J Balvin: ‘People like to see the world burn, but they don’t want it to be their turn’

The Colombian reggaeton star is approaching 40 years of age with a new perspective on life, influenced by fatherhood and his decision to put mental health before work

J Balvin
J Balvin at New York Fashion Week 2023.Jared Siskin (NYLON)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

J Balvin’s back hurts. Just by saying this, the Colombian reggaeton singer causes worried faces among his crew. The men look at him across an elegant marble bar inside an exclusive villa in the Californian desert. All five of them are dressed in the uniform of an urban music tribe: loose white cotton t-shirts and old basketball shorts. They offer to go get him medicine. Another man offers him a massage.

It’s no surprise that one of pop’s global stars suffers from lower back pain. José Álvaro Osorio Balvin — who was born in Medellín, Colombia, in 1985 — carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. He’s currently preparing the launch of a new album and is on a tour that will take him to 17 European countries. After that, he’ll spend the rest of the year singing in Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.

Balvin doesn’t consider these trips to be mere visits. Rather, he sees each new country as a territory to be conquered. “There is still a lot to unlock: China, as it should be, India, Asia in general. There’s a really cool mission over there. Australia started opening things up three years ago. The mission now is [for me to give] the first reggaeton concert that fills a stadium in Australia,” he says, speaking as the CEO of his company.

J Balvin
J Balvin in Paris, France, on January 20, 2023.Edward Berthelot

In June 2021, he became a father for the first time with his partner, the Argentine actress Valentina Ferrer. Fatherhood and his mental health have forced him to slow down, but they also give him perspective for the future. “I feel like a new artist, even though my back hurts. Since my son was born, I think to myself: how do I make sure that, when he’s 10, all of his friends are still listening to my music?”

The seventh album of his career was set to come out in the fall of 2023. The still-untitled album originated in Miami and ended up being recorded at Abbey Road and London’s RAK studios. According to the artist, it hasn’t seen the light of day because “everything has a strategy, a timing and a purpose.” Soon, he’ll surprise everyone with the release date. This will mark a return to his essence.

“When you start making music and think about satisfying the public, you’re fooling yourself. Music is for your own pleasure; it’s for you to enjoy,” he emphasizes, digesting some of the ideas that the Grammy-winning producer Rick Rubin captured in his book The Creative Act (2023).

Before revealing his new work, he first needed to remind the world what he’s capable of doing. And he chose to do it at Coachella.

J Balvin durante un concierto en Las Vegas
J Balvin, during the opening ceremony of the Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Las Vegas Circuit in November 2023.ANP

A creative vision

This afternoon, on the eve of his long-awaited return to the music festival, there’s a relaxed atmosphere in the town. A huge television screen shows the results of a Mario Kart game, where Balvin made his entourage bite the dust.

— “Who is your favorite character?”

— “Yoshi, always. We have to bring out the child inside us.”

The musician seems relaxed, but he doesn’t miss any details. He controls everything that happens around him. He squints his eyes and looks for the spot where he will pose for the promotional photos. He wants the image to show how the desert sun filters through a palm tree.

Minutes later, he goes into his room and comes out with one of the limited-edition t-shirts that are being sold to attendees of the world’s largest music festival. “Touch the fabric, feel the quality,” he tells his friend, as he throws the garment at him. This one has the enormous face of an alien printed on the front. “I get into everything creative. My vision is in all these details. Everything has a story and a purpose,” he assures EL PAÍS.

On the table, there’s a pair of black sneakers that he also designed from scratch. The “Rio” takes its name from the reggaeton artist’s son. This is the second collaboration he’s done for Nike and Air Jordan 3. The artist will wear them the following night on stage at Coachella, a few weeks before they were released on the market with a $250 price tag.

— “What do you do when a door is shut on your face?”

— “I go through the window. Or I climb up to another floor,” he laughs.

Balvin perceives himself as a creative force that transcends music. His house in Medellín — built from his drawings and material recommendations — has been featured in magazines that specialize in interior design. These structures highlight his sobriety and the Zen atmosphere of his spaces. “I love architecture,” he sighs. “I want to make a [series] of houses designed by J Balvin.”

J Balvin en el escenario de Coachella 2024
J Balvin performs at Coachella, in 2024.Arturo Holmes

Out of this world

12 years have passed since Yo te lo dije became his first hit and his album La Familia added to the construction of reggaeton as a global phenomenon. Today, Balvin is almost 40-years-old and is a far cry from being a young voice in a genre making its way up the charts. To date, he has sold 35 million records. Tens of millions of hours of his music have been listened to on streaming sites, while 18 of his singles have appeared on the Billboard Hot 100. The most recent one hit the ranking in April 2022, when he collaborated with Ed Sheeran on Sigue. Today, he aims to stay hungry.

“I like to ask myself when was the last time I did something for the first time,” he notes. There’s confidence in his voice, because he has an ace up his sleeve. The next night, he surprises Coachella with a spectacular concert, which has science fiction as its main theme. A UFO hovers above the stage and a group of dancers dressed as aliens dance alongside a robot named Enzo, in honor of the artist’s recently-deceased dog. In one of the most viral moments of the night, Balvin — who is dressed in an outfit by the Swiss brand Vetements — sings the Men in Black theme song with Will Smith.

The show sent a message. “Even though I’ve taken a year-and-a-half off, I’m still here,” he announces. “As a Latino, I had to demonstrate, once again, why we’re here,” he adds, in reference to his 2019 appearance at Coachella, unanimously considered by critics as one of the festival’s historic shows.

Since then, a lot has happened in an industry where new trends occur at breakneck speed. Balvin took a pause while the world was barely digesting the Latin rhythms of reggaeton. He has since returned during the great wave of the Regional Mexican genre, or Tejano music, with artists such as Peso Pluma, Grupo Frontera and Carin León singing in Spanish and filling stadiums across North America. In fact, this phenomenon has even rubbed off on the Colombian’s look. He wears a white Guess t-shirt — the brand that sponsors and hosts him at the festival — but he also wears a cowboy hat and white boots.

“I make every effort to do good by them, so that it’s great for everyone. If they look good, we all look good. The Regional Mexican [genre] is recovering its audience. Reggaeton never focused on taking away anyone’s sound — it only focused on making music. There are many artists who can [always find a place for themselves in] the market, although suddenly, many people felt threatened by the genre,” he points out.

J Balvin durante su actuación en Coachella 2024
J Balvin at Coachella, in April 2024.Arturo Holmes

J Balvin watched Bizarrap’s big Coachella performance online, which he says he enjoyed. In his set, the Argentine producer played just a couple of bars from Residente: Bzrp Music Session, Vol. 49, in which the iconic Puerto Rican rapper, Residente, burns the Colombian reggaeton player for eight minutes, dismissing his materialism and shallow lyrics. Despite having a beef with René Pérez Joglar (Residente’s legal name) since 2021 — when Balvin called for a boycott of the Grammys, even though salsa legend Rubén Blades was being honored — the Colombian didn’t pick up the gauntlet or fuel the fight within the genre.

A figure who has spoken publicly about vulnerability, depression and anxiety, the Colombian makes a judgment about the times: “People like to see the world burn, but they don’t want it to be their turn.” He has become more cautious as of late, because he believes that we live in a fragile world, with “a glass society.”

“There’s a very high [level of] sensitivity. We want to attack for the sake of attacking, although I sometimes see it as simply wanting to fuck around. When you analyze the scandals that some artists have been involved in, you can’t believe that they’re getting so much heat. What is it that offends people so much?”

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