Bad Bunny Looks Back and Hunkers Down

Sure, it’s lonely at the top. But isn’t it also fun once in a while?

It’s hard not to ask that question listening to Bad Bunny’s latest flood of songs, the suprise-released album “Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar Mañana” (“Nobody Knows What Will Happen Tomorrow”). It holds 21 songs and a quick snippet. But that abundance brings little joy.

With this album, Bad Bunny, a.k.a. the Puerto Rican songwriter Benito Martínez Ocasio, joins the ranks of the sullen superstars: figures like Drake and Ye, stars who have conquered the world but still feel unappreciated and beleaguered. Overwhelming commercial success — hundreds of millions of streams, sold-out arena and stadium tours, attention from every possible quarter — has only made them hunker down defensively.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Look at how Taylor Swift and Beyoncé now handle megastardom, savoring every moment (at least in public) while inviting fans to share the exhilaration.

Bad Bunny has a perpetually startling voice, a baritone that can sing or rap with equal power. It leaps out of radio or computer speakers; it carries weight and connects emotionally across language barriers. Throughout the 2020s, Bad Bunny has smashed expectations and sales records entirely on his own terms. He asserts his Puerto Rican and Caribbean identity and regularly praises his role models; he collaborates across borders and genres. Defying the conventional wisdom of American pop crossover, he keeps his lyrics in Spanish, making any collaborators cross over to him. His new songs proclaim that he’s well aware of his status as a trailblazer — but that it doesn’t give him much comfort.

The album opens with “Nadie Sabe,” a six-minute manifesto of superstar isolation set to brooding orchestral chords, with Bad Bunny eventually joined by a full choir. He declares himself “the biggest star in the entire world”; he also warns that “No one knows, no, what it feels like to feel alone in front of 100,000 people.” And for all his well-earned self-confidence, the haters still get under his skin. “I’m not at my peak, now I’m in my prime,” he sings. “That’s why they’re praying that I crash.”

Connect that, of course, to grievance-powered politics and social media algorithms that stoke conflict and encourage pointless beefs. Musicians now market themselves in that environment and have to deal, one way or another, with the comments. But musicians also have different, nonverbal outlets. They have the visceral joys of rhythm. They have the intuitive responses to a harmony or a vocal tone. They have the freedom, especially in the digital era, to make startling sonic leaps with a mouse click.

Bad Bunny has embraced those possibilities, broadening his musical horizons with each of his albums. While Latin trap and reggaeton are his musical foundations, he has delved into rock, reggae, hip-hop, salsa, bomba, merengue, EDM and more, sometimes within the same song, as he did in tracks like “Después de la Playa” and “El Apagón” on his blockbuster 2022 album, “Un Verano Sin Ti.”

Yet on the new album, Bad Bunny deliberately narrows his palette. “Nadie Sabe” declares that the album is for his “real fans,” and most of its songs return to the Latin trap that dominated his first album, “X 100PRE,” in 2018. Five years seems a little too soon for a nostalgia trip.

As craftsman and singer, Bad Bunny is thoroughly at home with the ticking electronic drums and minor chords of Latin trap. In the new songs, he works his way through familiar topics: wealth, parties, sex, fame, autonomy. And even in well-trodden sonic territory, he can create arresting songs. He’s decisively embittered in “Gracias por Nada” (“Thanks for Nothing”), a post-breakup trap ballad that burns every bridge as it details how deeply he was betrayed.

But as the album ticks and hums along, the songs that linger are the ones that break away from standard Latin trap. In “Mr. October,” Bad Bunny boasts about his achievements as looping, nervous keyboards suggest anxiety behind the proud facade. “Where She Goes,” a single released in May, uses the pounding, capacious sounds of a Jersey Club beat for a lament about a one-night stand he wishes he could repeat.

“Cybertruck” seesaws between melting keyboard tones and a skeletal reggaeton beat as Bad Bunny declares “I’m not normal” and taunts, “Let those who hate me hate me/Let those who love me love me.” And the camaraderie sounds genuine as Bad Bunny joins Puerto Rican rappers he grew up hearing — Arcángel, De La Ghetto & Ñengo Flow — in “Acho PR,” which is dedicated to “the people in the barrio.”

“Acho PR,” like much of the album, insists that Bad Bunny is still rooted, that international recognition hasn’t changed his deepest loyalties. But the biggest star in the world has countless options. Now that he has looked back, how can he move ahead?

Bad Bunny
“Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar Mañana”

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