In 2022, Latin pop thrived on innovation. Again.
By Jon Pareles
Pop in 2022 was unequivocally dominated by Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny. Songs from his latest album, “Un Verano Sin Ti” (“A Summer Without You”), were streamed billions of times, keeping it at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart for much of the year; his tours and other live performances grossed $435 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. Even so, his triumph was anything but a surprise. Every one of the six albums that the artist, born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, has released since 2018 has been a billion-streamer.
Yet he has stuck to lyrics in Spanish. Unlike prior waves of Latin pop hitmakers who have reached a wider U.S. market, Bad Bunny is very clearly not bothering to court an English-language crossover. The world is listening anyway.
Bad Bunny’s voice — a rich baritone groan that can sound both supremely confident and perpetually unsatisfied — has become one of the most recognizable sounds of the 21st century, at home in every collaboration and any idiom he chooses, from reggaeton to punk-pop. He has built a persona as a hard-partying, raunchy, fashion-forward Casanova who also speaks out about Puerto Rico’s pride and frustrations. And the commercial success of “Un Verano Sin Ti” was so undeniable that it became the first release performed entirely in Spanish to receive a Grammy nomination for album of the year.
That’s a very belated milestone. It’s also just a hint of how much diverse, brilliant Spanish-language pop appeared in 2022: from forward-looking pop contenders like Rosalía and Rauw Alejandro; from introspective yet sonically ambitious songwriters like Carla Morrison and iLe; and from experimental composers like Lucrecia Dalt. Drawing freely and idiosyncratically on tradition, all of them have found ways to recast multigenerational lore into music for the here and now.
Latin music — a purposely loose category that encompasses countless national, regional and local styles — has always pointed toward joyful innovation. Across the Americas, historical forces including colonialism, slavery, Indigenous perseverance, and cultural and individual resourcefulness forged music that is richly, creatively hybridized. Latin music has long proved that the fusions broaden connections.
In 1938, New Orleans pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, speaking about the origins of jazz, told Alan Lomax, “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.”
What Morton called the “Spanish tinge” actually came from Afro-Cuban rhythms like the habanera. Rhythms, dynamics, melodic contours, vocal inflections and other ideas from Latin music have repeatedly catalyzed mainstream musical evolution: in jazz, rock ’n’ roll, psychedelia, disco, electronic dance music and hip-hop. Current pop has found an international common denominator in the reggaeton beat that emerged decades ago in Panama and Puerto Rico. Now it just sounds like an eternal, syncopated pulse.
In the era of streaming and the internet, Latin music has reconfigured the meaning of regional styles. A particular beat or a standard instrumental lineup — a cumbia by a mariachi band, or a bachata with electric guitar and bongos — still points clearly to a singular place of origin, to Mexico or the Dominican Republic. But musicians aren’t confining themselves to homeland styles or shunning outsiders. With everything available for listening or sampling or layering, far more boundary-hopping now takes place; Bad Bunny’s album, for instance, focuses on reggaeton but also dips into bachata, cumbia and merengue. In the best new Latin pop, genre-hopping and genre-splicing are clearly a matter of musical curiosity and shared intentions, not crossover calculation.
Spanish songwriter Rosalía made it her game plan to jump-cut among styles on her profoundly and playfully self-conscious 2022 album, “Motomami.” The songs constantly, willfully mutate, using the flamenco Rosalía studied in Spain along with reggaeton, bachata, piano ballads, jazz, hip-hop and salsa. On “Motomami” she sings about her determination to transform, her sudden global fame and how fleeting it could be; she also throws in some Japanese references, in case anyone thought she was limited to Europe and the Americas. Each allusion has clearly recognizable roots, but Rosalía insists that their contrasts add up to something more: a common humanity, even if it’s digitally mediated.
Puerto Rican singer, songwriter and producer Rauw Alejandro steered his pop-reggaeton toward electronic realms on his 2022 album, “Saturno.” He nodded toward reggaeton predecessors — one of the album’s hits, “Punto 40,” radically updated a 1998 song in collaboration with its originator, Baby Rasta — but he also deployed synthesizers to go hopscotching through styles like electro- and hyperpop, sometimes dissolving the beat to trade typical reggaeton braggadocio for lost-in-space heartache.
Eerie electronic backdrops merged with Latin rhythms to heighten the intimacy of 2022 albums like “Nacarile,” by Puerto Rican songwriter iLe (Ileana Cabra), and “El Renacimiento,” by Mexican songwriter Carla Morrison. ILe touched down in established styles like reggaeton (in a duet with the Puerto Rican reggaeton pioneer Ivy Queen) and bolero (in a duet with Chilean songwriter Mon Laferte), but also created otherworldly new hybrids, floating her voice within a phantom chorale in songs that explored temptation and oppression. On “El Renacimiento” (“The Rebirth”), Morrison sang about overcoming doubts and anxieties in music that seemed to hover around her protectively, invoking traditional rhythms from a great distance.
As Latin pop flexes both its inventiveness and its commercial clout, crass imitations and dilutions are bound to appear. There will inevitably be questions about who profits and who deserves credit.
Bad Bunny, for one, isn’t threatened. One of the most hard-hitting songs on “Un Verano Sin Ti” is “El Apagón,” which means “The Blackout” — an irate reference to the frequent power failures that have plagued Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria in 2017. The track begins with a stark, traditional Puerto Rican beat, a bomba, as Bad Bunny praises the island’s people, culture and spunk. Midway through, it switches into buzzing, blasting, big-room EDM — as if leaping from ritual to rave — but not before Bad Bunny makes a point Jelly Roll Morton might well have respected.
“Ahora todos quieren ser latinos / No, ey, pero les falta sazón,” Bad Bunny chants. “Now everybody wants to be Latin, but they don’t have the seasoning.”