How Bad Bunny Brought Latin Trap to the American Mainstream

Bad Bunny. Photo: David Becker/Getty Images for LARAS

Scarcely a week into 2019, there’s still no escaping Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s 2018 single “I Like It.” Reviving fellow Bronx denizen Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 hit “I Like It Like That” by way of sampling, the repurposed boogaloo bursts with an opalescence bolstered by the added trap bass and star turn from the former Love & Hip-Hop reality-television personality. Following her opening checklist of luxuries upon luxuries, Bad Bunny springs into action with alacrity, referencing wrestling legend Eddie Guerrero and renaissance woman Charytín Goyco amid Gucci braggadocio and insular slang. For millions of listeners, that moment marked their introduction not just to the Puerto Rican rapper also known to fans as El Conejo Malo, but to a musical movement otherwise unknown to their ears.

A Billboard-chart-topping hit that eventually earned multiplatinum RIAA certification, “I Like It” transformed Bad Bunny into a household name and set the stage for his recently released full-length debut X100PRE. Yet some two years prior, Bad Bunny, born Benito Martínez Ocasio, was merely one of a variety of jockeying players in Latin trap, a Spanish-language hip-hop permutation that drew talents in part from other areas of the broad música urbana scene. Raised on his parents’ love of merengue and salsa records as well as the work of reggaetón greats like Tego Calderon and Daddy Yankee, this burgeoning native sound had obvious appeal for him. Discovered by the well-connected DJ Luian and signed to his Hear This Music imprint, he began releasing music through the label and guesting elsewhere in 2016.

Listening back to those early days, the voice featured on tracks like “Diles” and Kelmitt’s “Otra Vez” sounds instantly recognizable and distinct, even alongside comparatively more experienced practitioners like Arcángel and Farruko, both of whom had come up in reggaetón. Assuredly, Bad Bunny benefited from the broader genre’s advantageously inclusive tendency toward multi-artist remixes and expansive posse cuts, songs that easily stretch out well beyond the five-minute mark. Being with DJ Luian and production duo Mambo Kingz from the start and employing a fairly memorable moniker helped his case as he spat verses and quite a few hooks alongside fellow newcomers and established faves. Not infrequently, he name-checked Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa in his bars, referential influences that spoke more to his tastes than his vocal tone.

Ultimately, what gave Bad Bunny a leg up was timing. Though hardly a new phenomenon at the time, Spanish-language hip-hop found a certain revitalization based off of the trap and trap-adjacent rap exploding stateside in 2016. Megahits like Migos’ “Bad And Boujee” and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” with Gucci Mane made the music impossible for rappers and producers in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Latin America to ignore. Contemporaneous Bad Bunny tracks for Hear This Music like “Pa Ti” and “Tu No Vive Así” demonstrate how Latin trap was more cousin than copycat. Songs like these resonated with young listeners and YouTube viewers throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, complementing the English-language rap made widely accessible by way of online streaming.

Trap’s themes of drug lords and wealth-driven hedonism suited the traperos well, imbued with the added authenticity of actually living, recording, and performing in parts of the world where the narcotics trade played a not-insignificant part. American rappers had long built themselves up lyrically based on Latin American stereotypes, from Tony “Scarface” Montana to real-life patrón Pablo Escobar. Tales of El Chapo’s exploits were cited and claimed by the likes of 2 Chainz and Future, among others. So when Farruko’s 2017 album TrapXficante dropped via Sony, the significance of the title and its sonic shift away from reggaetón and other hip-hop forms exemplified the trap en español boom well underway. The record’s highlight, “Krippy Kush” prominently featured periodic collaborator Bad Bunny on its 420-friendly chorus and in a memorable verse capped by oxycodone tablets washed down with lean.

Even as the beats jibed, the perceived language gap kept the spirit of cross-cultural rap collaboration regrettably at bay longer than it ought. Major record labels ran their Latin divisions more or less as silos, artificially limiting their artists’ interactions with those from urban and pop imprints often operating out of the very same buildings. When one particular exception, the Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee single “Despacito” with Justin Bieber, became an international sensation, the industry learned the easy lesson. From J Balvin and Beyoncé to Post Malone and Ozuna, English-language hit-makers hopped onto Spanish-language singles and vice-versa in scattershot search of the next crossover smash.

