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Will Bad Bunny Represent a Breakout for Multilingual Hip-Hop?


Puerto Rican hip-hop artist Bad Bunny (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) did more than shake up annual charts with the Dec. 23 surprise release of X100PRE (Rimas Entertainment LLC). By attracting such collaborators as Drake, Diplo and El Alfa with an album owing as much to dembow and reggaeton as hi-hop, Bad Bunny proved he could dominate streaming services with an album almost entirely in Spanish. Market observers expect not only a tailwind push for Spanish-language hip-hop, but a belated U.S. interest in hip-hop from European-, Asian- and Russian-language markets as well. On a polyglot continent like Europe, this is nothing new, but U.S. pop has stubbornly kept to “English language only.”

Bad Bunny has overcome this reluctance by making his new album as much about beats, tunes and emotional delivery as about words that may be indecipherable to many fans. The album opener, “Ni Bien Ni Mal” offers tense bachata guitar, “Otra Noche en Miami” is as smooth as synth-R&B gets, while “Tenemos Que Hablar” approaches a punky delivery. In short, Bad Bunny knows how to shake up genre categorization.

Artists in other regions have yet to achieve this sort of breakthrough. Given the popularity of K-pop, it is surprising how few Americans want to sample the gloomier side of Korean hip-hop, though language barriers no doubt play a role. The same can be said for South American or Southern European hip-hop. The popularity of the genre could break this barrier in 2019-20, though there is an aspect of forbidden fruit: Both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping ended 2018 with warnings that they might start censoring hip-hop in their own countries. But maybe turning pop culture into underground samizdat could accelerate its global popularity.

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