Behind Bad Bunny’s summery surprise, ‘Un Verano Sin Ti’
By Isabelia Herrera
Most pop stars would move heaven and earth to attend the Met Gala. But for Bad Bunny, one of music’s most idiosyncratic figures, it’s just another Monday night. “Obviously I’m happy that they invited me,” he said, twirling from side to side in a high leather swivel chair at New York’s venerated Electric Lady Studios about 48 hours before the exclusive fashion fête. “I know that day is going to be an exciting thing,” he continued. “But I’m working a lot this week!”
Two weeks ago, he announced his casting as the lead of a live-action Marvel movie, playing a character from the Spider-Man universe named El Muerto. Two days after that, he was filming music videos in Puerto Rico. Throughout it all, he was preparing for the release of his fourth studio album, “Un Verano Sin Ti” (“A Summer Without You”), which dropped on Friday.
At the gala last Monday, Bad Bunny — born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio — wore a custom cream boiler suit and skirt with puff sleeves, designed by Riccardo Tisci for Burberry. At Electric Lady, calmly putting the final touches on the album and working on some new material, he sported a quintessentially Benito look: pastel pink swim trunks, a checkered blue cardigan and a wide-brimmed sage fisherman’s hat. His left thigh was covered in tattoos, including the sad-faced cartoon heart that appears on the artwork for his new album, and an outline of his home, Puerto Rico. His right thigh bore only one design: the logo for Pokémon Go.
Since his genre-crushing debut in 2018, Bad Bunny, now 28, has been nearly unstoppable, colliding pop punk, synth-pop, bachata, dembow and reggaeton on his way to becoming a global superstar. He released two LPs in 2020, including “El Último Tour Del Mundo,” the first fully Spanish-language album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. He’s been the most streamed artist on Spotify two years in a row.
Bad Bunny has approached each of his albums with an explicit goal. “Since forever I’ve made it clear to people that I’m never going to make a record that’s the same as another,” he said. But beyond the ambition to warp genres, he’s also refused to genuflect to industry conventions, especially ones for Spanish-speaking artists.
“I could have done a track with, who knows, Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry,” he explained, referring to his first 2020 album, “YHLQMDLG.” “But no, I was making ‘Safaera’ with Ñengo Flow and Jowell y Randy. And I was putting the whole world onto underground from Puerto Rico, you know? That makes me feel proud of what I represent.”
He approached “Un Verano Sin Ti” with a bit of a lighter touch: “It’s a record to play in the summer, on the beach, as a playlist.” He drew on both recent experiences and nostalgia for dog days of the past. “When I was a little kid, my family would go to the West on vacation,” he said, referring to the coast of Puerto Rico. For “Un Verano Sin Ti,” he decided to explore the eastern side, near Río Grande and Fajardo. The majority of the album was recorded there and in the Dominican Republic.
“Un Verano Sin Ti” is a pop album, but not necessarily a straightforward one. Bad Bunny infuses it with electrifying beat switches, raunchy raps and astral synths. The record was inspired by an expansive spectrum of Caribbean music: the deep cuts of the beloved salsa singer Ismael Rivera; Dominican dembow; and groups like Buscabulla, who appear on the song “Andrea.”
“Un Verano Sin Ti” also contains collaborations with indie artists like the Marías and Bomba Estéreo, and plunges deeper into gauzy dream-pop textures and wistful synth interludes that feel vast and intimate all at once. The aural landscape is reminiscent of indietronica artists like M83, but Bad Bunny and his producers Tainy, MAG and La Paciencia immerse it in Caribbean gloss.
Both MAG and Bad Bunny were partially inspired by Buscabulla’s lush synth pop, and Bad Bunny said he listened to the duo’s 2020 album, “Regresa,” on repeat during quarantine.
“It was Easter Sunday and we got a call from a bunny,” the duo’s multi-instrumentalist, Luis Alfredo Del Valle, joked in a phone interview. On “Andrea,” Bad Bunny renders a portrait of a Puerto Rican woman hoping to live life on her own terms, and Buscabulla’s vocalist, Raquel Berríos, assumes the character’s voice. “I felt that the chorus had to carry a lot of weight about what it means to be a woman from the Caribbean,” Berríos said. “I had never worked this hard for a song.”
Much like “Estamos Bien” before it, “El Apagón” is a torch song that captures both the beauty and tragedy of Puerto Rican life. The track references the blackouts that persisted after a private consortium took over the island’s energy distribution last year. But it also incorporates laugh-out-loud citations of old school reggaeton, including a salacious lyric from DJ Joe’s “Fatal Fantassy” mixtape. It even ends with a send-off for the mainland investors who have descended on the island in search of tax breaks, driving up home prices and displacing locals. “Que se vayan ellos,” sings Gabriela Berlingeri, Bad Bunny’s girlfriend. “Esta es mi playa/esta es mi tierra” (“Let them leave. This is my beach/this is my land”).
“This is a song from the heart,” Bad Bunny said, explaining that he wrote the lyrics for Berlingeri to sing. “I didn’t want to get a famous artist,” he added. “I wanted someone to sing it out of love, because it’s a sincere message.”
At one point on “El Apagón,” Bad Bunny declares in Spanish, “Now everyone wants to be Latino,” a reference to a sudden spate of musicians who “don’t have a thing to do with Latino culture” singing in Spanish or playing with reggaeton. “Even though you can feel proud and happy about that, deep down, you’re like,” he paused. “‘Now, cabrones? Why not before?’” For so long, the music industry scorned Latino artists, segregating them into confining sounds and aesthetics, he said. “It was like a huge line, a wall — us over here, and you over there.”
“It’s not a critique, like, ‘Don’t do it!’” he added. “But remember that it’s from here, and that we know how to do it like it’s supposed to be done.”