In May, almost exactly 13 years after Reik released their debut album, the Mexican trio scored their first Number One hit on the Latin Airplay chart: “Me Niego,” an indomitable, reggaeton-laced collaboration with the youthful hook-master Ozuna and the veteran rapper Wisin. The combination of molten pleading from Reik’s lead singer, Jesús Navarro, and the light touch of Ozuna worked like crazy, and “Me Niego” has been certified ten-times platinum.
It’s unusual for a band to enjoy the biggest hit of their career after releasing five studio LPs and two live albums. It’s even more unusual in the case of Reik: Before “Me Neigo,” the group had almost no experience with reggaeton. For over a decade, they specialized in handsome melodic rock. Guitarists Julio Ramírez Eguía and Gilberto “Bibi” Marin Espinoza borrowed from jangly Eighties rock, sweeping post-punk and delicate balladry, while Navarro was a potent frontman with a rich mid-range and a dangerous falsetto.
But in 2016, as Reik were finalizing their fifth album, Des/Amor, the band began to feel like their genre had calcified. “Traditional romantic pop was in a rut,” Espinoza says, in-between gulps of cold brew and bites of oatmeal in a midtown Manhattan restaurant. “It still is. We needed to renovate ourselves.”
With some prodding from their management, they decided to transform Des/Amor‘s somber ballad “Ya Me Enteré” into a propulsive collaboration with reggaeton hitmaker Nicky Jam. Around this time, similar pop-reggaeton team-ups were taking the globe by storm — see the 2015 Jam-Enrique Iglesias mega-hit “El Perdon” — and “Ya Me Enteré” went on to become Reik’s first platinum single. The group followed that with “Me Niego,” and they aim to continue their hot streak today with “Amigos con Derechos,” a track featuring Colombian superstar Maluma that is all but guaranteed to scorch the charts.
“It starts out with guitars, a beautiful melody; it’s a little bit corny like a traditional romantic song,” Espinoza explains. “That’s our comfort zone. Then it turns into something more urban” — in the Latin market, the term “urban” signifies the presence of elements from reggaeton or Latin trap — “that’s cool, laid-back.”
Though the success of “Me Niego” and a Maluma collaboration suggest that Reik instantly acclimated to the more rugged world of reggaeton, they insist that this was not the case. “We were used to doing verse, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat, bridge, chorus,” says Eguía. “In the urban world, they’re like, ‘hell no!’ For them, it’s introduction, chorus, the rap part, then second chorus.”
It turns out that these structural discrepancies are just one difference between the pop and urban recording worlds. “Our main producer was the producer for Luis Miguel [a titan of Mexican pop], Kiko Cibrián,” Eguía continues. “He’s old-school about instruments: The room has to be great, the mic great, the pre-amp great. With the urban guys, we could be right here, right now” — he points around to the buzzing restaurant, looking amused that anyone would try to cut a track in these conditions — “hey, let’s record a song.”
Navarro picks up the thread. “But it’s a full restaurant!” he says, pretending to protest. Then he takes on the role of a reggaeton producer. “‘No don’t worry, we’ll clean up [the vocal].’ I’m like, are you serious?”
Eguía sums up: “[The transition] was a mind-fuck.” But the band forced themselves to stay neutral: “Don’t judge, just learn.”
This unbiased approach was important, because Navarro had to re-wire his approach to singing, find new ways to nestle words into the trademark reggaeton beat. “Everything I would usually do doesn’t sound like it makes sense in the urban scene,” he says. “I can get there, but I don’t nail it on my first try. In some cases, if we’re writing songs with someone in that world, I say, ‘you record it first, so I can listen to it for maybe a day and get the nuances.’ Otherwise it ends up sounding like you’re trying too hard or maybe not trying enough.”
This was a strange sensation for an artist who’s always known his way around a vocal booth. “It’s the first time I’ve ever encountered that in almost 15 years,” Navarro adds.
Some bands would surely find this transition daunting five albums into a career. But in fact, Navarro says that this is the ideal time to change direction. “We’ve been touring for more than a decade,” he points out. “Even if we put out a whole record’s worth of shitty songs, people will still come and check out the show. It’s been six or seven years since I’ve felt, ‘oh my God, I don’t know what’s going to happen next album.’ We’re standing on solid ground.”
Still, he acknowledges that Reik’s past attempts to mix it up were largely regarded with indifference. “At a certain point, we were trying to push, do something different, and it usually didn’t work,” Navarro says. So Reik were just about ready to settle into a pattern. “We were starting to come around to the idea that [sticking to one sound] was what our lives were going to be. It’s not what I wanted to do professionally, but I get to live in a nice house, I get to go wherever I want — that’s more than most people can say.”
Then came the second wave of reggaeton’s international explosion, and the chance to work with Nicky Jam, Ozuna and Maluma. “Suddenly, we get to be able to experiment again,” Navarro continues happily. “And people are willing to listen to it.”