lIf you Google Bad Bunny — aka 28-year-old Puerto Rican Benito Ocasio — one of the suggestions the search engine throws up is the question, “Why is Bad Bunny so big?” It’s a pertinent question, especially on this side of the Atlantic, where he remains a fringe figure with a lone hit single, Drake-assisted Mia from 2018. Still, he can call himself the biggest pop star in the world: he was in both 2020 and by 2021 the most streamed artist on Spotify, good for 17.4 billion streams in two years. In the US, it is huge on a historic scale: the first artist to top the Billboard charts with an all-Spanish-language album, El Último Tour Del Mundo. It was recently announced that he would be starring in an upcoming Marvel movie, about a wrestler named El Muerto whose mask gives him superhuman powers; before that, he will star opposite Brad Pitt in an action movie called Bullet Train.
It’s the kind of success that lends itself to big statements. El Último Tour Del Mundo was the third album he released in 2020 (the first, YHLQMDLG was the highest grossing all-Spanish-language album in US history until it broke its own record). Un Verano Sin Ti contains 23 tracks and lasts most of an hour and a half. According to the author, it’s meant to work like a mixtape, to play in the background while people are having fun on the beach or by a pool (the title translates as A Summer Without You).
As with El Último Tour Del Mundo, production is held in-house – no credit to the kind of hit-producing celebrities whose names appear on every major pop album by themselves – and the guest stars are drawn entirely from the Latin American music scene, including Colombian” psychedelic cumbia” duo Bomba Estéreo and the LA de Marías indie band, as well as a host of Puerto Rican rappers and singers. Why would you need the star power of a Cardi B or Dua Lipa to help you cross the road when you’ve already done so on a large scale?
From psychedelic cumbia to indie pop, the standout about Un Verano Sin Ti beyond its sheer length is what a scenic route it takes to maintain a position of world domination. There are definitely times when the album sounds boilerplate. Moscow Mule is a beautiful song with a pleasantly sun-drenched atmosphere – not for the last time on the album, the attempts to evoke a beach atmosphere extend to the use of the sound of seagulls – but the combination of reggaeton beats and AutoTuned vocals feel very familiar, regardless of the language it’s sung in; also Dos Mil 16, a ballad about a trap beat. But these moments are less common than you might expect — and are usually followed by a jump into distinctly different territory.
Moscow Mule is followed by Después de la Playa, a twisted take on mambo with what sounds like a live vocal. The background of Otro Atardecer sounds like Vampire Weekend is playing underwater. The album’s lead producer, Marco “MAG” Borrero, seems to have a thing for sounds that feel like they’re standing unsteadily on their feet, warping and sliding in and out of tune; the best of the reggaeton tracks here may be Andrea, who tempers the beats with countless layers of woozy synth. Tití Me Preguntó meanwhile makes a detour to dembow, a frenetic musical subgenre that is prominent in the Dominican Republic.
Some songs seem to exist in their own peculiar musical universe. A third of El Apagón is devoted to muffled sampled voices, sung vocals and clattering percussion before, unexpectedly, the appearance of a buzzing synth turns it into a peak-of-the-night house track. Then the atmosphere changes again: a female voice takes over, the electronics soften and a small hour of mood takes over. It crams all this into three minutes. At the end, the listener is deposited in a very different place than where they started.
Not everything is so great here – like most 23-song albums, Un Verano Sin Ti could have used a pinch and a tuft. But when it reaches its peak, it leaves you amazed at Britain’s lack of interest in Bad Bunny. Why wouldn’t you want pop music to be as creative and surprising as this one? The depressing conclusion is that it has something to do with the traditional snobbery that almost anything not sung in English is relegated to novelty territory; in the US 41 million people speak Spanish and it’s a language that’s part of the ether of everyday life, which it clearly isn’t in the UK. Maybe Un Verano Sin Ti will change people’s minds, but if not, you doubt Bad Bunny will lose much sleep.