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In 2022, Bad Bunny made pop stardom a subversive act

Bad Bunny has a preternatural gift for realness, one that he wields with fluidity, because that is what Caribbeanness demands. It makes his fame feel delightful and deviant.
Illustration: Simone Noronha for NPR
Bad Bunny has a preternatural gift for realness, one that he wields with fluidity, because that is what Caribbeanness demands. It makes his fame feel delightful and deviant.

By several measures, Bad Bunny became the world's biggest pop star in 2022. Just consider his record-breaking, sold-out, two-night run at Yankee Stadium. Twenty minutes before the show was slated to begin, a swarm of unticketed fans rushed the gates of the arena and attempted to claw their way past the NYPD officers stationed at the entrance (the cops promptly shuttered the doors and restrained anyone who tried to sneak in). Most of the 50,000 attendees had already shuffled inside, but for the hundreds of guests still in line, that meant listening to the cawing seagulls and seesawing synths that open his fourth studio album Un Verano Sin Ti from outside the stadium. After waiting outside for an hour and a half, the police finally opened up the gates and fans started to filter in. Once the show was in full swing, Bad Bunny mounted a floating island, affixed himself to its massive palm tree, and sang Un Verano Sin Ti's "Un Coco." He glided across the sky, the crowd bellowing in the stands. When the song ended, the floor erupted in chants: "Benito! Benito! Benito!"

But a month earlier, during the first night of the album's debut in San Juan, Benito delivered a searing speech that granted his concert a different kind of force. During the televised show, he lambasted the island-wide blackouts that have affected Puerto Rico since LUMA, a private consortium, took over the energy system last year. He didn't mince words, calling Gov. Pedro Pierluisi a "c*********." Predictably, the statement was labeled "vulgar" and "disrespectful" by some online, though Benito had thoughts for his detractors the next night: "You know what's also disrespectful?" he asked. "It's disrespectful for Puerto Rico to go without power one, five, four times a day. It's disrespectful that schools keep closing year after year. It's disrespectful that people in this country still don't have access to hospitals or healthcare systems. It's disrespectful that they keep trying to fool us and take us for pendejos, but they f***** with the generation that won't be taken advantage of."

This is who Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio is: both an irrepressible global pop star and political provocateur who collects streaming accolades with ease, but one who refuses to temper his idiosyncrasies or move to U.S. pop's center. His commitment to self-determination for the people of his island is strong; his unwillingness to sing in English is stronger. Those political interests permeate both his music and his public image, but within that rebellious ethos he never sacrifices space for play. Online, he is impish and magnetic: a meme fiend who has cultivated the kind of winsome goofball persona that compels fans to comment strings of cry-laughing face emojis on his posts. Rarely has a pop star of this stature embraced and flaunted these qualities all at once.

Some of that hard-earned freedom could be attributed to the fact that Benito became famous outside of the U.S. first — a reality that not only afforded him a more porous approach to industry conventions around politics and identity, but also allowed him to retrofit the architecture of U.S. pop stardom in his image. Where many U.S. entertainers might deploy progressive politics as part of a manufactured recipe for success, or abstain from these issues altogether, Benito is unafraid to tell it like it is. The man has a preternatural gift for realness, one that he wields with fluidity, because that is what Caribbeanness demands. It makes Bad Bunny's fame feel delightful and deviant.

His playful but political spirit courses through the veins of Un Verano Sin Ti, the sprawling, 23-track opus that set Benito's explosive year in motion. The album assembles all kinds of styles from the Caribbean, alchemizing reggae, bomba, reggaetón, Dominican bachata, merengue and dembow (notably, it misses an opportunity to explicitly feature long-neglected Black Dominican artists in the genres they helped pioneer). There is the coarse mambo "Después de la Playa" and the wisecracking dembow "Tití Me Preguntó"; even the EDM scorcher "El Apagón" interpolates elements of bomba in its condemnation of the blackouts.

Un Verano Sin Ti is a site of witness, wonder and a being-with. The album captured a particular condition of life in 2022: the hunt for a kind of comfort that doesn't detach itself from politics, but positions joy as a primordial communal discipline. Listening to it, you can almost feel the condensation from a Medalla beer drip down your fingers, or hear the revving engine of a motor scooter in the distance. It is the sound of shattered islands making due with what we've got. It is an exercise in public health. It is a blast of pleasure and pride.

Musically, UVST might be Benito's most conventional release yet, floating mostly atop the glassy waters of pop. His two 2020 albums, YHLQMDLG and El Último Tour del Mundo, took a different approach: The former was partially an ode to the raw edges of Puerto Rican underground and early 2000s reggaeton, two formative styles that shaped him into the artist he is today. El Último Tour del Mundo, on the other hand, expanded Benito's previous ventures into pop-punk and pop-rock. In the wake of these records, UVST felt a little safer. There is the misty popetón "Moscow Mule," the bossa nova shuffle of "Yo No Soy Celoso" and even a cookie-cutter throwback trap number called "Dos Mil 16." But Benito also experimented in genre a little here, recruiting independent Latinx artists like The Marías and Buscabulla to appear on the album — a maneuver that not only garnered him indie-kid approval, but also demonstrated how the pop mainstream continues to cull aesthetics from the underground. Un Verano Sin Ti was unafraid to converge these worlds and buck typical genre divides.

