Both the mentality and the core elements of trap style, namely the deep bass, sputtering, low vocals, and overall haze, have carried over and diffused through the music dominating Latin charts and radio. Most Latin trap artists cropped up around 2016 (a year we might call “peak trap”). One of the biggest names is Bad Bunny, and he’s one of the few Spanish-language artists that applies the trap vocal style of rapping in triplets (Vox has a great video explaining this). He’s from Puerto Rico, and despite not having released or announced an album, is signed to the label Hear This Music, has collaborated with nearly every current star in Latin pop and reggaeton, is on a world tour, currently has 21.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and is synonymous with the Spanish-language trap movement. Before performing in the 2017 Premios Juventud (Young People’s Awards), Bad Bunny posted on social media, remembering that last year, he had to run from a shift at a grocery store to watch the awards show on TV.
There is a marked shift in the Latin version of trap, and it’s in the lyrical content. Bad Bunny and others in the genre draw on the theme more typical of Latin music: romance. Arcángel, a Latino trap artist from New York, lamented the change in an interview with Rapetón.
“Trap is not romantic music. [Today’s artists are] making good R&B with a trap beat. Trap music is music that comes from the trap house…We’re calling everything trap that doesn’t have reggaeton’s beat.” [To date, Arcángel has released a number of tracks with Bad Bunny…] Remezcla’s take on the issue of authenticity in trap:
““Given the varied evolutions of the genre currently taking place in Latin America, it’s a rough time to be a trap purist.””
It’s true that Latin trap has a lot in common with R&B, the soulful hip hop subgenre. The trap sentimentality and production is coupled with the romantic sensibilities of Latin music, with lyrical content leaning away from the grit of the subgenre in the Southern U.S. The song’s central narrative is a romantic one, at least from the perspective of the majority male vocalists, with the artist talking about his girl, to his girl, or wishing you were his girl. There is still talk of money, drugs, and elements of criminality (Anuel A.A.’s part in the single “La Ultima Vez” with Bad Bunny was recorded from jail), but many songs display bravado within the context of relationships, both among peers and with a significant other. This could be called “breakup trap,” “trap pop,” “trap r&b,” or “trap soul.” The wave of trap has darkened the mood of music across hip hop, especially where it overlaps with R&B, with minimalist melancholy in sound and imagery and raw lyrics that aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.
An example of one such track is “Decile” by Jesse Baez. The central line of the song asks the vocalist’s significant other to tell her other female friends, who he calls “basic,” how good he is.
Jesse Baez, who grew up in Guatemala but was born to Puerto Rican and Dominican parents, is an artist signed to Mexico’s Finesse Records. About a year ago, he released one of his first singles, “Decile,” a reworked, Spanish-language version of the Weeknd’s “Tell Your Friends” from his 2015 album Beauty Behind the Madness. “Decile” maintains some of the darker lyrical content but is less explicit than the Weeknd’s track. Baez references marijuana but leaves cocaine out; when the Weeknd is stealing someone’s Jordan sneakers, Baez is wearing his. This is not to say that Latin trap or R&B is tame, but some tracks appear family friendly in comparison to what’s on the U.S. trap charts. Baez’s EP, in particular, is not as jaded, youthful with a bit less bite.
Finesse, the label to which Baez and other rising artists like Girl Ultra belong, was formed in Mexico in 2012. The label’s founder, David Oranda, makes music as Teen Flirt, and is based in Monterrey, a city in the northeast of the country. At the time of the label’s formation, Monterrey had recently become the base of operations for the most brutal organized crime groups in the country, Los Zetas, that specializes in a variety of sophisticated trafficking and extortion schemes (San Diego Tribune). In addition, the city was still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Alex in 2010, that the governor of Nuevo León, the region around Monterrey, called “the strongest weather phenomenon in [the area’s] history.” It was in this moment that Finesse Records came into being. Fader describes this as “Latin millennials rebuilding on what older generations thought was lost to economic and drug-related violence: community and a sense of belonging.”
Tours, festivals, parties, and releases have continued to grow with the success of the label and collective in recent years, as the artists continue pushing themselves further into their creative identity. Jesse Baez and Girl Ultra discussed with Fader their reasons for turning to more Spanish-language releases, rather than the English they had sung in previously. “It was part of our exploration to find our own sound,” said Girl Ultra.
““Looking back,” said Baez, “if the songs had come out in English, it would’ve been like any other song in a sea of songs like it.””
Although both of these artists are now based in Mexico, with a potential market among the estimated 500 million Spanish speakers worldwide, it was a question of identity and sound that pushed them to decide to release material in Spanish versus English. I see this as a huge shift in music, that artists are able to choose their native language, be part of a growing music and arts community, and find success within their countries and abroad.
