J Balvin & Bad Bunny are today’s music video icons

Jeff Cubbison

The Urbano stars’ latest dazzling clips top this month’s video playlist

By now you should be well aware of J Balvin and Bad Bunny. Scratch that. By now, you should all be HUGE fans of these two modern purveyors of Latin pop.

The recent rise of Urbano music – whose sub-genres include reggaeton, Latin trap, flamenco, dancehall, and a myriad of other Latin/Caribbean styles – has been well-documented. At this current moment, Urbano is at an all-time commercial peak – not just around the world, but in the United States as well – and J Balvin and Bad Bunny are the genre’s two biggest stars.

It’s been nearly three years since J Balvin and Willy William’s now-iconic club hit “Mi Gente” set the dance floors on fire and ushered in a new wave of Spanish-speaking hitmakers. While American audiences had been receptive to Latin acts in the past, it always seemed like these performers were pushed to the fringes of the mainstream to some degree. Even some of the biggest artists along the way – Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull – were achieving crossover success by singing in English and embracing more conventional USA pop norms. When Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Bieber-featuring “Despacito” became one of the biggest songs of all time in the U.S., there was a feeling that perhaps this was just the tip of the iceberg (even if the song itself was a bit of a novelty). Ultimately, the red-hot reggaeton club destroyer “Mi Gente” – which peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 – was the moment that solidified the movement. We’ve been blessed with some of the most forward-thinking and biggest-selling pop music ever since.

But one very underrated aspect of these artists’ appeal is their ability to conjure otherworldly audio-visual experiences. When we talk about the historical rise of Urbano music, one of its biggest selling points – both artistically and commercially – has been its dynamic music video culture.

You can’t talk about the rise of Latin music in America without mentioning Shakira. And even though her breakthrough 2001 album Laundry Service was primarily recorded in English, she was still the most overtly Latin-sounding superstar to hit it big in the States up to that point. Her music continued to lean heavily into her Colombian pop roots, while her live shows were true mega-spectacles of South American dance culture. She’s one of the few artists to pull off the English language crossover without turning her back on the sounds that made her special. But one other factor that helped her achieve liftoff was the video for her breakout hit “Whenever, Whenever.”

The green-screen-filled clip was directed by then-video titan and future Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, and features Shakira rising from the ocean, dancing barefoot on rocks and in front of mountains, and eventually in a vast desert amidst a stampede of horses. While the song is awesome on its own, the video notched constant rotation on MTV, became a beloved TRL favorite, and would garner Shakira a handful of VMA nominations on the way to the song and album becoming a smash on the charts. Though fairly low-frills by today’s standards, the video’s iconography is sublime, and perfectly captures the essence of Shakira’s musical image. It’s a big reason why so many people initially discovered and fell in love with her. And then she went and did the genre a huge service by following Laundry Service with Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 – an entirely Spanish-sung reggaeton and Latin pop LP. To this day, it holds the record for highest first-week sales of any Spanish language album in America.

The other game changer for Latin music in America, and whose presence is still all over today’s current wave, is the Puerto Rican legend and undisputed “King of Reggaeton” (he even coined the term), Daddy Yankee. Having originally come up through the Latin pop scene ranks with cohort Nicky Jam in the late ’90s, the San Juan-born artist and one-time MLB prospect (his baseball career ended after he sustained a wound from a random person’s stray AK-47 bullet) released his ubiquitous, crater-like hit “Gasolina” in 2004. That moment was the signal that reggaeton was officially on the U.S. cultural map.

The track’s appeal is rooted in its fiery rhythms, as well as the fact that it’s deliriously simple, catchy, and easy for Americans to sing along to. The video features Daddy Yankee performing at a drag racing track – flanked by backing dancers – as cars and bikes race around him. Again, not super high-concept, but its success on MTV stations certainly was a harbinger of big things to come for reggaeton and other adjacent scenes. At the time, Top 40 stations weren’t touching entirely Spanish-sung tracks. But its hysteria-inducing popularity on foreign outlets like MTV Latin America would push the song into rotation on regular MTV, helping the track climb to a number 34 peak on the Billboard Hot 100. That year, he even performed at the VMAS! While it would take another decade for the genre to really settle into its renaissance period – which continues today – the seeds for a massive worldwide takeover were already bring planted. And if music videos were the key to the English-speaking world’s heart, then music videos is what we would receive! If anything, the success of the video for “Gasolina” most likely inspired Daddy Yankee and others alike to focus more on the visual components of their music. Pushing the boundaries of the medium seemed like a powerful brand move.

