COVER STORY: Bad Bunny in Captivity
How does a Latin-pop superstar spend lockdown? Hanging out with his girlfriend, watching ‘Toy Story’ and surprising the world
Somewhere on the northern shore of Puerto Rico sits a modest Airbnb with white stucco walls and a roof covered in fake grass. Inside, the island’s most exciting young superstar is fighting off boredom any way he can. It’s mid-March, days after Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced ordered residents to stay inside due to the coronavirus pandemic. Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, known to the world as Bad Bunny, is living here till he can start construction on the villa of his dreams. “The fucking coronavirus arrived, and it sealed me up,” he says in Spanish, deadpanning like a sullen teen banished to his room for the summer. “People think I’m spending quarantine in a huge mansion, with a really awesome pool …”
Appearing on Zoom, Martínez looks as chic as ever: A stack of gold chains and pearls gently cradle his neck, dangling a small gold cherub, a cross, and a Virgin Mary pendant over a T-shirt emblazoned with the corpse-painted visage of WWE wrestler Sting. Martínez’s tight curls are subdued by a beanie, and his brown eyes are framed by a ginormous pair of Gucci glasses. “I always look luxurious,” he says.
So, how does one of the world’s biggest pop stars spend his quarantine? He’s been working out in the home gym in the mornings, eating ascetic meals of chicken and potatoes. He’s been texting on a group chat he’s dubbed the Mafia, which includes his assistant/merch designer Janthony and fellow rapper Residente. The two MCs take turns comparing what they worry are coronavirus symptoms. (Neither seems actually sick, thankfully; “He’s a hypochondriac, just like me,” Martínez explains of Residente.) Martínez, who’s grown increasingly outspoken about Puerto Rican politics in recent years, has also voiced his displeasure at Puerto Rico’s handling of the pandemic. Reacting, in part, to Vázquez’s lack of press conferences during the crisis, he called the government “a herd of clowns” on Twitter.
He’s holed up in the Airbnb with his longtime girlfriend, a 26-year-old jewelry designer named Gabriela Berlingeri. They lounge on the roof in swimsuits and take bored, sexy selfies. They watch a lot of movies, including multiple installments of Toy Story. At one point, Martínez begins making up his own toy stories, set in the time of the coronavirus, and broadcasts them on Instagram Live. Seated cross-legged on the carpet, he gathers an arsenal of figurines from the beloved Pixar series, and flawlessly mimics their voices in Spanish. When Woody, the sheriff, attests to hauling 40 rolls of toilet paper, the Slinky Dog scoffs raspily, “Jeez, Woody, how many butts do you have?” Martínez explains that his all-time favorite movies are cartoon movies: “One of my goals is to be the voice of an animated character in Spanish.”
Like most of us, Martínez’s emotions during lockdown have run the gamut. “The truth is, all this has made me angsty … but I’m having a good time,” he says. In February, he released his second album, Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana, or “I Do Whatever I Want,” and it quickly became the highest-charting Spanish-language album ever released in the United States. He joined Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and J Balvin at the Super Bowl halftime show, then was promptly whisked away to Mexico, where he began shooting scenes as a supporting actor in the Netflix crime series Narcos: Mexico before it shut down due to the pandemic. He sighs. “Maybe I needed the rest!”
He didn’t rest for long. A few weeks after our first conversation, Martínez and Berlingeri recorded a new song in his home: “En Casita,” a twee trap ballad about wanting to visit a lover but needing to stay in quarantine. A month later, Bad Bunny dug deep into his vault of unfinished songs, and finalized an 11th-hour follow-up to YHLQMDLG titled Las Que No Iban a Salir, a collection of 10 tracks scrapped from previous sessions.
Martínez first teased the tracks during an Instagram Live stream, sipping rum and singing whimsically into a wooden spoon. Most of the songs were produced during the Yo Hago sessions, but still lacked Bad Bunny’s swaggering verses. Martínez phoned reggaeton veterans like Nicky Jam and Don Omar, who recorded new guest vocals from their homes; he then headed to his engineer La Paciencia’s house, and finished vocals on the remaining tracks in two days. “There was no real meaning behind it,” he says. “I just thought, ’Damn. What people need is entertainment.’”
Like an agent of chaos, Martínez dropped the quarantine record unceremoniously on Mother’s Day. Within an hour of its release, I heard his song with Don Omar, “Pa’ Romperla,” blaring from a speedboat across Miami’s Biscayne Bay. “Tearing it up in the streets and the waters!” Bad Bunny says approvingly when I recount the scene.
The move evoked the similarly hurried, but showstopping Christmas Eve release of Bad Bunny’s 2018 debut, X 100pre — a stylized version of por siempre, or “forever” — his bid to court those new to Latin music, running through trap, reggaeton, dembow, synth-pop, and even pop punk, with help from Anglophonic ambassadors like Diplo and Drake. YHLQMDLG, on the other hand, is a portrait of Bad Bunny’s Puerto Rico: unfiltered and untranslated for outsiders, with help from beloved hitmakers Daddy Yankee, Ñengo Flow, and Jowell y Randy, as well as the elusive cult favorite Yaviah.
