a baby in the industry," Sensation recalls, though a talented one: "I would compare him to a Latin version of Justin Bieber." But during Maluma's Madison Square Garden set, the microphone and video screen malfunctioned, hindering his performance.
Maluma returned to the venue on a recent Sunday in March, this time headlining a sold-out, glitch-free show. He was wildly successful in 2017, appearing in four separate music videos that amassed more than a billion views on YouTube – more than any other Spanish-speaking act. (In the English-language market, only Bieber, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Nicki Minaj have comparable YouTube numbers.) Rocio Guerrero, Head of Global Cultures at Spotify, calls Maluma, "the Ricky Martin of the new generation"; Nir Seroussi, president of Maluma's label, Sony Music US Latin, likens the singer to Justin Timberlake.
Maluma prefers a different comparison. "I like to say my genre is the Maluma genre," he explains. "I don't want people to know me as a reggaeton star. I want them to know me as Maluma, the star."
Speaking backstage at Madison Square Garden while sipping an espresso, he's earnest, enthusiastic – he likes to describe things as "a beautiful experience" – and charmingly conspiratorial: "You deserve everything," he says, before listing some of the collaborators (Daddy Yankee, Prince Royce, Jason Derulo) on his upcoming third album, F.A.M.E., due out in May. Where Maluma walks, cheerful hums seem to follow – minutes after he passes by, one security guard manning the elevators absentmindedly starts to whistle the singer's latest hit, "Felices los 4."
Maluma's rise coincided with, and helped magnify, a shift in the sound of mainstream Latin pop. Just as melody has become increasingly central in American rap, tunefulness has become a crucial asset in reggaeton. "Before 2013 and 2014, the genre was way more hard," Guerrero says. "Then it started to lean more pop, but with a reggaeton base."
Maluma also emerged, fresh-faced and Instagram-ready, at the start of the streaming era. Suddenly young Spanish-speaking singers were able to operate in a vast, interconnected musical marketplace, rather than the segmented landscape that required their predecessors to acquire momentum country by country.
This new environment suited Maluma's skill set. Born Juan Luis Londoño Arias in Medellín, Colombia, he grew up listening to reggaeton, which enthralled his peers. But he also embraced salsa – a genre that traditionally rewards strong voices with a knack for melodic improvisation – which was beloved by his parents. His aunt, who worked in television, introduced him to local music producers, and Maluma scored a record deal while still a teen. "In a way I'm different," the singer says. "When I was very young, I didn't want to hang out with the people my age. I'm always thinking about the next step."
Whatever that step was, the digital world would play an important role. "When I released my first song, I was already thinking YouTube – not, 'I want to have my song in a CD player,'" Maluma says. He focused his efforts on streaming since the beginning, and as streaming's power cemented in the last three years, Maluma was catapulted onto a global stage. He now has 14 million subscribers on YouTube and 18.1 million monthly listeners on Spotify. "We all know streaming is the most important thing for a musician," he says.
Of course, songs are important too, and Maluma quickly proved adept at sugary reggaeton as well as the occasional arena-salsa missile. By the time he released 2015's Pretty Boy, Dirty Boy, he was also comfortable surveying bachata ("Tengo un Amor"), frothy acoustic balladry ("Vuelo Hacia el Olvido") and English-language collaborations (Fifth Harmony on the "Sin Contrato" remix). "The thread across it all," according to Seroussi? "Maluma's always a heartthrob." Sensation describes the singer as "a 4x4, all-terrain artist: Whatever you throw at him, he knows how to tackle it."
"We all know streaming is the most important thing for a musician."
And he knows when to tackle it: Maluma has a keen ear for emerging trends. He teamed up with the Brazilian singer Anitta on "Yes or No" in 2016, more than a year before Brazilian music started to break through on a global scale. In the last six months, as Brazilian artists have become a common presence on YouTube's charts, working with the country's artists has become a popular move (see J Balvin, Nacho, Future and 2 Chainz). Maluma returned to Brazil for inspiration in 2017 as well, reworking Nego de Borel's "Você Partiu Meu Coração" as his own hit "Corazon," which served as the jubilant opener to his Madison Square Garden concert.
The same year Maluma connected with Anitta, he also endorsed the then-nascent genre known as Latin trap, giving the Spanish-language hip-hop variant one of its first mainstream hits in "Cuatro Babys" (also the rowdy finale of his New York show). Although he was criticized for singing misogynist lyrics – "everybody started judging me," Maluma acknowledges – it has not slowed his ascent, nor Latin trap's. The genre has burrowed rapidly into the center of Latin pop, forcing veterans like Shakira and Victor Manuelle to pivot and acknowledge its dominance. "Maluma has been ahead of the curve," Guerrero says. "You can tell he knows what he's doing." The singer still dabbles periodically in trap; in November, he released a lavishly produced short film involving motorcycle racing, romantic drama and multiple trap songs.
Maluma's hot streak shows no signs of abating. Last year's one-off, the eminently whistle-able "Felices los 4," has sold over a million units, his first single to do so, and it also came close to cracking the Top 40 in the U.S. This would suggest an album is almost an afterthought: Maluma, and several of his comrades in the Spanish-language market, including fellow Colombian J Balvin, could release billion-view singles for the foreseeable future and ignore the full-length model completely.
But there are still a few things Maluma hopes to achieve, and he believes F.A.M.E. can accelerate his progress. "An Anglo Grammy, of course I want that," he says. "And I want to keep doing these kinds of shows – go to Dubai and perform in an arena, go to Tokyo."
Before all that, he had his first headlining gig at Madison Square Garden. Sensation, who gave him a shot in the arena years ago, was in the crowd cheering him on, as was Maluma's father, wearing a blue blazer and snapping selfies with a line of fans. The singer displayed an easy mastery of the arena stage, swerving nimbly and authoritatively between genres while wearing a brightly patterned crimson smoking jacket. There was an extended seduction set piece with a fan chosen from the crowd – Maluma serenaded her at close range with an acoustic R&B version of "El Perdedor" before smooching her on the lips – and a lot of long-distance flirtation. Maluma understands that all he has to do is show his profile and beckon to fill a venue with screams.
"This is what I was born for," he explained before the show. "I think I'm just starting my career right now."