J Balvin: Vibras review – Latin superstar brings reggaeton to heel

(Universal Music Latin)

Reggaeton has been huge in Latin America for more than a decade, but few artists have achieved the worldwide success J Balvin did in 2017 with his track Mi Gente. The video has 1.8bn views on YouTube, it reached No 3 in the US, and Beyoncé hopped on a remix. Included here, it features a loud beat and singalong chorus, as does Machika, which has too many horn sounds and feels quite disjointed, lacking the sheer Latin pride of Mi Gente. But Balvin often deploys a smoother kind of reggaeton with hints of trap and dancehall; in Latin America, reggaeton is still thought of as repetitive and only suitable for dancefloors, but he explores its wider potential.

En Mí opens with a soft rattle that helps to build a sweeter take, thanks to Balvin’s mellow and slightly Auto-Tuned vocals, plus the pleasingly aquatic synth sounds; No Es Justo offsets a sharp reggaeton beat with acoustic guitar to make a sunny track with the help of Puerto Rican duo Zion & Lennox. Sexuality plays a big role in reggaeton lyrics, but the aggressive misogyny of the first years of the genre has decreased: Balvin seduces by describing the chemistry of dancing, but he also sings about wanting to talk and get back with his ex in Dónde Estarás, and even adds “I like how easily you understand me” in En Mí – quite a big step in reggaeton. His vocals sound best when going from a fast-singing cadence to deep, calm rapping, as on Ahora and Ambiente.

Since he released Ginza in 2015, Balvin and his longtime producer Sky have relied on a clever combination of few elements – beat, synth line, bass – to prize subtlety over grandiosity. A good example is Brillo, a sensual track where the delicate and versatile vocals of Spanish flamenco singer Rosalía shine over a minimal background. Tracks such as this still make Vibras perfect as a party playlist, but confirm that the noisy style of early reggaeton hits such as Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina is slowly being left behind.

Juana Giaimo

The GuardianTramp

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