From there, as Urbano faded in and out of mainstream popularity throughout the late 2000s EDM boom, Daddy Yankee and company focused on growing the genre from within. Labels like Machete and Capitol Latin went all in on the younger, hungrier acts. Latin trap and reggaeton stars became the biggest acts in Spanish-speaking territories. And all the while, with each new Daddy Yankee release, we’d get an increasingly complex and maximal music video to go along with it.

Take the video for his 2012 single “Limbo,” for instance. The clip was filmed on location on an indigenous Mexican ceremonial site in the middle of a dense jungle. Backing tribal dancers, girls emerging from mud baths, and fluttering neon lights round it out. Fast forward to today, and Daddy Yankee’s production expenses and set pieces get even more out of control. Last year’s highly intricate video for “Con Calma” featured elaborate dance troupes, pyrotechnics, and quirky animated trickery. “Con Calma” also became the highest-charting solo single of his career, with the video now nearing 2 billion YouTube views. For an artist that’s two decades into his career, these stats are mind-blowing.

While Daddy Yankee retains massive popularity, he also relishes his role as an elder statesmen, popping up with guest verses on hits by nearly every budding artist in Urbano music. His focus on visual aesthetics has clearly rubbed off on subsequent generations, helping the genre proliferate in various corners of the Latinx music world. From the mid 2000s to early 2010s, Puerto Rican duo Wisin Y Yandel ruled the reggaeton sphere, notching a pair of top 10 debuts on the Billboard 200, and becoming the first artists in the genre to win a Grammy Award in 2009. Throughout their rise, they capitalized on YouTube’s cross-cultural reach, racking up hundreds of millions of views for their surreal, vision-quest-like music videos. The clip for their seminal hit “Pam Pam” takes the duo on an adventure through the Brazilian club scene – offering fans a sultry peek into the country’s unique dance culture.

That right there is the crux of what makes Urbano music video filmmaking so galvanizing. When it comes down to it, the genre lends itself perfectly to visual storytelling. The music is sunny, breezy, sweltering, exotic, ambitious, and a tad bit dangerous. There’s an element to the sound that’s always living on the edge. But most importantly, the music offers a lens through which fans can view cultures that are new or unique to them. If a song’s music video can capture that, then it’s just inherently more stimulating.

Take Rosalía, for instance. The Spanish songstress’ highly ethereal take on flamenco, pop and Latin R&B is imaginative and wears its heart on its sleeve. Her lush music videos – like the one for “Pienso en tu mirá” off her stunning 2018 album El Mal Querer – are elegantly photographed and peppered with elaborate props, gorgeous wardrobes, and stunning locations and backdrops. But most importantly, the creative choices in her videos cut to the heart of each track’s themes and Rosalía’s artistic identity. One shot in the above mentioned video is particularly haunting: Rosalía surrounded by men pointing knives and shotguns at her. Initially a submissive symbol, she rises up and moves through them as the camera pans up from a low angle, conjuring an air of empowerment.

Urbano musicians aren’t the only ones lapping their English-speaking counterparts in the A/V realm. From the gaudy K-Pop visual extravaganzas of BTS and Blackpink, to Babymetal’s freaky elixir of J-Pop and power metal, to the marauding Afrofusion of Nigeria’s Burna Boy, world music stars in general are producing some of the best music videos in the game right now. They’re just operating on a different level entirely.

Urbano artists like J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Rosalía rose to the top of the ranks by making excellent music that takes bold creative risks, and by supporting that brand with videos that emphasize the untamed nature of their music. The visual palette of these clips is fairly consistent across the board: eye-popping colors, maximal set design, special effects like pyro and fish-eye lensing, over-the-top fashion, dazzling props, and individual frames that photograph amazingly well. The idea is that you can pause any frame of the video and be totally wowed by all the little details. It also helps that all the artists in the genre are close friends and collaborators. From Ozuna to Maluma to Anitta to Anuel AA to Luis Fonsi, each musician is actively helping the others to level up in their craft. There’s also a bit of friendly competition – a sort of arms race in which they’re all trying to top one another, musically and visually.

