The chants started early, ricocheting through the ornate United Palace Theater in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood: "Conejo! Malo! Conejo! Malo! Conejo! Malo!"
It means "Bad Bunny," and it was the very first headlining tour of the United States for the Puerto Rican singer-rapper born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio. Though it was his first top-billed outing, it had all the drama of a victory lap – in 2017 alone, he amassed more than four billion views on YouTube and appeared on over a dozen hits. You can find him next to Nicki Minaj holding down the siren-wail hook of Farruko's "Krippy Kush," posting videos with Drake on Instagram, or recording a soon-to-be-released single with Future.
"He's the hottest Latin artist right now," says Luis Rivera, Program Director for Latino Music at Music Choice, which controls audio and video content for cable TV subscribers. "I've never seen a performer develop so fast in the Latino market," adds Henry Cardenas, CEO of the Cardenas Marketing Network, which has exclusive booking rights for Bad Bunny shows in several Latin American markets. "When he comes out, nobody sits."
And Bad Bunny has also become the de facto leader of a musical groundswell called "Latin trap," which has, for part of the younger, Spanish-speaking audience, eclipsed long-reigning reggaeton in popularity. This point was underlined at the United Palace by the opening act, DJ Kazzanova of New York station Mega 97.9. After cuing up the N.O.R.E. classic "Oye Mi Canto," which includes the assertion, "They want reggaeton," Kazzanova annotated the lyrics in real time. "Now everybody wants trap," he told the crowd in Spanish, almost apologetic. "But the problem" – for an opening DJ who doesn't want to replicate the headliner's set – "is that every good trap song contains Bad Bunny."
Long before he joined the billion-views club, Bad Bunny started singing at school and in church in Puerto Rico. Speaking through a translator, he emphasizes his distance from the music establishment. "I'm from Vega Baja, a small area that's not a metropolis like San Juan where the majority of the genre's artists have come from," Bad Bunny says. "That's what's most surprising and incredible about this – I simply came from nothing [makes explosion sound], and that's that." "When I was at school," he adds, "I used to stay on a balcony singing and people would stand around listening."
Though attracting a balcony crowd conjures old-fashioned images of romantic crooners, Bad Bunny is a thoroughly modern singer, employing a low, slurry tone, viscous melodies and a rapper's cadence. "I really liked his voice – the deep voice was very different," says the Dominican singer Natti Natasha, another member of the billion-views club (see "Criminal") who collaborated with Bad Bunny recently on "Amantes de Una Noche." "And obviously the way he raps caught my attention: He doesn't stop [in contrast to the staccato approach common in reggaeton], and you can move to it; even without music, I would still move to it."
In an era of unprecedented musical plenty and shorter listener attention spans, an instantly recognizable tone is more valuable than ever. "Once you hear [Bad Bunny's] first syllable, you know it's him," Rivera says. Through SoundCloud, Bad Bunny's idiosyncratic timbre reached the ears of DJ Luian, an experienced operator in the Puerto Rican music scene and former DJ for Arcangel – a versatile, open-eared artist who has always been comfortable venturing across genre lines. "Luian knows the industry, and he has the connections," Rivera says.
Bad Bunny is now signed to Luian's label Hear This Music, which forged a distribution deal with Sony Music Latin. Luian also connected Bad Bunny with the production duo Mambo Kingz, veterans with over a decade of experience, including work on RKM & Ken-Y's album The Royalty: La Realize and Arcangel's Sentimiento, Elegancia & Maldad, both of which went Number One on the Latin Albums chart. You can hear Bad Bunny shout out the Mambo Kingz on hit after hit.
And there are a lot of hits. "He's the opposite of how most artists are promoting themselves," explains DJ Eddie One, a DJ on Los Angeles' Mega 96.3. "He just puts out records on the daily on YouTube. Radio promoters don't work them the regular way records are worked."
Promotion would mostly be a waste of Bad Bunny's time, because terrestrial radio outlets can't play many of his songs for fear of incurring the wrath of the FCC. "It's a mission to be able to play those tracks on the air," says Eddie One, noting that he had to do heavy editing work on "Diles," which is full of lusty boasts about sexual prowess, and "Soy Peor," a nasty post-breakup kiss-off. "The dirtiness on his tracks is next level."
So when Bad Bunny was in New York at the end of February, he visited some of the media outlets that can play his music uncut, including SiriusXM and Music Choice. "No censorship," SiriusXM's Bryant Pino told Bad Bunny as he settled into the studio. "You can do death threats, whatever you want," he added jokingly.
Bad Bunny, tall and impassive, peered over red-tinted glasses pushed halfway down his nose and slurped coffee. He was gradually won over by Pino's relentless enthusiasm and started to sprinkle his answers with onomatopoeic ad-libs – "brrrr!" – or his drawled catchphrase: "Bad Bunny, baby." He was more reticent on camera for Music Choice. During a set change at one point, a lighting flag toppled nearby; Bad Bunny wandered away unfazed, with his hands in his pockets.
The rapper remains blithe about his inability to permeate terrestrial radio. "It's a little frustrating – fuck! – but it's also not an obstacle," he says. "The music is far-reaching; maybe it doesn't reach far enough. But we're still making big things. It bothers me, but it doesn't take away my desire to continue doing it."
To the extent that Bad Bunny has penetrated the airwaves, he has done so through savvy collaborations. He recently reached Number One at Latin airplay on Becky G's "Mayores," an uptempo number about romantic entanglements with older men. "Getting a trap rapper to feature on a pop rhythmic song was a big deal," Becky G emphasizes. "I was able to regain my street cred, but it also helped bring Bad Bunny to more people so they don't look down on trap music as much." "His lyrics were very intelligent," she adds. "He was like, 'OK, you guys want to talk shit about my lyrics? I'm still gonna say whatever the hell I want – and I'm gonna say it in the way that will still get played on radio.'"
Bad Bunny's other primary mainstream booster has been J Balvin, beloved by radio programmers, as seven Number One hits can attest. Last year the two men collaborated on both "Si Tu Novio Te Deja Sola" and "Sensualidad," the latter cracking the Top 20 at radio. Balvin was Bad Bunny's surprise guest during the second night at the United Palace Theater, and the pair sashayed through both records with evident delight, cheerfully mimicking the dance steps from the opening of the "Si Tu Novio Te Deja Sola" video. Then Bad Bunny headed offstage to change outfits and left Balvin to entertain the crowd with his own global hits "Mi Gente" and "Machika." Few artists could fold a Balvin interlude into their show and recover their momentum, but when Bad Bunny returned in fresh attire, fan fervor was undiminished.
However, Bad Bunny is not yet ready to declare Latin trap the heir to reggaeton's throne. "Reggaeton is something else – it is part of pop culture," he says. "It is something very big that I don't believe will ever die."
But he acknowledges that trap is increasingly indomitable. "Right now if you look at the U.S., trap is pop," Bad Bunny continues. "We're making the music that the people are asking us for. So it's just a matter of acceptance."
And that appears to be shifting quickly. "He didn't change for the radio," says Eddie One. "Mainstream media just can't deny him."