While plenty of Latinx talent has graced the festival’s main stage since its inception two decades ago, the Coachella Stage has counted predominantly rock acts, like the Mars Volta, Café Tacvba, Kinky and Zoé as alumni; the shape-shifting Puerto Rican hip-hop duo Calle 13 became the first urbano act to play the stage in 2010. J Balvin not only brought urbano back to the main stage with a vengeance this year — but he became the first reggaeton act to do so.
The Colombian superstar and reggaeton revolutionary came stocked with an arsenal of original hits, as well as classics from throughout his beloved genre’s near 25-year history. He established his pro-dembow agenda early on with opening track, “Reggaeton,” followed by some cuts from his 2018 album Vibras. Populated by plushies, dinosaurs and a ginormous doll, Balvin’s stage took the form of both an idyllic cartoon utopia and demented, psychedelic toy box, evoking the splashy stylings of Japanese visual artists Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama. The set was designed in conjunction with FriendsWithYou, a pop art collective comprised of American artists Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III.
Perhaps the world’s hippest history teacher, Balvin made a point of citing the sources of his sound, by paying homage to reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, Zion y Lennox and Wisin y Yandel. (“We gotta pay respect to the O.G.’s,” shouted Balvin, amid a swarm of dancers donning fluffy cloud suits.) Although he is a staunch representative of Latin pop’s new wave, a.k.a the “New Latino Gang,” Balvin’s mid-set reggaeton medley paid homage to a Latino Gang of yore with N.O.R.E.’s 2005 pan-Latin anthem, “Oye Mi Canto“: featuring Nina Sky, Big Mato, Gemstar and Daddy Yankee, who surprisingly has yet to play the festival himself. The throwback medley proved a smash success with the audience, thousands of whom could be heard chanting its chorus — “Boricua, morena/dominicano, colombiano” — over the livestream broadcast, culminating in a mass moment of Latinx pride.
In true Coachella fashion, Balvin invited up the co-stars of his two latest tracks: he wined with Spanish pop renegade Rosalía in “Con Altura“, and shared a mini-Spanglish lesson with reigning dancehall don Sean Paul for “Contra La Pared.” Yet for his Number One megahit and fan favorite, 2018’s “I Like It,” Balvin took a different approach: he ushered in two gargantuan, dancing papier-mâché bobbleheads, who shared the likeness of New Latino Gangsters Cardi B and Bad Bunny. Together Balvin and the bobbleheads danced a furious salsa well into the outro, which transitioned into Carmelo Ponce y Su Combo’s 1971 song, “Me Piden Boogaloo.” (While “Oye Mi Canto” tugged at the heartstrings of Millennials, this one was for the real oldheads.)
Capping it off with a frenetic, deep house remix of “Mi Gente,” J Balvin seemed to reached the apex of the crusade he started so many years ago, as a shy reggaetonero in his hometown of Medellín — endearing a largely monolingual and fickle pop fanbase in the United States to his arty, Spanish-language take on urban music — and he didn’t miss a beat.