Bad Bunny: X100PRE review – off-kilter debut from singles superpower | Alexis Petridis' album of the week

The vocalist’s surprise debut album reveals an artist joining the mainstream – and defying it with dizzying innovations

The biggest surprise isn’t so much that Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as Bad Bunny, released his debut album on Christmas Eve with virtually no warning, but that he released a debut album at all. A musician who has thus far scored a single British hit, he has become a mainstream star in the US by avoiding albums altogether and relying instead on a mind-boggling torrent of singles. In less than two years, he’s released 27 singles as lead artist and a further 37 as a guest star, a not-unappealing strategy in an industry in which hip-hop and R&B artists have taken to releasing ever-more expansive and exhausting opuses.

Bad Bunny - X 100pre - album

By contrast, Bad Bunny has smartly concentrated his energies on short, sharp, eclectic bursts. You can track his commercial progress simply by looking at the names of his collaborators – fellow Puerto Rican artists gradually supplemented by Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Future and Drake – but that doesn’t tell the full story of his success. He started out as a kind of mould-breaking SoundCloud rapper, complete with slurred vocal delivery, trap beats, and lyrics that flipped from controversy-generating sexual explicitness to emo solipsism, along with an attention-grabbing approach to fashion. This is a man who took to the red carpet at the American music awards sporting not only a retina-searing shirt, a pair of sunglasses in the shape of lips and nail varnish, but also a prosthetic third eye attached to his forehead. But his subsequent releases and guest spots have suggested a musical breadth far beyond any convenient label, taking in everything from reggaetón to cumbia, house-inflected pop to boogaloo – the sound of New York’s Latin teens in the 1960s – which underpinned Cardi B’s I Like It, on which he featured.

Charged with hanging together as a consistent piece of work, X 100PRE isn’t quite as wide-ranging in its musical approach as the tracks that preceded it. Still, Tenemos Que Hablar develops the penchant for chugging punk-pop guitars unveiled during his performance at last year’s Latin Grammys, while there is a distinct hint of windswept 80s stadium rock about Como Antes. Indeed, if you wanted to level a criticism at the album, you could say it occasionally tells you more about the ease with which Bad Bunny has inserted himself into the US pop mainstream than it does about what he’s bringing to the party. Tracks Caro and the Diplo collaboration 200 MPH are really well done – sparse, booming and based on trap beats. The former features a gorgeous extended breakdown that shows off Bad Bunny’s abilities as a singer, duetting with Ricky Martin; the latter is based around an incessant, simple four-note riff. But were the lyrics not in Spanish, they could be the work of any number of rappers. Similarly, Otra Noche en Miami is a highly polished addition to the bulging canon of late 2010s pop that bears the influence of the synthy melancholia from 30 years ago.

It is worth reiterating that these tracks are very good, but they are still slightly cast into the shade by the album’s highlights. X 100PRE comes into its own when it demonstrates Bad Bunny’s singularity as an artist, even among the current wave of Latin American pop stars. There’s frequently an off-kilter creativity about the beats – as on Cuando Perriabas or ¿Quién Tú Eres?, the latter based around a warped piano sample that bizarrely recalls the Caretaker’s acclaimed collection of dark musical daydreams, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. But its most valuable currency lies in its ability to wrong-foot the listener, unexpectedly taking off in a different direction midway through a track.

The best thing here is La Romana: over five minutes it displays as many musical ideas as those on some of his peers’ marathon-length, umpteen-track albums. It opens with something that sounds like a charango playing a sharp little riff, dissolves into a rap track thick with reversed reverb and what appear to be snatches of movie dialogue, then suddenly stammers, the sound of a stuck CD. The song then completely shifts in tone: the rhythm switches to Dominican dembow, raspy-voiced rapper El Alfa takes over. Elsewhere, Estamos Bien keeps flipping from smooth and airy to jagged and dark; two-thirds of the way through Solo di Mí, a siren goes off and it becomes another song entirely, its mood set by a horror-movie music box sample. At those points, Bad Bunny feels less like part of the current pop landscape than an artist operating slightly adjacent to it. He is separated from the pack as much by a desire to take risks as by his roots.

This week Alexis listened to

Diane Birch’s In It for the Race
This is another belated discovery via someone else’s best of 2018 list. It’s an exquisitely written song, like something Carly Simon might have put her name to 40 years ago.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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