Album Review: J Balvin & Bad Bunny’s ‘Oasis’

These two collaborating on a full album is as big a deal for world music and urbano as Taylor and Ariana teaming up would be for domestic pop.

Separately, J Balvin and Bad Bunny — respectively, Colombia’s global ambassador of reggaeton and Puerto Rico’s leader of Latin trap — have remade the future of Caribbean culture and Spanish-language hip-hop in their image and, more importantly their heritage. If there is a revolution to be had in the new crossover market, these men have done so by sticking to their guns, and mining their countries’ sonic and social riches, not America’s, for gold. Rather than offer caucasian audiences lyrical signposts to what they’re thinking, Balvin and Bunny make you come to them, with only a shared sense of explosive, downright experimental musicality and almost brutally propulsive rhythm. Several generations of Iglesiases couldn’t do as much.

Both inspired as much by salsa crooner Hector Lavoe as they were reggaeton king Daddy Yankee (Balvin more the former, Bunny, the latter), each man comes at his individual tone, audaciously and uniquely. Balvin has peeled away layers of reggaeton’s usual misogyny for a sound as compassionate and vulnerable as it is passionate. Rather than barking his stark lyrics, Bunny has a drawling conversational tone to his raps in league with U.S. trap-hop’s finest.

Besides, it’s not as if these gentleman haven’t teamed together in the past. From Cardi B’s “I Like It” to Jhay Cortez’s “No Me Conoce,” Balvin and Bunny are well acquainted with each other’s ways and means, to say nothing of the top of the charts.

But to have these two collaborate on a full eight-song album of their own (with but two notable guests, Nigerian vocalist Mr. Eazi and Marciano Cantero from Argentina’s Enanitos Verde) is as crucial to the currency of world music, global pop and urbano as having Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande team up would be for American pop. Though Latin music’s history is rife with big-name collabs (e.g. Ray Barretto and Ruben Blades), nothing as such has occurred between two mod, NuLatin superstars until “Oasis.”

For this historic teaming — produced in part by two of Latinidad’s top knob-twiddlers, Sky and Tainy — Balvin and Bunny have recorded a handful of subtly memorably melodic songs (no grand anthems, here) with casually zesty grooves, humid atmospheres, intricately complex arrangements and lyrics that do their best to unite all Latin markets and moods while entertaining their devotees. Neither man is trying to do outdo the other here, though each man does his swarthy finest (Bunny’s sensualist lounge hound on “La Cancion,” Balvin’s sensitive emotionalist on “Que Pretend”) to impress his new bestie.

A clomping, mid-tempo “Yo Le Llego” finds each man giving thumbs up to their collective nations (their own, along with Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela) over a noir-ish score of Tom Waits-worthy guitars, rapid-fire handclaps and an all-around boogaloo groove. The halting, highlife “Mojaita” finds Balvin and Bunny welcoming the larger world into their new, private clubhouse with each vocalist teasing the other with gentle braggadocio as their guide. Being drunk and crazy is the way of the walk on the jazzy “La Cancion” and “Un Peso,” the latter with its folky-funk intro (that ukulele, or rather chrango) and a rocking guest shot by Cantero, famous for his own boozy blues on “Lamento Boliviano.” What is most noticeable here is how, for two guys awash in Latin-laced electronic hip-hop, they’re equally comfortable with the traditionalism of the acoustic.

Though Balvin is usually the crooner of the two, Bunny lets it all hang out, vocally, on “La Cancion,” where his role as a grand balladeer is heightened, and his devotion to the notion of song itself is as sturdy as it is sacred. Then there’s “Odio,” their ode to spite sex, where Bunny makes romance an evil, incendiary topic.

Finishing up with the sweet samba-R&B feel of “Como Un Bebe,” with Ghanaian Afrobeat singer Mr. Eazi, shows off Balvin and Bunny’s willingness to stretch a taffy already pulled tight with invention. Despite being dedicated to their Latin homelands, there’s always room for something more foreign and equally fanatical. The fact that J Balvin and Bad Bunny do this without any massively obvious single track (the upbeat pop of “Que Pretendes” is as close to the charting reggaeton as you’ll hear here) and are willing to give themselves over to new experiences shows the utter joyfulness and boyish glee of this album.

Their “Oasis” isn’t just a location along the Latin continuum. It’s a universal state of mind.

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Album Review: J Balvin & Bad Bunny's 'Oasis'

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