It’s a time-traveling party bus of a record, a dirty reggaeton-trap megamix modeled after DJ sets from marquesinas, or underground garage parties, in the aughts. “It’s the album I would have wanted to make when I was 16,” says Martínez, now 26. “I didn’t bring it back to the old times; I brought old times here.”
Bad Bunny reaches peak freak on YHLQMDLG with songs like “Safaera,” which details a night of banging in an Audi (and definitely not in a Honda). The song has its own viral meme: the Abuela Challenge, in which fans film their grandmothers listening to the line “If your boyfriend doesn’t eat your ass . . . why bother?” Cue the scandalized faces of thousands of abuelas across Latinx TikTok — as well as Bad Bunny’s mom’s. “ ‘Where did you hear that?!’ ” Martínez says, pitching up his voice to imitate his mother as she listens to his more vulgar rhymes. “I was like, ‘Sorry, Mamí.’ She knows my heart’s in the right place.”
True to his life-motto-turned-album-title, Bad Bunny does what Bad Bunny wants — and it pays dividends. He has headlined arenas all over America and racked up more than 3 billion streams in the U.S. alone, according to Alpha Data. Unlike crossover stars, from Ricky Martin to Enrique Iglesias, Martínez did it without a teen-heartthrob pedigree, a major-label deal, or singing in English; he’s an independent rapper who owns his weirdness, whether by his genre-bending sounds or gender-bending outfits (more on those in a moment). Bad Bunny is a new kind of Latin superstar, bespoke for a generation of open-minded listeners.
“He is a creative genius,” says Ricky Martin, who lent his voice to X 100pre. “Benito has reconfirmed the fact that music has no barriers. I think the way he does things connects at a deeper level regardless of language and cultural differences.”
“It’s a trip to be around him,” adds Residente. “With him, I’ve learned to be more open. Even in the most stupid things, you can find art in them.”
Bad Bunny is increasingly becoming Puerto Rico’s cultural weather vane, even as he’s still trying to orient his own internal compass. At the 2019 Latin Grammys, he was one of the top-charting nominees in the room, but was relegated to the urban categories. He’s excelled at keeping reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean mélange of hip-hop and reggae, fresh for a new generation of listeners, and he’s helped mainstream the newer Latin trap sound, a Spanish-language adaptation of American trap, without dulling its edge. “Reggaeton is a genre that has been going for more than two decades,” he said the night he accepted the award for Best Urban Album. “Whether you like it or not, we’re representing Latinos worldwide.”
Martínez attributes his ascent to the mainstreaming of música urbana, an umbrella term encompassing reggaeton, trap, and rap en español. “Música urbana is in its best moment when it comes to numbers,” he says, citing global megahits that set the scene for his takeover, like “Despacito.” But he’s ready to raise the stakes, and while he’s at it, some eyebrows too. “A wholesome reggaetóncito took off worldwide and became very popular,” Martínez says, sassily cocking his head to one side. “That’s fine, I am not criticizing that style of song. But street reggaetón, O.G. reggaetón, perreo … it deserves a space in the pop world.”
It’s no coincidence that Bad Bunny’s Latin-pop revolution has dovetailed with a time of upheaval across Latin America — where women rally against rampant femicide; where LGBTQ people combat hate by upping their visibility in pop culture and the streets; and where people of all stripes challenge emboldened, authoritarian politicians and their cronies. As Latinos, Latinas, and those in between fight for a much freer society, Bad Bunny is writing songs to light their path. And if being cooped up during a pandemic has any benefit, it’s that he finally has the time to process all of it.
Most of the music videos for YHLQMDLG star a clairvoyant young boy, played by the 12-year-old actor Adam Blasco Monrouzeau. He cruises through the suburbs of mid-aughts Puerto Rico on his bicycle, donning a bunny-eared balaclava to protect his third eye. Much like young Benito, explains Martínez, “the boy simply is different from everyone. A group of boys bother him, they steal his bike. But when they steal his little hat, they uncover his third eye. And then that’s when cars start to fly, the sky darkens, people get hysterical. So he runs home, to his room, where he feels safe.” (Bad Bunny has favored third-eye imagery — a symbol, perhaps, of his sixth sense for a hit — since seeing it in a sketchbook belonging to the Puerto Rican illustrator Sergio Vazquez in 2018.)
As a boy, Martínez “always had this magic in him,” says his younger brother Bernie, 22. “He was born unique. Even before the music, he was loved by everybody.” Benito was a sensitive, shy kid. “The first time we took a summer vacation, we went to the United States,” Bernie says. “I remember he cried the whole way from Puerto Rico to our grandparents’ house. He was scared of planes.”