The celebration of this idea is a reason this blog exists, but it’s also an interesting phenomenon to examine. While many artists who sing in minority languages have found commercial success, it is more exception than rule. Spanish-language artists have a little more to work with, audience wise, and I think Latin America will be the biggest and first source of introducing the world to popular music in languages other than English, particularly through the U.S. music market and through the genre of hip hop.
Spain, too, has a handful of artists in hip hop, many of whom have a darker sound, closer to what’s coming from Atlanta, than the breakup trap artists from Latin America. You can hear this in tracks like “Trappin en el Vaticano” by LOS SANTOS, “Dinero en la Ola” by Yung Beef, and “Persiguiéndonos” by C.Tangana (all on this week’s playlist).
Finesse also released El Dorado, a nine track album/mixtape with Broke Niños Make Pesos (BNMP), a collective from the Canary Islands in Spain, in 2017. BNMP, in an interview with This Is Underground in 2016, described the purpose of their collective as “putting out accessible and varied music to reach the biggest and most diverse audience possible. But this doesn’t mean using gimmicks or worn out formulas. All fresh and not only trap” (translation mine). The rappers and producers have a trap-influenced style, but veer in different directions with their individual musical personalities. Although influenced by the music coming from the U.S. and Latin America, the group does a good deal of boundary pushing to win over the public with that fresh, compelling, and danceable sound. It also looks like the group of best friends is having a ton of fun. Most of their music videos are them hanging out, and in the video for “No Hay Más,” they make it rain with cheese singles.
A cross-Atlantic Spanish-language collaborative album is good news for the future of music, especially when you hear how good it is. You can hear the influences of U.S. trap on El Dorado and on BNMP’s 32-track album/mixtape Pa’l Coche (check “Nada” for references to Desiigner’s “Panda”), but the sound is distinct and the raps clever and well executed. It’s a steady, upward trajectory in the quantity and quality of releases from Spanish-language artists, as well as in collaborations, versions, and remixes of tracks from artists that perform in English.
Jesse Baez reworked PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Come and See Me” as “Ven a Verme,” Fuego released “Cuando Suena el Bling” as a Spanish-language remix of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” and Bad Bunny worked with Anuel AA on “La Ultima Vez,” a rework of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” These remixes or alternate versions were quieter, in a way that “Despacito,” by Danny Yankee, Louis Fonsi, and Justin Bieber on the remix, was loud. Just shy of one million people have streamed “Cuando Suena el Bling,” the most successful of the crop, on Soundcloud, and “Despacito” is somewhere around 3 billion. If we look back over the past decade of music, we can see a growing trend of bilingualism, crossovers, and collaborations, in that verse by Drake on Romeo Santos’ “Odio” in 2014, in all of Shakira’s discography, in Beyonce’s appearance on the remix of J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” in the ubiquity of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” from 2004, in Future’s verse on Yandel’s “Mi Combo” from 2015, in Ozuna’s feature of Cardi B on “La Modelo,” and yes, in the song of the summer of 2016, “Despacito.”
Note that a number of these have some connection to hip hop, especially the more recent ones. Hip hop, in many ways, has become a global genre. Hip hop and its subgenres are uniquely accessible among music genres in that its formula can be applied in a variety of contexts. Mastery of instruments is not required (Kanye West can’t play any traditional instruments), and aside from a beat, the rest is in the hands of a rapper, who can write rhymes in whatever language is available.
Of course, a hip hop track can be much more, thanks to a good producer. We’ve already discussed a number of important behind the scenes players in the U.S. trap movement and in the artist/producer collectives Finesse and BNMP, and the phenomenon is similar in Spanish language breakup trap. The Latin subgenre is full of collaborations between rappers and producers. DVLP, for example, worked on Fuego’s Fireboy Forever II, J Balvin’s Energia, in addition to working with Rick Ross and Lil Wayne. Poo Bear, the producer who was responsible for Justin Bieber’s verse on “Despacito,” described his work on bilingual tracks in an interview with Remezcla. While “wordplay is very important,” he says, “as long as you have a melody, you can have a song that can move your emotions.” A few years ago, when he first started listening to J Balvin, he thought “It’s going to be a matter of time before this is going to be right there with mainstream pop music…there’s not going to be any division.”
“Despacito” has opened the door wide open…I worked with Daddy Yankee in 2005 on a record called “Impacto” with Fergie…and I saw the glimmer of light then. I want to be a part of the whole ride of [Latino music] coming to the forefront of mainstream music. It just took one big record to show the world that wow, you can enjoy music in other languages.”
The blurring of bilingual lines is going along with the mixing of genres. In the future, the lines will be even less clear, and I think we will look back on these years as the mainstreaming of non-English music and that it will happen first in Spanish-language hip hop. This is less of a prediction than an observation of what’s already taking place. Hip hop is the sound of now, but even as we are consuming track after trap-influenced track, someone is in their basement working on the next big, industry-disrupting sound. Here’s hoping they’re bilingual.
A playlist of the tracks mentioned is available on theIntersection.co
Originally published at www.theintersection.co.