Each December, Spotify announces who has been the world’s most streamed artist that year, and this generally tallies with who has been popular in the UK. Drake, the Canadian rapper who has had six UK No 1 singles, was first in three of the previous five years, with fellow UK chart-toppers Ed Sheeran and Post Malone leading the others.
But in 2020, someone who has never had an album or solo single in the UK Top 100 is the world’s most popular artist: 26-year-old Puerto Rican vocalist Bad Bunny, streamed more than 8.3bn times this year on Spotify alone. Granted, he has featured on one UK Top 10 hit, but that was back in 2018, appearing on it for less than a minute: Cardi B’s I Like It. He appears nowhere in Spotify’s 50 most-played songs in the UK today, with Brits preferring Christmas classics and Gen Z pop stars such as Billie Eilish, Internet Money and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Bad Bunny’s current (and superb) single Dakiti is the most-played in the world at time of writing, earning more than 7m plays each day, 3m more than Ariana Grande’s Positions in second place.
On a dispassionate, lab-coated level, this success is simply down to there being a metric for it. Before Spotify arrived, there was no way to tally the listening habits of the planet in a single chart – and Latin America, Bad Bunny’s biggest market, is becoming ever more influential in this global headcount. It now has the third-most Spotify users behind Europe and North America, and their number has grown by 30% year-on-year. Spanish-language stars including Bad Bunny can rack up listeners in pop-loving countries such as Argentina and Colombia – plus the huge Latin population in the US, where he is nominated for two Grammys – and thus dominate the global chart.
Blowing apart these dry data points, though, is Bad Bunny himself – after all, there’s a reason why the rapper and singer has edged ahead of numerous other billion-streaming Latin stars such as J Balvin, Karol G, Maluma and Ozuna. “His IQ for music is just astronomical,” says his manager and label head Noah Assad, who has worked with him since 2016. “I love the way he sees the musical court,” he says, as in tennis: “He sees things in music that I don’t understand, and six months or a year before anyone else. He loves the arts – he loves opera! My guy’s very unique.”
“He has a bit of everything,” says Jose Luis Seijas, music editor of UK magazine Latino Life. “His punchlines are fantastic – he’s a very good writer. He can be quite deep, but he’s also the guy you want to hear in the middle of the night in a club, getting down and dirty. And he does a lot of love songs, and girls love that.”
Born Benito Ocasio to working-class parents, he once packed supermarket bags for a living, and his lyrics are equally relatable: “It’s not just about cars and girls, it’s about everything,” Assad says. “How you get out of sadness, and how there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Even if you don’t understand the Spanish lyrics, the very sound of his voice is appealing. It has a wonderfully haughty and disparaging air to it, as if regarding you with disdain over a pair of the exotic sunglasses that invariably sit on his nose, and when singing, he delivers his baritone from the back of his lungs with the notes lightly skimming his teeth and lips on the way out: a gorgeous vocal texture. But he is equally adept at spittle-flecked raps right on top of the mic, and a melodious flow somewhere between the two.
New album El Último Tour Del Mundo shows his musical range, utilising the asymmetric snap of Latin trap and the rolling syncopation of reggaeton (his two main styles) alongside ska-punk, alt-rock and even a sort of Britpop ballad in Trellas. It’s his third album this year. “A lot of his great ideas come close up to the [release] date, because it’s all about the moment,” Assad says. “You can’t make a good decision six months before an album, because you don’t know how the world will be in that moment.”
He also looks like a pop star, with an edge of true Dionysian chaos to his styling that can’t be taught – and which has surely influenced the rest of his Latin peers, who often now share his highly colourful mashup of streetwear and tailoring (think Karl Lagerfeld meets Joe Exotic). “Y de nosotros quién va a hablar, si no nos dejamos ver,” he sings on Dakiti: “And who is going to talk about us, if we don’t let ourselves be seen.” This fabulous peacocking upends the straightforwardly macho or romantic images used by previous generations of male Latin pop stars (thought he maintains certain elements of the status quo, such as the bikini-clad women dancing in Dakiti’s video).
He has also spoken out against homophobia and transphobia – performing on US TV in February, he wore a T-shirt condemning the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender woman, Alexa Negrón Luciano. “He talks like a regular guy, someone down the pub,” says Seijas, who says Bad Bunny’s frank approach to wearing skirts, for example, is changing the culture: “Rather than trying to intellectualise the whole thing as ‘gender fluidity’, he was like: ‘Mate, get over it. We’re in the 21st century, relax.’ People were like, ‘hey, he’s probably right.’”
Brits, then, are missing out on a really vivacious and talented pop star; it now seems as if the success of another Puerto Rican hit, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito, which spent 11 weeks at No 1 in 2017, was an aberration, and we struggle to connect with Spanish-language pop. For Seijas, it’s down to a lack of marketing and support at the top of the UK music industry, blaming “the white middlemen from the middle classes who run it: for them, Latin music is still Buena Vista Social Club and Ricky Martin. They think reggaeton is going to go out of fashion next week. I wouldn’t call them racist, but ignorant and lazy.”
But, he says, “the new generation of executives have a much wider perception of the world. I don’t think Latin music is going to become the number one music in the UK, but there will be more chance of listening to our music on radio stations, on TV, on Spotify playlists.”
What about the language barrier? Seijas responds with the example of UK garage, which he discovered on moving to the UK from Venezuela 20 years ago: “I still can’t understand half the things they say, and I still love it. Music is a vibe, a feeling.”
Assad says that UK collaborations, including a recent one with Dua Lipa, could help, and that the onus is as much on him and his charge to convince us: “We’re true believers in human heat: go there, learn the culture, educate ourselves on what they need. We can look different, speak different, but we all have blood inside.”
He checked the UK chart data this week, and saw a Bad Bunny song had finally crept into the Top 200 on Apple Music. “We’re great where we’re at, but we’ve still got more to do. We’re on the introduction page.” The world, clearly, is not enough.