He’s 30, but he seems younger—not just because of his boyish features, but from the massive amount of time he spends glued to his phone.
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Outside the window, the icy South Atlantic laps the city’s edges.
Balvin has the suave good looks of a pop star, with warm eyes and an explosive smile he employs often.
Van brakes squeal to a stop, and José Osorio Balvin, reggaeton’s biggest star, shuffles onto the fairgrounds just minutes before his show is set to start.
The boxy arena hums with anxious chatter; the venue’s staff watch him, admiringly. He films on his phone as he’s shuttled through a twist of hallways to a spare concrete dressing room, where the sound team rushes to wire him up.
There, in the ’90s, it blended with hip-hop to become reggaeton, as it’s known today, with its dembow beat and rapped vocals.
Record execs at the Latin divisions of major labels quickly saw an opportunity to replicate the trajectory of hip-hop: take something hot and from the hood, and sell it on a massive scale.
There hasn’t been another song as big as “Gasolina,” but the new generation has done something arguably more powerful: they’ve expanded reggaeton to become a consistent part of the pop landscape all over the Spanish-speaking world.
While the genre once stood for tropical, urban party music, now it’s just as at home in this chilly concert hall in the deep south of Argentina, about the least tropical place you can imagine.
With Balvin at the lead, reggaeton’s center of gravity has shifted to Medellín, home to a new crop of stars, including Maluma and Raycon.
A number of Puerto Rican artists, like Nicky Jam and Alberto Stylee, have either moved to the city or are spending more time there to be part of the moment.
The percussionist drops the dembow beat, reggaeton’s defining drum pattern of steady kicks and staggered snares, and Balvin begins to sing: Si tu quieres reggaeton dale/ Sigue bailando mami no pare—If you want reggaeton, go ahead/ Keep dancing, mami, don’t stop. But tonight’s show is nowhere near there—we’re nearly 4,000 miles away, on the opposite end of South America, in Comodoro Rivadavia, a provincial city plopped unceremoniously on the wind-blasted emptiness of Argentine Patagonia.