The island has had a rough year.
Puerto Rico’s citizens have tried to rebuild after the devastating effects of not only 2017’s Hurricane Maria, but also the controversially slow response from the United States government. The storm caused around $100 billion in damages, and Donald Trump tried to dispute the reported 3,000 deaths. To make matters worse, the U.S. is now slashing Puerto Rico’s food stamp program by 25 percent, impacting 43 percent of the island’s residents.
The last time I visited, back in May, parts of San Juan were still in shambles. Buildings were boarded up, trees were on the ground, and traffic lights weren’t working. Almost a year later, the island is finally in better shape. Or at least the parts I visited in early March were when I flew in for Bad Bunny’s three sold-out X 100pre Tour shows in his home country.
The sound of reggaeton and the smell of frituras filled the air, almost as if Maria had never happened. Much of the infectious energy emanating from the country could be attributed to the meteoric rise of Vega Baja’s very own. In many ways, for the past year, Bad Bunny has been Puerto Rico’s saving grace.
“Yo, the governor gave free tickets to a school in Vega Baja, where Bunny is from,” says Angel “El Guru” Vera, editor-in-chief of the reggaeton-focused website Rapetón, marveling at Bunny’s impact. “The government never liked this music, and now the governor is giving free tickets to teenagers to see a Latin trap concert. It’s to win votes, of course, because 2020 is coming up, but still.” Shit, Governor Ricardo Rosselló even asked for Bunny to do a third show after the first two sold out in less than two hours. As of this moment, Puerto Rico is Bunny’s.
"Urbano" music replaced salsa as the island's main musical export at the turn of the millennium thanks to legends like Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Wisin y Yandel, and Arcángel. Now, El Conejo Malo is taking the torch to places the genre has never been before. You can hear Bad Bunny songs on pop, hip-hop, and Latin radio, due to his wide array of hits, styles, and sounds. Bunny is making reggaeton more accessible by turning the genre into something fresh: He can rap, he can sing, his fashion is unique, he paints his nails, and he switches up his haircuts from the bowl hairdo he rocked for our cover shoot to various shaved-in designs like the style he rocked last weekend. He has everybody on the island following his lead.
Before the first show, on March 8, Bad Bunny’s stylist Patricia Alfonso took our photographer David Cabrera into Bunny’s dressing room. There, he saw what Bunny was planning on wearing for the shows, spotting brands like Jaded London, Talentless, and the Italian GCDS (God Can’t Destroy Streetwear), along with Poppy Lissiman sunnies and Dragon Ball Z rayon button-ups. On his feet, Bunny mostly wore Yeezy 500s customized by French artist Agent 33 and Fear of God. Not only is he becoming a global superstar before our very eyes, Bunny is turning into an international fashion icon as well. But in his native P.R., he’s already the most influential reggaeton artist since Daddy Yankee in the ’90s.
I was in Puerto Rico back in the summer of 2018 to cover a Trap Kingz concert headlined by Bad Bunny and to check his collaboration with Puerto Rican streetwear brand FRSH Company. Twenty-five thousand people packed the Centro de Convenciones de Puerto Rico. It was fucking madness. Bunny brought out a who’s who of the reggaeton scene, old and new, legends and rookies. Maybe I’m jaded from being a fan of the hyper-competitive world of rap music, but I had never seen such camaraderie between “competing” artists. Beefs do happen within the scene, but the majority of the time, you’ll see rappers featuring on each other’s songs or just hanging out as friends. There’s really no cliquing up like you often see in American rap, and it’s refreshing.
Bad Bunny’s success is everybody’s success. Reggaeton legend and OG Arcángel, a mentor to Bad Bunny, feels the same way. “For me, it’s not important just to support him. It’s important for me to support anyone who has talent,” he says. “The more superstars that exist in this genre, the more life it’ll have in the future. And obviously, if my genre is successful, then I will be successful, too.”
Somehow, last year’s concert was dwarfed by the three shows Bunny and his team put together in Puerto Rico on his 25th birthday weekend. While I was out there, I ran into a co-owner of FRSH, Omi Rivera, who also manages Arcángel. He was full of excitement, as always, but more so than usual in the midst of this year’s shows. “Last year’s Trap Kingz concert was like a pregame for him,” Omi told me while attempting to wrangle people to head out to an afterparty. “This concert at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico included songs off his new album. The stage and production were another level compared to that first concert. Here at El Choli, we saw Bad Bunny more mature, more established, more dedicated.” He added, “Every detail was thought out, and the level of creativity that they used for the fan experience hasn’t been done before in our genre.”
