For the first time in the six-plus-decade history of the Grammy Awards, the ceremony’s most prestigious award — album of the year — could go to a project recorded entirely in Spanish: Bad Bunny’s “Un Verano Sin Ti.”
The path to his historic nomination is analogous to the genre’s journey from the Latin explosion of the late 1990s — when artists such as Shakira and Ricky Martin broke into mainstream radio with primarily English-language albums — to Bad Bunny’s boundary-diffusing generation. But it also highlights some of the industry’s pitfalls.
“It’s overdue,” said Leila Cobo, Billboard’s chief content officer of Latin. “It’s extraordinary that there isn’t something in Spanish nominated every year in one of the main categories.”
After all, the nomination — which honors albums for their artistry — has eluded decades of Latin pop heavyweights including Shakira, Martin and Daddy Yankee. In many ways, though, it makes sense that Bad Bunny, born Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, is the artist to break this barrier.
Even before releasing his debut studio album in late 2018, Bad Bunny had already become a staple on the Latin charts and broke through the Billboard 100 on “I Like It,” a smash-hit collaboration with Cardi B and J Balvin.
His debut, “X 100pre,” established him as a socially conscious artist who spoke out against homophobia, transphobia and misogyny — in a genre that has been criticized for its treatment of women and the LGBT community, no less. After Hurricane Maria devastated his native Puerto Rico, he captured the island’s resilience in “Estamos Bien” and has continued informing the public how government has failed the more than 3 million U.S. citizens living there.
Bad Bunny reinforced similar themes on every album since, often sampling (or trading bars with) the pioneers who influenced him while making space for newcomers. He’s collaborated with reggaeton veterans (Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen, Nicky Jam), breakthrough talents (Rauw Alejandro, Sech, Jhay Cortez) and underrated MVPs (El Alfa, Arcángel, Tony Dize).
Now, he’s a global star. He’s the first artist who performs exclusively in Spanish to be booked as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” where he brought Rosalía along to sing a duet. He performed on WrestleMania (“a dream come true”). He had a recurring role on Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico,” made a cameo in the Brad Pitt flick “Bullet Train” and will lead an upcoming Marvel film. This spring, he’ll co-headline Coachella with Blackpink and Frank Ocean.
“He’s a great example of what people should aim for,” reggaeton historian Katelina Eccleston said, citing Bad Bunny’s entrepreneurial savvy and creative approach to making music. “He’s breaking barriers in a way that hopefully sets a tone and a way for the industry to push [other artists] to these heights.”
So, naturally, he pushed boundaries at the Grammys as well.
Carlos Santana became the first Latin artist to win album of the year in 2000, some 40 years after the Grammys began, for “Supernatural.” The project featured songs in both English and Spanish, performed by a genre-hopping list of collaborators including Lauryn Hill, Eric Clapton, Rob Thomas (indelibly) and the Mexican pop-rock band Maná. The following year, Christina Aguilera landed a Grammy nomination for best Latin pop album for “Mi Reflejo,” a reverse crossover album that embraced the singer’s Ecuadoran heritage.
Just two years later, though, the Grammys entirely ignored “Laundry Service,” Shakira’s iconic crossover project that peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart and landed several singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
“I think it’s part of that mentality that was very pervasive in the academy that ‘Latin goes in the Latin category — that’s where that stuff goes,’” Cobo said. “The notion that [albums in Spanish] could appeal to other people — I don’t think anyone was thinking about that.”
In 2017, Latin pop star Luis Fonsi and rapper Daddy Yankee swept the Latin Grammys — taking home four trophies including record and song of the year — with “Despacito,” their alluring pop song that reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart (for a record-matching 16 weeks) after Canadian crooner Justin Bieber hopped on a remix.
“Despacito” was ubiquitous — the undeniable song of summer (and winter, too) — and clinched the same prestigious nominations at the “Gringo Grammys” (as the English-language ceremony is cheekily called by some in the Latin music community), where it lost to Bruno Mars. Nonetheless, it helped set the stage for a new era in which Latin artists didn’t have to sing in English to find mainstream success.