For J Balvin and Bad Bunny, their insane collection of music videos has solidified their brand as not just stars in reggaeton and Latin trap, respectively, but as world-conquering megastars. The Colombian J Balvin was actually a veteran of the scene for several years before capitalizing on the massive success of “Mi Gente.” But would the song have become as popular without its eye-catching video? Certainly not. The video’s bonkers shooting locations, surgically-precise camera cuts, unreal color palette, and raucous choreography represented the apex of Urbano video filmmaking at that point, bringing out the track’s best visceral qualities, and resulting in 2.6 billion YouTube views and counting. Bad Bunny, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength with each of his increasingly jaw dropping clips. “La Romana” hits perilous new heights in stunt coordination in music videos, with frantic shots of men racing cars and ATVs, while Bad Bunny lets his charisma unspool – smoking a hookah on a fur couch flanked by models in the high desert. However, my favorite video of theirs is for the track “Cuidado Por Ahi” off their godly 2019 collab album Oasis. Wearing black ski masks and hoodies, Balvin and Bunny perform the track outside a gothic beachside mansion paradise while a horde of extras dance around them and a murder of crows fly past them ominously. There’s even one incredible shot where the lens protrudes halfway out of a pool, gloriously capturing Bad Bunny from above and below the water line. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and one of my favorite music videos ever made.

Which brings me to this past month when both artists unveiled typically awe-inspiring music videos from their recent blockbuster LPs. First there was Bad Bunny’s YHLQMDLG single “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which he raps on top of a pink convertible in a field of flowers while flower-suited dancers writhe below him. Later, he fabulously performs in drag. Then J Balvin pulled off one of those “how did they do that?” clips with Colores hit “Gris,” which features a smattering of visual tricks including a bedroom splitting in half, a room flooding with water while Balvin croons, and a fiery train zooming behind him in the distance. His latest video “Verde” goes even harder, shrinking him down to miniature size amidst a spectrum of rainbows, green colors and other leprechaun-like fantasy imagery. With both artists in victory lap mode, these new videos headline this month’s Highlight Reel playlist.

J Balvin and Bad Bunny are just out here achieving what every major star of the last 40 years has done before them: to use the music video medium to provoke an iconic visual brand behind their sound. If you want to be worshipped on a mass cultural level, it’s a necessary part of the game. Think Madonna writhing in a wedding dress in “Like A Virgin” or having an affair with a black Jesus in “Like A Prayer.” Or the hundreds of Slim Shady lookalikes following Eminem around in “The Real Slim Shady.” Or Michael Jackson turning into a werewolf in “Thriller.” Or Missy Elliott rapping in a trash bag in “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” The list goes on and on.

When Jay-Z chatted with Stormzy before the latter’s headlining performance at Glastonbury last year, he told the newly-minted grime superstar that in order to become a true musical icon, you have to do more than simply put out great music. You must establish a culture surrounding your music. Ever since the dawn of MTV, music videos have been one of the key devices to executing that. J Balvin and Bad Bunny are just the latest to tap into it. But they’re doing it like nobody else before them.

Other Highlights:
-Red Axes’ creepy drinking & brawling bender “Sticks & Stones”
-Car Seat Headrest’s zany animated lyric vid & L.A. diss “Hollywood”
-River Gods’ charming DIY animation trip “Sun Potion”
-Sleepwalker Funeral’s snowy, hair-raising dog-walk “In Absentia”
-Deeper’s cinematic Chicago crime saga “The Knife”
-Brutus’ gritty, combustible black-and-white tour video “Sand”
-Moses Sumney’s incredibly high-concept spiritual awakening “Cut Me”
-Alex The Astronaut’s cathartic early-life crisis “Split The Sky”
-Dune Rats’ fiery Australian tour video “Bad Habits”
-mUsa’s hazy downtown-set debut music video “No Heart”
-The Beths’ creative screen-hopping stitch job “Dying To Believe”
-Phoebe Bridgers’ wondrous DIY Japan adventure “Kyoto”
-Gorillaz’ latest Sound Machine entry & animated road trip stunner “Aries”
-Washed Out’s improvised, fan-shot sunset collage “Too Late”
-RMR’s buried-in-sand beach-set R&B trap anthem “Dealer”
-Jean Dawson’s trippy, floating genre-bender “Power Freaks”
-Lil Loaded’s gun-filled gangsta-rap hood odyssey “Wit The Business”
-twenty one pilots’ starry DIY quarantine-themed clip “Level Of Concern”
-Pure X’s sparse, pastoral videos for “Middle America” & “Fantasy”
-Mo Troper’s charming, low stakes outdoor performance clip “I Eat”
-Winter’s shimmering light-bending collage “Endless Space (Between You & I)”
-Chromatics’ eye-popping, neon-filtered moodboard “TEACHER”
-Dogleg’s spirited, nearly identically-shot “Clerks” remake “Wartortle”
-Hinds’ funky color-coated garage-punk jam “Just Like Kids (Miau)”
-Secret Shame’s hypnotic, flower-patterned stunner “Dissolve”
-Lauran Hibberd’s self-deprecating home video “Old Nudes”

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