album review

Bad Bunny Has Become Bigger, and Better, Than the Industry Knows What to Do With

El Último Tour Del Mundo marks Bad Bunny’s third major release of 2020. Photo: Youtube

Bad Bunny’s commitment to the element of surprise has been fundamental to his career. By Christmas Eve 2018, when the Puerto Rican trap artist — then known as one of the most prolific singles artists in the Latin-music underground — unexpectedly dropped his debut album, X 100PRE, he’d already made a name for himself with a worldwide audience off the boogaloo-infused Cardi B single, “I Like It,” and the bilingual Drake team-up, “MIA.” As Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s ubiquitous Bieber-fied door-buster, “Despacito,” finally began to fade from the charts and memory, the idiosyncratic musical twists and inventive vocal turns of Bunny’s relatively diverse album expanded the palette of Latin trap as a whole and provided easy access to those who didn’t speak his language or otherwise weren’t already in the know.

Yet whether you’ve followed Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio since the days of “Soy Peor” or are one of the lone unacquainted with the “Te Boté” remix — his first entirely Spanish-language Billboard Hot 100 hit, which ran for 21 weeks and cracked the top 40 — his latest album, El Último Tour Del Mundo, intends to further subvert expectation. Beyond the increasingly familiar shock of its Black Friday release, the 16-song project spends its first three tracks easing its audience into the dystopian retiree victory-lap concept. Opener “El Mundo Es Mío” and third track “Hoy Cobré” return to the trap beats of X 100PRE, while “Te Mudaste” would’ve sounded right at home on his Grammy-nominated reggaeton love letter, YHLQMDLG, from this past February. All three showcase the Bunny we know — sensitive yet cocksure, playful yet determined.

From there, things get weird. “Maldita Pobreza,” a New Wave–y reggae-inflected throwback, upends everything that preceded it. What was once only alluded to on X 100PRE’s pop-punk extravagance, “Tenemos Que Hablar,” arrives fully formed on “Yo Visto Así,” as fine a slice of alt-rock as any the emo-rap era has produced so far; two tracks ahead, “Te Deseo Lo Mejor” and “La Droga” share connective tissue with the late Juice WRLD and Lil Peep. Keeping all the parts together are producer Marco “Mag” Borrero and his guitar-slinging partner in crime, Mick Coogan, a dark-horse duo with major-label songwriting credits for Bebe Rexha, Flo Rida, and Selena Gomez, collectively, who combine strengths to give El Último Tour Del Mundo its unique edge. With nods to the Cure, Maná, and the Smashing Pumpkins, the duo’s collection of songs here presents Bunny as he’s long sought to be seen: multifaceted, unbound by genre. Glimmers of his range go back to mid-2010s singles like the bereft crooner “Amorfoda” and the wrestling kayfabe paean “Chambea.” Borrero and Coogan do a hell of a job transforming Bunny into dual roles as lovestruck stargazer for The Bends Radiohead-type ballad, “Trellas,” and crestfallen lonely heart on the bitter “Haciendo Que Me Amas.”

Joining the guitar heroics are tracks produced or co-produced by studio favorite Tainy. He’s responsible for two of the only three songs with vocal features — “La Noche de Anoche” with neo-flamenco sensation Rosalía and “Sorry Papi” with Awful Records alum Abra — offering a more palatable side of Bunny for anyone blindsided by the album’s stone-cold rock stunners or having difficulty reconciling Bunny’s new direction. (Though considering Tainy rose to renown by revitalizing Latin trap on X 100PRE with radically artful beats for “Solo de Mi” and the fluttering “Estamos Bien,” it’s a bit ironic he now suddenly represents orthodoxy by comparison.)