By the end of 2017, Daddy Yankee had become the first Latino artist to reach No. 1 on Spotify. Reflecting on the achievement in a video posted to his Twitter account, Daddy Yankee recalled how no one believed in him when he decided to pursue a reggaeton career in 1992. Two and a half decades later, he told his followers, “this genre called reggaeton is the most-listened-to in the world.”
“This No. 1 isn’t just Daddy Yankee’s,” he added. “It belongs to the whole genre.”
Part of the “Despacito” effect was tangible proof that Latin artists could compete at the same level as pop mainstays such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. “Numbers don’t lie, and neither does consumption,” said longtime publicist Cristina Novo, who works with Anuel, Nicky Jam, ChocQuibTown’s Goyo and Manuel Turizo, among other artists.
When it comes to numbers, no one had a bigger year than Bad Bunny, who was named Billboard’s Top Artist of 2022 — the first time the honor went to an artist who records primarily in Spanish. “It’s not ambiguous. It’s not subjective,” Cobo said. “This is the guy whose music was most consumed last year in the U.S. — and in the whole world.”
And Bad Bunny knows it. On “La Jumpa,” a collaboration with reggaeton vet Arcángel, he raps, “I don’t have competition — ask your friends. The whole world already knows, so I don’t even need to boast,” before ticking off a list of the people who listen to him (Hint: it’s everybody): “grandparents and their naughty grandkids, shooters and students, doctors and gangsters, naturals and with implants, adults and infants.”
He may not need to boast, but he certainly can. “Un Verano Sin Ti” debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 200 albums chart following its release in May, spending 13 (nonconsecutive) weeks in the top spot. It was only the second Spanish-language album to top that chart — the first was also a Bad Bunny album.
Historically, the music industry “hasn’t liked reggaeton — it’s tolerated it,” said Eccleston, the reggaeton historian. “Reggaeton is now loved because of Bad Bunny,” she said, adding that his political candor makes him a refreshing artist for the ever-evolving genre, because the very origins of reggaeton are political.
“To be that bridge between old school and new school and to do it in all of these innovative and fun ways, Bad Bunny has created a spark in this genre that reggaeton lovers like myself have been waiting for a long time,” she said.
Bad Bunny’s historic nomination may be the most prominent example of the Grammys acknowledging the popularity of the Latin genre. But there are other nominees who reflect the increasingly global nature of music.
Rosalía, the Catalan purveyor of flamenco-infused pop — whose swift rise to fame and mounting accolades have caused controversy by underscoring how easily White artists can experiment with hip-hop genres and be celebrated in ways that Black artists rarely are — is up for best Latin rock or alternative album (for her reggaeton-influenced “Motomami”) in a category that also includes Chilean musician Mon Laferte and Afro-Cuban rocker Cimafunk.
Amid a visible push for diversity and inclusion, the Recording Academy has added or tweaked categories in an effort to embrace international genres.
Last year, Bad Bunny took home the inaugural trophy for best musica urbana album, a genre that was previously combined with Latin pop. And amid the rising global popularity of Afrobeats, the organization introduced the award for the best global music album (renamed from best world music album).
But his historic nomination this year means other Latin artists are also nominated, because a Grammy for album of the year goes to all credited artists on the record. So, Rauw Alejandro, for example, who is credited as both a featured artist and a songwriter on “Un Verano Sin Ti,” could also win the award — along with dozens of collaborators who helped to produce the album.
“When a record rises to international prominence, everybody comes along with it — the songwriters who wrote the big smashes, all the musicians who play the instruments on the music, the engineers, the mixers, the producers, they all rise with the success of a project,” Recording Academy chief executive Harvey Mason Jr. said.
Regardless of the outcome at Sunday’s ceremony — where Bad Bunny is also set to perform — Latin music will be more visible than ever at the Grammys.
“Bad Bunny has been breaking all these records for the industry as a whole,” Cobo said. “And every time he does that, it opens the door a little bit more for people to listen to music in Spanish.”