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Biographies

Don Omar

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Endowed with a powerful bark that cuts cleanly through synth-heavy riddims, Don Omar emerged as one of the key figures in reggaetón’s international explosion of the early 2000s. Born William Omar Landrón Rivera in 1978, in the Santurce barrio of San Juan, Puerto Rico, he was a teenager when the genre took shape in the ‘90s, and he came up under pioneering artists like Luny Tunes and Noriega, cutting his teeth on raw mixtape cuts. By his breakout hit, 2003’s “Dale Don Dale,” Don Omar had perfected his style, switching between monotone, dancehall-inspired sing-rapping and melodic hooks delivered with a flamenco-like trill. The same year’s “Dile” paired reggaetón’s signature drums with another island export, bachata, confirming Omar’s role as a standard-bearer for Puerto Rican sounds.  That the working-class sound of reggaetón still struggled against government criticism only made Don Omar’s success all the sweeter. Following his 2003 debut, The Last Don, 2006’s King of Kings smashed glass ceilings to become reggaetón’s highest-charting album yet, debuting atop Billboard’s Top Latin Albums Chart and reaching No. 7 on the Billboard 200 Chart. But Don Omar was uninterested in remaining in his stylistic comfort zone. For 2010’s “Danza Kuduro,” Omar teamed up with the Portuguese-French musician Lucenzo, fusing reggaetón with Angolan sounds. And though Omar announced his retirement in 2017, he bounced back in 2019 with The Last Album

Biographies

Daddy Yankee

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Every underground genre has its ambassador, the artist who translates a local movement into something the masses can understand. For reggaetón, that artist is Daddy Yankee. Born Ramón Luis Ayala Rodríguez in 1977 in the Río Piedras barrio of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Daddy Yankee grew up in a musical family: His dad played bongos in a salsa band, and his mother’s family was full of musicians. Yankee mastered the skill of verbal improvisation early, rhyming with friends and appearing on some of DJ Playero’s underground rap mixtapes in the early ’90s. Baseball was his first passion, however, and he was seemingly heading toward a career in the majors until he caught a stray bullet in his leg at age 17 while outside a recording studio. The long recovery scuttled his sports dreams, and he turned to music instead, embracing (and, by some accounts, naming) the nascent genre of reggaetón, a rap hybrid evolving out of dancehall’s dembow riddim. Yankee began releasing albums steadily, and 2004’s Barrio Fino, with its irresistible engine-revving “Gasolina,” broke through internationally, introducing global dance floors to the reggaetón riddim and Daddy Yankee’s driving, verbally acrobatic rhymes about violence, women, easy money, and marginalization. Yankee quickly became an industry unto himself, a sought-after impresario, producer, and collaborator. In 2017, “Despacito,” his collaboration with Luis Fonsi, became another global smash hit thanks to Justin Bieber’s remix. But for all his success, Yankee remains, at heart, a rapper; the “rey de la improvisación” has been a repeat winner of the Street Jam Reggae Awards.

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Biographies

Rauw Alejandro

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The Puerto Rican singer, songwriter, and dancer Rauw Alejandro has found his strength in vulnerability. Whereas earlier reggaetóneros had built their reps on braggadocio (with amorous conquests as the ultimate status symbol), Alejandro has flipped the script, bringing out narcotic, enraptured love songs that have topped the charts and pulled in a broad range of fans. Alejandro was born Raúl Alejandro Ocasio Ruiz in 1993 in San Juan. He grew up in both the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico, and his first love wasn’t music: It was soccer. But an injury in his teens put his dreams of a pro career out of reach. Alejandro turned to music—his second love—as a kind of therapy, finding an outlet for his frustration as he learned to sing and write songs. While he honed his musical skills, his innate physicality drew him to clubs, where he made friends and made a name for himself as an inventive and (unsurprisingly) athletic dancer. That gave him an inbuilt network when he dropped his 2016 debut, Punto de Equilibrio, which showcased both his deliciously lovelorn tenor and his penchant for eclectic, future-forward production. He didn’t rest on that album, following it up with a bevy of savvy collaborations with artists as varied as Wisin & Yandel, Ozuna, and Camilo. His ensuing full-length, 2019’s Trap Cake, Vol. 1, drew trap in an ambient and emotional—and profoundly pleasing—direction that was almost more in line with cloud rap. Whether it’s the addictive “Enchule” or the languid “En Tu Cuerpo,” Alejandro has become an indispensable voice of seduction in modern urbano.

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J Balvin

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In an interview with Apple Music about his 2020 album Colores, J Balvin told a story about a guy who came up to him one day on the treadmill. He’d been watching Balvin, he said. Watching his influence, his impact, his good work. He felt inspired by him, quit drugs, and gave his dreams another look. Fame was nice, but this, Balvin said, was the point. “When you throw in good energy, good vibes, people just start catching up to it.” More than a musician, Balvin has become a kind of role model, the emblem of Latino culture’s evolution—like hip-hop in the ’80s—from a specialty market into a dominant force in mainstream pop. The guy at the gym wasn’t just seeing a star; he was seeing something he maybe thought couldn’t exist years before.

Born José Álvaro Osorio Balvín in Medellín, Colombia, in 1985, Balvin grew up listening to rock music before falling in love with Daddy Yankee and reggaetón. He moved to the States as a teenager, first for a language exchange program in Oklahoma, then to New York City, before heading back to Colombia to start making music—a grassroots, home-first approach that Balvin has sustained throughout his career. Balvin’s biggest songs—from early singles like “6 AM” and “Ay Vamos” to 2017’s massive “Mi Gente” and the ROSALÍA collaboration “Con Altura”—are, in a sense, crossover Latin tracks, but not because they’re trying to cross over. If anything, Balvin, along with musicians like his collaborator Bad Bunny, represents a generation of Latino artists having global impact without having to cater to mainstream pop audiences—an approach that, ironically, helped reveal a changing understanding of who that mainstream audience actually is. In other words, they didn’t break into the conversation, they brought the conversation to them. And they’re having it in Spanish.

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