From this haste came the “Krippy Kush” remixes, which, with the help of new guests Nicki Minaj, 21 Savage, and Travis Scott proved Bad Bunny’s crucial entry onto Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart at the start of 2018. Though he’d actually first appeared on that ranking months prior as a guest of bilingual singer Becky G on her single “Mayores,” that breezy effort sounded uncharacteristic compared to his myriad 2017 trap bangers such as “Blockia,” “Chambea,” and “Soy Peor.” Even those betrayed somewhat the rawness he’d brought throughout that year on Nano La Diferencia’s bleak “No Me Wua Dejar” with Tali Goya. Still, he showcased an ability to glide between that stygian fare and the tempestuous R&B of J Balvin’s “Si Tu Novio Te Deja Sola” or the vibrant reggaetón of Nicky Jam’s “El Amante.” In the notable absence of prior scene favorite Anuel, whose 2016 arrest and ensuing incarceration on federal weapons charges effectively kept him out of active contention for two critical years, Bad Bunny handily rose to the burgeoning genre’s highest heights.

Thus, even as “Krippy Kush” faded from the charts and the search histories of Minaj’s loyal legion of Barbz, Bad Bunny continued to soar in Latin-music circles. The signature weed and wrestling content prevalent in his preceding work began to give way to more personal subject matter on his 2018 singles. A near nihilistic yet poetic rejection of romantic love delivered right in time for Valentine’s Day, “Amorfoda” leaves him emotionally exposed against a spare piano progression without so much as a hint of a rhythm. Later that month, “Dime Si Te Acuerdas” continued the theme, recalling the detachment of The Weeknd’s “The Hills” as he switches effortlessly between singing and rapping.

Then along came Cardi’s Invasion of Privacy album in April, and the instant popularity of “I Like It” deemed it the record’s inevitable single. Still, apart from an English-language couplet bragging about his spending power and his personal brand, the rest of his contribution remained in Spanish, which even in the post-“Despacito” world was still a bold gambit. As American hip-hop and pop radio — online and terrestrial alike — embraced the track, Bad Bunny appeared alongside the similarly ascendent Ozuna on a version of Nio García and Casper Mágico’s “Te Boté.” A breakup anthem set to a throbbing reggaetón beat, the remix went supernova with música urbana devotees, dominating Billboard’s Latin charts and spending weeks on the Hot 100.

The combination of “I Like It” and “Te Boté” took Bad Bunny from headlining runs at theaters that March to performing before sold-out crowds at sports arenas by summertime. Rumors of a proper album lingered, though apart from the release of the upbeat “Estamos Bien” the majority of his output in those months came as a featured guest rather than a lead artist. Some of that had to do with his parting ways with DJ Luian, a detail that few of those enjoying his music were even aware of. The frenetic pace of Latin trap output means loads of new singles drop weekly, which provided some cover when his voice appeared alongside Nicky Jam on “Satisfacción” or on odd ducks like Marc Anthony and Will Smith’s “Está Rico.”

Amid the gossip surrounding Bad Bunny’s album was talk of a Drake collaboration, something teased earlier in the year on Instagram. When Scorpion dropped over the summer without it, the hunger for the track grew. Sure enough, “Mia” emerged a few months later when even those who hadn’t heard of Bad Bunny before “I Like It” were part of the excitement. Instead of compromising with an English component, both artists performed the song entirely in Spanish, something Drake hadn’t done since his guest spot on bachata king Romeo Santos’ “Odio” in 2014. The success of their pairing hastened the arrival of “Solo De Mi,” Bad Bunny’s first solo cut since “Estamos Bien.”

Together, those songs heralded the surprise release of the corresponding Christmas Eve album X100PRE. Two weeks later, it currently holds No. 11 on the Billboard 200, a clear indication of Bad Bunny’s status in American music. And as 2019 eases into its opening quarter, the likelihood of Latin trap continuing to play a vital role in the mainstream seems stronger than ever.

How Bad Bunny Brought Latin Trap to the American Mainstream