Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin - better known as J Balvin - is taking over the mainstream with his distinctly Colombian brand of reggaeton.
Balvin recently told Billboard that he's “going to conquer the world”, and it's hard not to take him at his word. Since his breakthrough single, 'No Strings Attached', catapulted him to fame, he's racked up over 100 million views on YouTube.
In the US, Balvin's song 'Yo Te lo Dije' spent 14 weeks in the Top 10 of the Billboard Latin Rhythm Airplay chart.
On the day his latest single, 'Sola', hit the iTunes store, it rocketed straight past Daft Punk and P!nk to the number one spot. And when Robin Thicke wanted to add some Latin flavour to the South American release of 'Blurred Lines', he called Balvin in to spit a verse.
Beyond sheer numbers, Balvin believes that what sets him apart from other reggaeton artists in Colombia is his “corporate vision”. He watched the likes of Jay-Z from afar and learned the value of cultivating himself as “a brand” that goes beyond Billboard hits and gaudy download figures.
He's all about that paper, and he's not ashamed of it — he's quick to paraphrase his idol, Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee, who has said that money cannot buy happiness but it can lengthen your smile.
Balvin attaches a value and importance to money that can only truly be understood by those who grew up without it.
He was raised in Bethlehem, Medellin, and while his family was not always poor (his dad “had a lot of power at some point in life”), they were broke by the time Balvin was 12. After “love”, he says, the word heard most often in his house was “overdraft”.
He remembers a terrible helplessness, a feeling of dread that motivated him to find his talent and take it forward. Eventually, he visited the US as part of an exchange program; he claims he was placed in the care of a mad woman, and walked through a forest filled with wolves and bears to escape her (at just 28, Balvin has already built something of a mythology around himself).
He went from Atoka to Oklahoma City and finally to New York, where he fell in love with hip hop. He was “hooked, hooked, absolutely” — in hip hop, he saw a reflection of the ambition, drugs, vices, power, and urban reality of life in Medellin, and he also saw a role model in Jay-Z.
Here was one of the most powerful men in the music industry, Balvin marvelled, selling clothes, video games and lotion, without losing his “street” appeal. “I saw the extent,” Balvin says, “that you can take the music as a business.”
Finally, Balvin had found his calling. “I fell in love not just with the music,” he told Billboard recently, “but the marketing. So I started doing hip hop, and then I was like, 'I have to do something that really represents us. I want to make a special kind of reggaeton that's more like hip hop; a Spanish version of American hip hop.”
He began his career with the CDM Crew, who released their first song, 'Pana', in 2004. His first solo album, 'Real', dropped in 2010. After years of honing his craft, Balvin's sensibilities seem to be perfectly in tune with the mainstream.
At this point, he says, he's not actively chasing crossover singles — he just does what he likes, and apparently, “it's very similar to what people want to hear”.
Balvin's latest LP, 'La Familia', sees him moving out of his reggaeton comfort zone. Incorporating R&B and jazz sounds, Balvin says it “works well in the disco, at breakfast, in the street… even at a wake, it sounds good.” It's an evolution, he says, a risk taken by an artist who can afford to take one.
Lyrically, though, Balvin's touch is as commercial as ever. He's crafting straight-up anthems for people who are looking for a good time.
“In reality, I'm not a saint,” he told Colombian newspaper El Espectador last year. “I am a young man like anyone else who falls in and out of love and wants to have fun. We're not going to discotecas to pray.”
Amen to that.
J Balvin plays The Arena on Friday November 15. To win tickets to the show, click here.