Benito grew up in Vega Baja, a small town to the west of San Juan. The son of a truck driver and an English teacher, Martínez was raised by the countryside, in a house painted the color of mamey, with a well-worn basketball hoop and the most perfect tree to fall asleep under. “At Christmas, all the other kids would play with their toys, but Benito would play his CDs,” says Bernie.
A lanky wallflower with a booming voice, young Benito sang in the children’s choir of the Catholic church he attended every Sunday. “I wasn’t the kid who got involved in the streets,” says Martínez. “I liked to be at home with my family.” His name, Bad Bunny, was inspired by a childhood photo of him at Easter, grimacing in a plush bunny suit.
His debut as a soloist came about in a middle school talent show, where he sang the 2002 hit “Mala Gente,” by Colombian rocker Juanes. “I didn’t move a single [muscle],” Martínez recalls with a chuckle, doing his best impression of a wooden plank with a thousand-yard stare.
To his mother’s great discontent, Martínez quit the church choir at 13 and adopted a new spiritual practice: He’d stay up until dawn, craft beats on his computer, then improvise freestyles for his friends at school. If there were no fresh beats at the ready, he would improvise over salsa music; as he got older, he began regaling neighbors from his balcony with songs by the great Puerto Rican salsero Héctor Lavoe, a critical strand of Bad Bunny’s musical DNA. He describes his musical phases as seasons in his life: There was bachata season, indie-pop season, even Bee Gees season. “There was a time where I would only listen to the Bee Gees,” he admits. “Bee Gees, Bee Gees, Bee Gees. And West Coast rap classics.”
When Martínez enrolled in the audiovisual-communications program at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, his friends goaded him into making a SoundCloud page. “Diles,” a bubble-gum Latin trap number from 2016, revealed Bad Bunny’s viability as a one-man hit machine: his braying, operatic affect, combined with his agile wordplay and D.I.Y. production chops. “In one week I got 1 million plays,” he says. “Producers started calling me at work. I would go to the bathroom to respond to them!”
Martínez was working a shift as a bagger at a supermarket when he heard from Noah Asaad, founder of the label Rimas Entertainment. “I made him quit his job,” says Assad, now his manager. Together, he and Martínez had a vision of dominating YouTube by flooding the platform with songs, remixes, and collaborations. Assad secured Puerto Rico’s first YouTube monetization deal for Rimas, which meant all those YouTube views for Bad Bunny’s songs turned into real revenue — and allowed Bad Bunny to circumvent a major label.
In September 2017, just as Bad Bunny’s profile began to reach far beyond Puerto Rico, tragedy struck his homeland. He was on tour in South America when both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. An estimated 2,658 to 3,290 people died; more than 300,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Martínez’s family was left without power for months.
Martínez returned home in shock — and wracked with guilt for leaving. Many songs that ended up on X 100pre were colored by a residual tropical depression. “I would’ve given anything to have been there in that moment,” he says.
The hurricane would politicize him in a way he never expected. In 2018, Martínez struck a timely, influential friendship with Residente, who is well-known for his fiery left-wing political advocacy. “He reminds me of my childhood friends,” says Residente, who’s the son of a labor lawyer and an actress in Puerto Rico. “We come from the same social class — maybe in the U.S. it’s like the hood. But we come from the lower-middle class. When I see him with his friends, it reminds me of the way my friends used to be with me.”
By early 2019, Puerto Rico had been in a recession for more than a decade, thanks partly to the U.S. phasing out tax credits for businesses there. Under a government mired in corruption, the island faced more than $50 billion worth of unfunded pensions, mass school closures, and an uptick in homicides. In January, Bad Bunny and Residente paid an early-morning visit to Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, to propose an audit of the island’s debt. “It was good for Benito to be there,” said Residente in 2019. “He’s connecting with a lot of young people. But he’s also a guy who questions things.”
Yet their good-faith relationship with the governor quickly soured. Soon after, almost 900 pages’ worth of text messages between Rosselló, his aides, and several cabinet members were leaked. Known as “Chat-Gate,” the leak revealed disparaging remarks about Ricky Martin, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, and even hurricane victims. In addition, two former members of Rosselló’s administration were arrested by the FBI on a 32-count indictment for conspiracy, wire fraud, theft, and money laundering. With Residente and Residente’s sister iLe, Bad Bunny penned a scathing protest song called “Afilando los Cuchillos,” or “Sharpening the Knives.” “Let all the continents know that Ricardo Rosselló is an incompetent, homophobic liar,” he crowed.
On July 22nd, 2019, Martínez joined Ricky Martin and more than half a million Puerto Ricans in a general strike, demanding the resignation of Rosselló. The horde of angry Boricuas shut down traffic on San Juan’s main highway. Perched atop a semi-truck, Martínez was photographed flying a Puerto Rican flag and donning a black face mask — back when it was more rebellious than necessary to do so. It was his first political protest. “The first thing I asked myself was, ‘Why hadn’t I done this before?’ ” reflects Martínez. “I didn’t go there to do anything that had to do with my music career. That day, Benito went.” Two days later, Rosselló announced his resignation.