by lucas villa
photos by gunner stahl
styling by sita abellan
styling assistants: afan o’donovan, steven gillman ii
makeup by tatiana nader
director darius baptist
The name J Balvin is known the world over. In less than a decade, the Colombian superstar rose to become a global purveyor of reggaeton music. Alongside names like Drake and The Weeknd, he was among the top five most-streamed artists on Spotify last year. Now, as a new father and with his self-titled album “Jose,” Balvin wants the world to know the man behind Latin music’s most colorful character.
“Right now I just want to be the happiest guy on the planet,” J Balvin says. “That’s not J Balvin. That’s Jose. I put J Balvin first for so long, so now I’m going to focus on myself, Jose.”
J Balvin was born Jose Álvaro Osorio Balvin in Medellín, Colombia. As a teenager, he grew up listening to the reggaeton music blowing up at the time through pioneers like Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderón and Don Omar. “I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I could be like [Daddy Yankee] someday,’” Balvin says. The genre was rooted in the Caribbean, in places like Panama and Puerto Rico, which was a far cry from Balvin’s country in South America. If you were looking to become the next reggaeton star, Colombia wasn’t exactly the place to be. Balvin resolved to change that, a choice he marked by getting the initials J.B. tattooed on his arm, thus becoming J Balvin.
“People just thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “They were like, ‘You’re not going to make it. If you were from Puerto Rico, you might have a chance.’ The more they said I couldn’t make it, the more strength I started to get.”
Through freestyle battles, J Balvin established his name as one of Medellín’s top rappers. In 2009, he released his “Real” mixtape, which spread Balvin fever across Colombia. Instead of trying to recreate the reggaeton he grew up on, J Balvin put a fresh electronic gloss on the genre with his 2013 debut album, “La Familia.” His music started getting played throughout Latin America and made its way to the U.S. He perfected that sound with 2016’s “Energia” album, which led the way for the second wave of reggaeton stars that were breaking through from Colombia.
“Now all those people who said I wasn’t going to make it, they know I was right,” J Balvin adds. “It’s amazing. Now it’s a movement. It’s not just me. We have a lot of artists doing great things from Colombia. There’s Maluma, Karol G and a new generation that’s killing it. We’re blessed that our movement keeps going up.”
In 2017, J Balvin adapted “Voodoo Song” by French DJ Willy William into the reggaeton anthem “Mi Gente.” Like in hip-hop, reggaeton music has an unfortunate history of putting down women and people in the LGBTQ+ community. In Latino culture, that toxic mindset is called machismo. At the start of “Mi Gente,” J Balvin spits in Spanish, “My music does not discriminate against anyone.” That line and the song’s hypnotic beat resonated with people around the world.
“It’s all about inclusion,” J Balvin says. “I think everyone is being more conscious of no violence, no sexism, no racism and no homophobia. I just had a son and I can’t wait to talk to him when he grows up. If he [Río] tells me, ‘Yo, dad, I love guys,’ I’ll be like, ‘Let’s go! I support you 100 percent. I want you to be who you are. Be you and I’m going to help you find the right guy.’ It’s all about love, peace and tolerance.”
As “Mi Gente” was heading up the charts, pop icon Beyoncé jumped on the remix and the song went into the Top 5 on the U.S. and U.K. singles charts. J Balvin became a global superstar and added countries in Europe and Asia to his tour schedule. He was especially happy to bring his music to places that aren’t known for speaking Spanish.
“I had a lot of songs before that were having a global reach, but [“Mi Gente”] especially made a huge statement,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. That proved that Latinos are global citizens. After that, they kept playing our music all around the world. That’s my mission: to keep spreading mainstream reggaeton around the world.”
J Balvin upped the ante by featuring on Cardi B’s “I Like It” alongside then-rising Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. Their reggaeton version of the boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That” shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart. In the song, the trio of artists created and triumphed as the “Latino Gang,” which has become one of J Balvin’s signature phrases.
“[Latino Gang means] being proud of where I come from, but also inviting and including everybody,” J Balvin says. “Whoever vibes with Latino music, let’s make them part of the family. Whoever respects our culture is part of the family. It’s all about love. This is everybody’s gang.”
Much like his Latino Gang mantra, J Balvin is known for lending a hand to new talent to take them up the charts with him. He collaborated with and helped cultivate the careers of Bad Bunny and Spanish singer Rosalía, both of whom have blossomed into stars. When Bad Bunny became a force of his own, J Balvin teamed up with him for the 2019 joint album “Oasis.” This game-changing LP was like the Latino version of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne.”