“The more superstars that exist in this genre, the more life it’ll have in the future. And obviously, if my genre is successful, then I will be successful, too.”
All three shows centered around a crucifix-shaped stage in the middle of the venue, which also functioned as an LED flat-screen monitor that displayed a montage of imagery from the ’90s. Everyone in the stands was given a wristband that lit up in a choreographed way depending on the song being played, adding to a sea of visual effects perfect for Instagram.
Hammering home how important Puerto Rico is to Bad Bunny, the first evening opened with episodes of No Te Duermas, a comedic variety series that originally aired from 1990 to 2008, made specifically for the three shows. Each episode featured a model of the week, an interview, and a performance, and the vibe was very ’90s. Yello’s “Oh Yeah,” a song made famous by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, was featured prominently throughout the screenings of No Te Duermas. Guaynaa, a brand new artist with a viral hit in “Rebota,” loved these touches. “It’s just the culture out here,” he told me, pointing out that No Te Duermas was an important part of the lives of anyone who grew up on the island.
Bad Bunny came up with the visual concepts for the shows, and local production company Buena Vibra helped bring his ideas to life. Adding to the throwback feel of the X 100pre Tour experience, the venue was also dotted with arcade games, a nail station, multiple merch stands, and horoscope booths set up in collaboration with astrologist and illustrator Madame Mela Pabón. “Every reggaeton artist after this needs to step it up,” El Guru proclaimed. “It’s not just a show anymore. It's not just singing the hits. It should be a whole concept, an experience. I bought merch like a fan because they’ll become collectibles in the future.”
After the No Te Duermas episodes, a short film took us into a typical Puerto Rican neighborhood as Bad Bunny narrated. He spoke about being a regular kid who always knew he was destined for something bigger, and the piece ended with a shot of a young Bunny as an altar boy with a blinking third eye.
Boom. The curtain finally fell and Bunny began the show to raucous applause from 18,000 home country supporters. He didn’t take a break until his 20th song, around the time Wisin y Yandel came onstage to perform a handful of their hits.
“Bad Bunny is a superhero,” I thought. His setlist was over 40 songs each night. Bunny played hype man when other artists would come on to perform their own songs, and the only breaks he took were for short talks with the crowd as he caught his breath.
Always happy to support new artists, Bad Bunny brought Guaynaa out for “Rebota” (“Bounce” in English) on the second night. A star of Bunny’s stature isn’t required to show love like that, but the gesture feels natural for him. “His way of being is genuine,” Arcángel told me while his jewelry blinded everyone around him (later, one of his chains broke onstage and he calmly passed it off to a handler). “He has no malice in his heart, and I respect that.”
While frequent collaborator and close friend J Balvin, Miky Woodz, Farruko, Arcángel, and others made appearances, it was El Alfa’s performances that stole the show. My guy came on in a big-ass black tour trunk and shot out of it like a cannon, running down the stage with flames around him. “La Romana” and “Dema Ga Ge Gi Go Gu” were the highlights of all the performances for me. The ground was shaking for most of the weekend, but it felt like the roof was going to cave in when Bunny and Alfa graced the stage together.
The final night ended on a special note when most of the artists who had performed throughout all three shows surprised Bad Bunny by singing “Happy Birthday” to him along with everyone in attendance.
As I made my way through the venue on the last night, I spotted legendary Puerto Rican boxer Félix “Tito” Trinidad, who told me that he and his kids were big fans. Video later surfaced of Trinidad giving Bunny a boxing jacket and shorts. Just like Tito, Bad Bunny is for the people.
“Puerto Rico loves Bad Bunny, from little kids to adults,” Omi later points out. “Bad Bunny brought unity, happiness, and showed the rest of the world that our little island in the Caribbean is still at the forefront of this reggaeton thing.”
Less than a year after I first witnessed his aura live, Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio is already on his way to becoming bigger than his own genre, just as Drake, Kanye, and JAY-Z have become bigger than rap. He seems destined to be a worldwide pop phenomenon before 2019 is over.
My mom still thinks he’s a little too vulgar, but she’ll come around.
Bad Bunny isn’t the future. The future is Bad Bunny.
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