2018: The year I learned to stop worrying and at last just enjoy the pure pleasure of reggaeton. Perhaps the ubiquity of “Despacito” in 2017 served as a gateway drug, but what really did it was Vibras, the fifth studio album from Colombia’s J (for Jose) Balvin. Lead single “Mi Gente” announced itself out of car windows last summer and continued to anthemically bang for a full summer after, but beyond its undeniable insinuating hooks, Balvin’s full-length offered unexpected artsiness and a trove of production surprises from the leader of what I once thought a mindless fad genre.
Appropriately titled, the LP offers continual vibe changes to defy monotony. “Ambiente” emphasizes the reggae in the –ton, “Dónde Estarás” is romantic and sweet, while you can imagine hearing “No Es Justo” blaring in London, Lagos, or Los Angeles, as Balvin and guests Zion & Lennox find the sweet spot for joyous global street pop. He also deserves props for his North American signal-boost for Spanish flamenco sensation Rosalía on the gorgeous minimalist duet “Brillo,” helping her terrific late-year LP El Mal Querer to a wider audience.
The album tails off a bit near the end with later cuts making less of an impression, but with J Balvin already taking a victory lap with November’s loosey single “Reggaeton,” the outlook is sunny for him to continue making mainstream and indie audiences wake up to the genre he’s defining, and potentially transcending.