From the time he was a child in Puerto Rico, Benito Martinez Ocasio fancied himself a performer, but he could never have anticipated just how many roles he'd come to play.
To millions of fans worldwide, Martinez is Bad Bunny, a pioneering, chart-topping 26-year-old hit-maker who has eclipsed all previous expectations for Latin artists. Over the last few weeks, in Mexico City, he's been Arturo "Kitty" Paez, a scrappy young gangster he's portraying in the third season of "Narcos: Mexico." And come Jan. 31, Bad Bunny hopes to try on a different role for size, that of a first-time Grammy winner.
At the 2021 Grammy Awards, Bad Bunny will compete in two categories. He's nominated for Latin pop or urban album for his smash sophomore full-length, "YHLQMDLG" — an abbreviation of "Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana" or "I Do What I Want" — a reggaeton masterpiece that won Anglophone fans the world over and with nary a sentence in English. Meanwhile, "Un Dia," his collaboration with Dua Lipa, is in the running for pop duo/group performance. The song, which also features Latin crossover crusaders J Balvin and Tainy, could be the first Spanish-language song to win the category.
"To us, the Latin Grammys are the Grammys," says Bad Bunny, calling from his home in Puerto Rico. "But of course, I'm happy to be nominated for a gringo Grammy."
Bad Bunny is still catching his breath after contracting COVID-19. He came down with the virus just before November's Latin Grammys, at which he remotely accepted the honors for reggaeton performance. ("I had one day of coughing fits, but that's it," he swears.) Yet as we speak, just a couple of days before Thanksgiving, he's about to release his third album in 2020, titled "El Ultimo Tour del Mundo," or "The Last Tour of the World." Whereas "YHLQMDLG" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, "El Ultimo Tour del Mundo" became the first all Spanish-language album to reach No. 1 on that chart.
Featuring Rosalia, Abra and Jhay Cortez, Bad Bunny's self-professed "darkest album yet" is a dizzying survey of Latin trap, reggaeton and salsa, beamed through a prism of alternative rock. He's been cultivating this hybrid sound since the release of his 2018 debut "X100PRE," from which emerged his Latin Grammy-nominated punk-trap song, "Tenemos Que Hablar;" he then proceeded to test a metal-adjacent edge in the "YHLQMDLG" cut, "Hablamos Manana."
"It's a sound that's lived inside me for a long time," he says of his rock pivot.
"People were complaining that I released 'YHLQMDLG' during the pandemic," recalls Bad Bunny. "'Benito, how could you drop this when there's nowhere to (dance) perreo?' So this is the kind of album you stay at home with. This album's handing you a beer, a glass of wine — maybe a little something to smoke. You can put it on at night by yourself or with friends or maybe for something a little more intimate."
Guitarist Mick Coogan met Bad Bunny for the first time in Los Angeles, through co-producer Mag Borrero. Together Coogan and Bad Bunny mine '90s rock nostalgia on songs such as "Trellas," a star-gazing ballad that recalls the dreamy musings of Smashing Pumpkins and Argentine singer-songwriter Gustavo Cerati, and "Maldita Pobreza," a ska-trap jam in the style of Mexican rockers Mana.
"Benito is an incredibly inspired person," says Coogan. "When he is in the zone, it's kind of like, 'Give LeBron the ball and get out of the way.'"
Bad Bunny's acumen shows not only in his music but in a surprise release strategy that upends otherwise slow news days. After the 11th hour Thanksgiving release of "El Ultimo Tour," which followed the Leap Day drop of "YHLQMDLG" and a B-sides compilation on Mother's Day, "Las Que No Iban a Salir," Bad Bunny became the most-listened-to artist on Spotify in 2020. It's a gigantic feat for a Spanish-language artist to out-stream the many English-language titans who released records in 2020, including Taylor Swift and the Weeknd.
"I said I'd do whatever I want," he says. "It just happened to work."
Bad Bunny earned his first-ever Grammy nomination in 2019, for record of the year, for his No. 1 bilingual trap hit with Cardi B and J Balvin, "I Like It." Yet much like its 2018 reggaeton predecessor — Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi's viral hit "Despacito," featuring Justin Bieber — "I Like It" went unsung that awards night.
The last time a Latin act won record of the year was when Carlos Santana earned the honors in 2000 for his single "Smooth" with Rob Thomas. Before Santana, the only Latin artist to win the category was Brazilian chanteuse Astrud Gilberto, in 1965, for her song with Stan Getz, "The Girl From Ipanema." (Santana and Gilberto are also the only Latin acts to have won album of the year in the ceremony's 62 years.)
To its credit, the Recording Academy has partnered with the Latin Recording Academy to recruit new members through a series of initiatives. In 2020, the Recording Academy reported that its Hispanic and Latino membership increased by 8%.
"More Latino voters in (the Recording Academy) could be very influential," Bad Bunny says, noting that he casts votes for both the Anglophone and Latin Grammys. "That is," he adds with a laugh, "unless we're talking about Latino Trump supporters." (The artist notably contributed his song "Pero Ya No" to a 2020 campaign ad for President-elect Joe Biden.)
As the Recording Academy continues to diversify its membership, Bad Bunny is hoping his universal appeal can further translate in Hollywood. Comedian Kevin Hart has tapped the singer for executive producer and feature roles in his upcoming movie "American Sole," which will star Pete Davidson, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Camila Mendes and Offset.
"Our moment will come," posits Bunny. "Not now but in the next few years, as the Latino community continues to grow in the United States, I think the time will come when music is no longer going to be divided by Latin or Anglo but as a single industry that includes us all."
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