El Último Tour Del Mundo marks Bad Bunny’s third major release of 2020. Each arrived with no more than a day or two’s warning, making for five projects in total in just under two years. At 26 and four years into his career, he’s moving at a clip rare for a global star of his magnitude. By contrast, many top-tier talents in the English-language music world have been fairly risk averse in their pandemic output, with major-label heavyweights like Lady Gaga pushing back release dates and others offering alternatives to more highly anticipated new full-lengths. With his 2018 double album, Scorpion, some two years in the rearview, Drake dumped out his hard drive back in May for Dark Lane Demo Tapes, utilizing a stalling tactic he’d employed just nine months prior with the loosies set, Care Package. Even Taylor Swift, a name synonymous with highly orchestrated release campaigns, took the surprise-album route for her somewhat muted summertime outing, folklore.

Meanwhile, the Latin-music world continues apace, not unlike today’s dynamic K-pop icons BTS and Blackpink, with superstars and rising stars alike prodigiously dropping proper albums in spite of the global health crisis and inability to tour or properly market any of it. After a monthslong rollout involving multiple singles, J Balvin moved forward with a planned March release for Colores, a succinct and nearly feature-free follow-up to 2018’s well-received Vibras. Two months later, trap bad boy turned pop-wise reggaetonero Anuel AA put out Emmanuel, an album that sought to capitalize on his newly polished reputation and Shaggy-interpolating hit, “China.” Applying a reverse strategy, Maluma’s Papi Juancho in August served as a return to form for the Colombian after he’d made considerably broad balladic strokes with 2019’s 11:11. Ozuna, for a time the biggest name in reggaeton thanks to the mass sales of his 2017 set, Odisea, returned in September with ENOC, featuring a well-timed bilingual collab with Doja Cat and Sia for further insurance.

This is, ostensibly, the competitive field with which Bunny has had to contend in 2020. Yet it’s become clear that he has artistically and culturally outgrown both his peers and the artificial constraints placed on Latin artists domestically in the U.S. by the music industry: Dropped by surprise on leap day, YHLQMDLG snuck in mere weeks before all hell broke loose as the year’s penultimate pre-lockdown blockbuster, with only the Weeknd’s mid-March After Hours truly coming in under the wire. With only six days of eligible sales and streaming performance due to its quixotic Saturday release, the album took the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 in its first week, coming in behind Lil Baby’s My Turn despite Bunny’s record earning more than three times the number of actual album sales. As of this writing, it has spent 35 of its 39 total weeks at the top of Billboard’s Top Latin Albums. Both Anuel’s Emmanuel and Ozuna’s ENOC respectively eked out release-week No. 1s on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums before falling to the awesome staying power of YHLQMDLG, while Balvin’s Colores and Maluma’s Papi Juancho mustered second-place debuts behind it. Even Bunny himself was felled by YHLQMDLG’s success when his Mother’s Day surprise, Las Que No Iban a Salir, a raw odds-and-ends compilation along the same lines as Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered., spent but a single frame atop the chart before its predecessor reclaimed it the very next week.

How, then, can a record as polarizing by design as El Último Tour Del Mundo compete against YHLQMDLG, beyond an assuredly robust opening sales week? The short answer is: It cannot. Even without the nightclubs and other perreo-friendly functions where its contents would thrive, YHLQMDLG continues to succeed commercially for want of our collective ability to leave the house and dance our cares away. The new album offers nothing as nostalgic as the beat-switching smash “Safaera” nor as gratifying as “Yo Perreo Sola” or any of producer Subelo NEO’s reggaeton bangers. The possibility of overtaking an album as universally adored as YHLQMDLG puts the individualistic, left of center El Último Tour Del Mundo at an extraordinary disadvantage.

The good news is that, beyond the Billboard charts and conventional arbiters of success, these albums are not meant to compete. El Último Tour Del Mundo reflects the exciting uncertainty of the future rather than the succor of the recent past. As audacious as it might sound, Bad Bunny has little need to revisit the fan-friendly YHLQMDLG going forward, having given the people what they needed to get them through a time of immense suffering and immersive fear. He’s ascended to the auteur ranks of pre-MAGA Kanye- and Beyoncé-level fan support. Those fans are here to walk the journey with him step-by-step, or otherwise be carried. What remains to be seen is whether the industry will catch up. Not if the Grammys balking at including one of the biggest albums of 2020 for its top prize is any indication.

Bad Bunny Is Too Good for This Industry