Last March, the Puerto Rican singer Alex Rose released an EP titled Sexflix. Rose lifted unimpeachable melodies from R&B hits like Mario’s “Let Me Love You” and Ray J’s “One Wish,” but he made two key revisions to his source material, updating the drums to compete with modern recordings and adding his own lyrics in Spanish. His amalgam hit home: The single “Darte” has accumulated more than 30 million views on YouTube, and rising stars like Bryant Myers and Casper Mágico piled on to the remix.
Rose is not the only Latin artist taking this approach. In October, the ever-adaptable Pitbull joined the bachata singer Prince Royce to transform Usher and Lil Jon’s “Lovers & Friends” into “Quiero Saber.” A week later, the Spanish singer Rosalía, who came up singing flamenco, released “Bagdad,” which revitalized Justin Timberlake’s cold-hearted classic “Cry Me a River.”
It’s not a coincidence that all these songs were released during an eight-month period. “The influence of R&B on Latin music gets stronger every day,” says Jorge Fonseca, an A&R at Sony Latin who played a role in the rise of Latin trap. “This is the new sound — this is where [Latin music] is going.”
There is a long history of Latin involvement in R&B, especially in the United States. “There was a kind of kinship there [between those communities],” says Ruben Molina, the author of Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture. “Think of a place like San Antonio — it was the last stop for the Chitlin circuit [a system of clubs where black performers were allowed to play in the days of segregation], which soul singers, blues singers relied on. A lot of times the audience was basically a Chicano audience.”
Molina continues, “In Los Angeles, many of the Chicano groups had really good horn sections — they studied in school, read music, knew how to put a song together — and they became the backing bands on some of the main radio stations here. Back then, a lot of the singers that stations brought in were black artists. There was a camaraderie.”
Much of the Chicano soul Molina loves — pretty, unhurried, often with strong connections to doo-wop — was sung in English. But Spanish versions of popular R&B songs sprang up in Mexico and other countries south of the U.S. “A lot of collectors are going through Central America and digging up recordings of soul groups in Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala,” Molina says.
But Spanish-language variants of R&B didn’t always captivate large chunks of the Latino audience. “We’ve never had [Spanish-language] R&B artists that succeeded,” says Rebeca León, who manages J Balvin and Rosalía. “If you wanted to sing and make it to the next level in Latin America, you automatically had to do pop,” adds Jesse Baez, an artist who grew up in Guatemala and now frequently sings R&B in Spanish. “And not a cool pop — on the cornier side.”
During the last 15 years in particular, reggaeton has been the dominant form of commercial music in Spanish. “Reggaeton was more rap-oriented,” says Angelo Torres, who runs A&R for Marc Anthony’s label Magnus Media. “Or if artists sang, they did Latin-sounding singing [rather than borrowing the inflections of R&B].” So around five years ago, when Baez surveyed the pop landscape, he recalls lamenting that, “No one makes R&B in Spanish.”
But that has been changing, thanks in large part to the rise of Latin trap. As trap singles from Bad Bunny, Ozuna and others gained a global audience, this had two important effects. First, these tracks helped loosen reggaeton’s chokehold on the Latin mainstream. “It opened a space for these kids who listen to other music,” Torres says. “Now it’s about what you grew up with — if you grew up listening to Trey Songz and the Weeknd, that’s way more acceptable.” Baez credits his Spanish cover of the Weeknd’s “Tell Your Friends” with helping him get a record deal.
In addition, Latin trap brought Spanish-language pop and English-language pop that much closer. “The sounds, the chord progressions in trap are naturally more American,” says Fonseca. This made interchange between the two musical cultures even more frictionless.
Magnus Media’s Torres began to hear more Spanish-language R&B soon after trap started to gain traction in Puerto Rico. “That’s where artists have been doing this for a bit: Rauw Alejandro, Lyanno, Sousa are leading that charge in the Puerto Rican space,” says Torres. “That is being felt throughout Latin America,” he adds, thanks to nearly exponential growth in Latin listening in the last few years. “Now there’s more ears on the music, more eyes on the videos.” In 2018, Spotify established a new playlist titled “R&B en Español.”
Last year’s definitive Spanish-language R&B hit was the remix of Alex Rose’s “Toda” with Cazzu, Lenny Tavárez, Lyanno and Rauw Alejandro, a sort of R&B counterpart to the global posse-cut-smash “Te Boté.” The careful doses of melisma in Rose’s first verse, the smartly arranged backing vocals in Tavárez’s hook, the sky-high cry Alejandro lets out before passing the baton to Cazzu — these are all traditional hallmarks of R&B. As of January, the “Toda” remix is closing in on half a billion views on YouTube.
Other songs in this vein have been reverberating around the Spanish-speaking world, and, importantly, attracting interest from record labels. Magnus signed Yashua, a young Dominican-American singer; his 2018 single “Pena” is full of appealing falsetto twirls and vocal quavers, and his dance moves pay tribute to Michael Jackson by way of Ne-Yo. On the other side of the Atlantic, Universal Music Spain put its weight behind Maikel Delacalle. On tracks like “Condiciones” and “Latinoamericana,” Delacalle relies on the simple guitar licks that buoyed countless R&B singles from the late Nineties and early 2000s. As “Latinoamericana” comes to a close, the singer starts to multiply his voice, adding vocal runs that loop and dive around the lead — another trademark R&B technique.
Fonseca has a neat theory that aligns the rise of Spanish-language R&B with previous traditions in the Latin mainstream. “For a long time, ballads were driving the market,” he says — until reggaeton took over, to the dismay of balladeers. Now he believes that, “The new phase of Latin urban could be the return to that romanticism for a new generation, the final connection between the sentimental lyrics and the music. It’s a natural transition from what trap wasn’t able to do fully.”
That last step may take some time, but artists already sense a shift taking place. “The whole Latin market is used to mainstream music, and it’s hard to make people listen and pay attention to the new sounds,” says C. Tangana, a Spanish artist who co-wrote eight songs on Rosalía’s new album, including “Bagdad,” and has produced music for Baez. “But it’s working: We have numbers.”
“You can make a playlist [of this music] on Spotify, and there are at least 25 songs that came out in the last four months that are relevant,” Baez adds. “I don’t think that was possible three years ago.”
The boundaries of the possible change very quickly in modern pop. In May of 2018, one of Fonseca’s co-workers at Sony Latin brought a new video to his attention. “Immediately I was blown away,” the A&R says. “I had a meeting with my boss, I showed it to him, and I told him, ‘I’m outta here.’ I didn’t even think twice. That same night, I made a call to the number that was on the YouTube page.” Five days later, he hopped a plane to Chile.
The video in question was “Not Steady” by a singer named Paloma Mami. Born in New York and raised in Chile, the 19-year-old singer had never recorded professionally before releasing this song, a svelte, seamlessly bilingual single. Around the two-minute mark, when Paloma Mami switches into English and rattles off a bracing, melismatic rebuke — “Got me second-thinking/’Bout you and me linking/Then I realize real quick/Who the fuck I am” — you know she’s been studying Aaliyah and TLC closely.
The speed of Fonseca’s departure worked to his advantage. While he was in Chile, Paloma Mami started to receive “emails and texts from Republic, from Warner, from Universal,” he remembers. “I was like, sorry, I’m here already!” The singer joined the Sony Latin roster within a month, which Fonseca calls “one of the quickest signings that I’ve done.” And when “Not Steady” hit Spotify, it enjoyed long stints in Spotify’s Global Viral 50.
What grabbed Fonseca when he encountered Paloma Mami’s single for the first time? He says simply, “I saw the future.”