Pop’s New Bilingual Moment
From “Despacito” to “I Like It,” how English- and Spanish-language singers are uniting to create a single global market
In 2017, two of the most popular singles in America were bilingual: Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” featured a yearning guest verse from Justin Bieber, while J Balvin’s club missile “Mi Gente” gained incendiary power thanks to a Beyoncé cameo. In both cases, the English-speaking singers made notable effort to acknowledge the dominance of Spanish-language pop by singing in Spanish; Bieber even personally requested to be a part of “Despacito” after hearing it in a club.
This is the new paradigm for any English-language artist hoping to have worldwide hits in the streaming age. “You simply can’t have a global Number One anymore without having a hit in Mexico and Spain and these other countries that use Spotify and YouTube so heavily,” explains Sebastian Krys, a five-time Grammy-winning producer who has credits on albums by Shakira and Carlos Vives. “Before, artists and labels thought those markets were low priority. They woke up to the fact that Latin music really does get consumed on a much larger scale.”
It’s not only commercial incentives that are leading to more bilingual collaborations. The distance between Spanish-language pop and English-language pop has diminished rapidly in the last few years. On the one side, English-language stars started creating massive hits based on drum patterns coming from Latin pop. “The underlying beat of reggaeton, which is called dembow, has become more and more popular,” explains Horacio Rodriguez, VP of Marketing for Universal Music Latino. “You’ve been hearing it in songs by Justin Bieber, Major Lazer and Rihanna.”
At the same time, Spanish-speaking rappers like Bad Bunny and De La Ghetto began to craft songs with the trap beats present in so much American rap. This strain of Spanish-language hip-hop has led to a slew of hits – “La Ocasión,” “Cuatro Babys,” “Sensualidad,” “Dime” – and proved so popular that a series of long-established performers have pivoted to embrace the subgenre. Farruko named his new album TrapXFicante; bachata singer Romeo Santos released the trap-leaning “El Farsante;” even the salsa veteran Víctor Manuelle enlisted Bad Bunny for a feature.
English-language artists’ interest in reggaeton and Latin rappers’ interest in trap combined to create what Alejandro “Sky” Ramírez – who has produced for Balvin – calls “a bridge” between worlds. The Colombian singer Karol G can easily hop on Major Lazer’s reggaeton-dusted “Sua Cara” beat, just as American rappers like Nicki Minaj can easily add formidable verses to Farruko’s “Krippy Kush.”
Scan the charts in recent months and you’ll find these songs everywhere. Demi Lovato and Fonsi seesaw between attraction and repulsion in “Echame La Culpa;” Bad Bunny lives the lothario lifestyle with Future in “Thinkin.” Sofia Reyes kisses a “piece of shit” boy goodbye with help from Jason Derulo in “1, 2, 3”; Karol G illustrates the relationship between Jamaican dancehall and reggaeton with help from Shaggy in “Tu Pum Pum.”
The broad appeal of Spanish-English collaborations was boosted further in April, when Cardi B released Invasion of Privacy, which included “I Like It,” featuring verses from both Balvin and Bad Bunny. Atlantic Records brought in the reggaeton hitmaker Marcos “Tainy” Masís to help flesh out the track, which builds around a sample of the 1960s boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That.” Masís, aiming for a fusion that would go over well in a club, paid special attention to the drum programming. “It couldn’t be nothing soft,” he says. “That kick needed to sound big.”
The kick was devastating enough that it resonated outside the club as well – “I Like It” was the most popular song on Invasion of Privacy the week of the album’s release, debuting at Number Eight on the Hot 100. Masís’ peers took note. “I was with [Drake’s producer] Boi-1da the other day,” Masís says. “He told me he started another beat inspired by [‘I Like It’], using Latin samples and mixing it with more trap drums.”
Surveying all the bilingual collaborations currently in circulation, Ramírez says, “This a good start.
“In the future,” he adds, “the division isn’t going to be English and Latino any more. It’ll just be one market.”