“We’re still, like, very different guys in the hood,” J Balvin says with a laugh. “We like to be daring and do different things, like express ourselves through fashion, the way we speak, hair colors or painted nails. All the machismo stuff in the genre, we don’t vibe with that. I can wear a skirt if I want to. It goes beyond music, that’s why we have so much power. We have a big responsibility with it. Me and Bad Bunny have a great connection and chemistry. I think we’ll make another [album] sooner than later.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic touched down, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira led a very Latina halftime show at the Super Bowl. They invited J Balvin and Bad Bunny to perform during their set as special guests. J Balvin performed an abbreviated version of “Mi Gente” with Lopez, marking another major milestone for the Latino Gang.
“The Super Bowl was really dope because they said it was impossible to see Latinos there,” J Balvin says. “Once again, we proved them wrong. It was J.Lo, Shakira, Bad Bunny and myself, so there you go, another statement by Latinos.”
When the world was quarantined at home last year, J Balvin started writing and recording his fifth album. The resulting LP that dropped this month is titled “Jose” after his actual first name.
“The concept of the album is me,” he says. “It’s showing my versatility and what I like and what I want people to hear from me. I had a lot of fun doing it.”
With a whopping 24 songs, “Jose” feels more like a playlist than an album. “Una Nota,” featuring Panamanian singer Sech, and the sensual “Vestido’” provide the romantic reggaeton moments that J Balvin is known for. The album’s opener “F40” (like the Ferrari sports car) harks back to the old-school reggaeton he grew up on. J Balvin dabbles in drill music alongside Puerto Rican rapper Myke Towers in “Billetes de 100” and Dominican dembow in “Perra” with Tokischa. He continues to push the limits of reggaeton, blending in elements of house music with Skrillex for “In Da Getto.”
“It’s a little bit of everything on it,” J Balvin says. “You have reggaeton. You have R&B. You have dancehall. You have soft reggaeton. You have ‘In Da Getto’ vibes. There’s a lot of different sounds. It’s impossible that someone’s not going to like something on there. There has to be at least a few songs that they’re going to love.”
The song on “Jose” that means the most to J Balvin is “Querido Río,” an ode to his newborn son. His girlfriend Valentina Ferrer gave birth to Río in June. In the delicate lullaby, he sings in Spanish, “I named you Río (which means “River” in English) because you flow / My problems, you dissolve them.” As a special touch, he included a part of Río in the song.
“I recorded his heartbeat when we went to the doctor,” J Balvin reveals. “All the bass, the main sound of the song, is my son’s heartbeat.”
With Río being only a few weeks old, J Balvin is still adjusting to life as a new dad. The reggaetonero is beaming as he talks about his newborn baby.“I’m catching up,” he says. “I’m learning. You start loving them more and more every day. It’s only been a month and two weeks, so it’s still really new. All I want for him is to be happy and to be a good person. He has to be free and happy. The rest, we’ll handle it.”
Something else that is dear to J Balvin’s heart is the issue of mental health. In front of his 48 million followers on Instagram, J Balvin often opens up about his struggles with anxiety and depression. With the toxic masculinity of machismo ingrained in Latino culture, the topic of mental health can be dismissed or even seen as taboo in those communities. J Balvin wants to destigmatize the conversation.
“The biggest pandemic is mental health,” J Balvin says. “A lot of people suffer from it. I’m using my voice to speak out for all of them, myself included. We have so many ways that we can battle with anxiety, depression and different types of mental illness. There are psychiatrists that can medicate you and help you balance the chemical imbalance in your brain. It’s an illness that doesn’t disappear, but you can control it. It’s OK to not be OK.”
J Balvin finds pleasure in getting tattoos. His body is covered in tattoos upon tattoos. There’s a “1985” on his stomach to mark his birth year. As much as there’s meaningful tattoos like the “J.B.” from when he created J Balvin, there’s plenty more ink that he’s gotten just for fun.
“To me, tattoos are a way to express yourself,” J Balvin says. “They don’t have to have a meaning. Sometimes people make excuses to get a tattoo. Just get it because you like it. That’s it. It doesn’t have to have a story behind it. Just get whatever you want. I have the Mario Bros. and Mickey Mouse tattooed on me just because I like them. Stop making excuses to get that tattoo and just do it if you want.”
Outside of music, J Balvin is also leaving his mark as a businessman. The self-proclaimed “negocio socio,” or business partner, became the first Latin artist to release his own version of Nike’s Air Jordan 1 sneakers. His recent partnerships include a celebrity meal with McDonald’s, a new song for the 25th anniversary of “Pokémon” and the “¡Es Jose Time!” campaign with Miller Lite.
“In our [reggaeton] genre, we don’t have a Jay-Z,” he says. “We don’t have those guys that are huge entrepreneurs. I want to be a great entrepreneur. It’s not just the music. We’re a brand, but we want to take it to another level. I want to be a Latino on Forbes’ billionaire list. Not because of the money, but to say that as Latinos, we’re the same. We’re not below. It’s not for my ego. It’s more for the culture. This mission is personal because I really want to make the statement that as Latinos, we can make it too.”