At root, American pop is Latin music as much as anything else, from country’s Mexican DNA to the Cuban syncopations that seeded jazz, rock & roll, disco, salsa and hip-hop. So an apparent trifle like Cardi’s B’s “I Like It” is, in fact, a pan-Latin masterstroke packed with history, a hit based on “I Like It Like That” – the genre-defining 1967 single by Latin boogaloo king Pete Rodriguez – updated by a Dominican-Trinidadian rapper tag-teaming with a Puerto Rican trap phenom (Bad Bunny) and a Colombian reggaetón ambassador: J. Balvin. Vibras, Balvin’s fifth studio LP, happens to be a pan-Latin masterstroke of its own, a set of primo Spanish-language pop with vibe deep enough to make it universal.
Balvin is leading a new breed of Latin stars who can cross over without watering down their roots – an interesting development in this ostensibly wall-building era. The video for last year’s “Mi Gente” – a mighty club jam that shares its title (meaning “My People”) with the signature song of salsa legend/Balvin hero Hector Lavoe – has racked up 1.8 billion YouTube views at last count, and even scored a remix cameo from Beyoncé, who invited Balvin up for her epic Coachella set last month. Produced by Parisian producer/featured co-singer Willy Williams with co-writes by French radio VIP DJ Assad and Swedish-Congolese pop journeyman Mohombi, “Mi Gente” kicks off Vibras, and its dubby, chilled-out, internationalist take on reggaetón is a template for the entire set.
Balvin is a smoothie, a chiseled yet cherubic heartthrob with a gentle-roughneck tenor and a seductive, vaped-up flow; his wingman Alejandro “Sky” Ramirez and reggaetón veteran Marco “Tainy” Masis produce most of the tracks with a languid bounce. The album’s fourth single, “Ambiente,” is a throwback to Eighties Jamaican lovers rock, complete with old-school brass stabs and lyrics conjuring ganja smoke. “Brillo” is an abstract flamenco duet with Catalan singer Rosalía floating over nylon-strung guitar flashes and flickering finger-snaps; “Machika” brings in Brazilian pop queen Anitta and Aruban singer Jeon to flow over beats rooted in the sped-up Dutch-Carribbean dancehall style known as bubbling, courtesy of Suriname DJ Chuckie – a U.N. of styles in a seamless flow.
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In 2015, Balvin pulled out of performing on the Miss USA broadcast to protest disrespectful comments made about Latinos by contest owner Donald Trump. In their approach, the international party jams on Vibras show a similar solidarity. And to be sure, when Balvin sings “My music doesn’t discriminate against anyone” on “Mi Gente,” it’s as admirable a business strategy as it is a moral stance.