The broad appeal of Un Verano Sin Ti undoubtedly introduced Bad Bunny to all kinds of new listeners, further amplifying his global reach. He could have easily abandoned some of the styles that brought him global celebrity and conformed to unspoken industry rules, collaborating with the likes of "Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus," to use his own words. But he didn't, and even choosing the most commercial of styles paid off: For the third consecutive year, he was Spotify's most streamed artist across the globe, collecting 18.5 billion streams. He had the highest-grossing tours of 2022, cashing in $373.5 million from 65 shows. And if Drake lyrics are any marker of clout, Aubrey Graham recently likened himself to Benito on the song "Major Distribution" ("Bad Bunny numbers, it's a robbery").

Every week, new data insights and reports about Latin music's growing influence seem to arrive. Latin music (an imprecise, outdated shorthand term for a messy, complex history of dozens of genres and languages) is now considered the fourth most listened to genre in the United States. Meanwhile, UVST spent 13 nonconsecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200, the most weeks at No. 1 for an album this year, and became the first Spanish-language album to be nominated for album of the year at the Grammys. Skeptics and xenophobes take note: English-language music is by no means universal or exceptional.

An important caveat: These profit-based milestones are often used as talking points in "feel good," multicultural narratives about Latinx representation in the mainstream. You know how the story goes: the biggest pop star on the planet is Latino, signaling some neoliberal fantasy of racial harmony and ethnic representation. But these metrics don't tell the whole story, and they require race-based interrogation. The numbers may be shiny and big, but they say nothing about the hypervisibility of white Latinx — and the continued scourge of anti-Black racism — in the Latin music industry.

Still, Un Verano Sin Ti can't be separated from the political context that surrounds it. On "Andrea," Bad Bunny narrated the story of a woman seeking to live life on her own terms. Rumors circulated that the song was about the case of Andrea Ruiz, a woman who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in Puerto Rico after the court denied her a restraining order. Though Bad Bunny later clarified that she was not the inspiration for the song, its themes fall in line with his previous denunciations of gender-based violence.

And then there is "El Apagón," the visceral condemnation of recent blackouts in Puerto Rico. The song closes with a feature from Gabriela Berlingeri; she alludes to the U.S. investors who have been hiking up rent and fomenting the displacement of locals. "No me quiero ir de aquí / Que se vayan ellos," she sings ("I don't want to leave here / Let them leave.") When the video for "El Apagón" dropped, it was bookended by a 20-minute documentary, Aquí Vive Gente. Reported by independent journalist Bianca Graulau, the mini-doc further exposed the gentrification and upheaval generated by wealthy Americans swooping down on the island in search of tax breaks. In a stroke of cruel irony, its release coincided with Hurricane Fiona's landfall in Puerto Rico, which caused a total blackout across the island.

Bad Bunny doesn't usually rely on low-level political signaling; he's the kind of pop star who makes explicit critiques in his songs and follows it up with action (In 2019, he joined the Puerto Rican summer protests that led to the resignation of then-governor Ricardo Rosselló). Sometimes, this approach feels like a relic of the past. In the U.S., label executives have often believed political messaging and commercial success are mutually exclusive. Take Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," which Motown boss Berry Gordy famously debated releasing, only for the song to later shoot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. And while many American celebrities have brought imperative issues of identity and inequality in entertainment to the fore, the bulk of pop star-driven activism tends to be more sanitized, or even centered around their own images: open letters, NGO donations, retweets, thoughts and prayers, corporate benefit concerts for uncontroversial causes. What's more, fans and cultural critics sometimes conflate celebrities' marginalized identities with deliberate political praxis. But when pop stars are cultural agitators, they know how to communicate that sense of insurgence through artful storytelling, at the same time that they recognize the on-the-ground labor of activists everywhere (consider Lizzo's recent acceptance speech at the People's Choice Awards, during which she shared the stage with 17 freedom fighters).

Above all, there's a sense that Bad Bunny has become a genuine disrupter and an industry titan by simply being himself. He is the kind of artist who threads a song about a womanizer with too many girlfriends alongside one with metaphors about gentrification. He keens about a situationship whose wounds he's still healing from while posting #storytime videos on TikTok in a tank top stained with pizza grease. In the apogee of his career, following the most commercial record of his discography, the biggest pop star on the planet used his platform to decry the neocolonial injustices ravaging his home. Political engagement isn't some abstract exercise for him; it's simply part of his reality — an act of solidarity with the people who made him who he is.

In a year where pop stars mined dance music history for inspiration, Bad Bunny could have done the same, or recorded inauthentic collaborations with other pop giants. But instead, he embraced another kind of euphoria: the music of his home. There, he made space for the tangled realities of Caribbean life — its forced resilience, yes, but also its small, perfect joys. That's what it means to be Caribbean after all: you learn to carry the beauty and the hardship all at once.

The broadcast version of this story was adapted by host Juana Summers, edited by Patrick Jarenwattananon and produced by Alejandra Marquez Janse.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabelia Herrera