Recently news circulated about the arrest of 22-year-old Colombian reggaeton star Maluma. “Raw” video of officers handcuffing him was posted on his label’s Instagram account. The video went viral, stoking the ire and concern of his millions of fans—the self-anointed malumaniatikas. Finally, Maluma cleared up that it was all a stunt: part of the release of his latest single, “El Perdedor,” a reggaeton song in which he pines jealously about an ex-girlfriend.
The song’s accompanying video, which transfigures the social question of police brutality into a pop melodrama of interracial romance, has already gotten 170,000,000 views, adding to his nearly 2.3 billion total YouTube numbers. Maluma’s latest album, Pretty Boy/Dirty Boy, debuted at number one on Billboard earlier this year, at the same time that his song “Borro Casette” ascended to number one on the Latin airplay chart, a feat last achieved by Juan Luis Guerra. Maluma’s Instagram—which Justin Bieber follows, he says—is full of the glossy jet plane pics and hotel room videos that are quintessential of the genre, and has accrued over 13 million followers. He recently became one of the top trending topics on Twitter—where he has 2.9 million followers—after Queen guitarist Brian May wondered #WhoisMaluma when he was asked about a potential Bohemian Rhapsody cover by the singer.
Meet the Justin Bieber of reggaeton-era Latin pop.
Andy Samberg’s timely mockumentary, Pop Star: Never stop Never Stopping, hilariously chronicles how the once invincible pop star has been reduced to promoting music by creating Instagram and “reality” E! Entertainment moments. Maluma—already a two-season veteran as a judge on the reality TV show The Voice—Kids—seems to be an effortlessly brilliant exploiter of this new landscape.
From the beginning of his career, Maluma demonstrated an intriguing knack—or perhaps luck—for crafting his pop star narrative. While his real name is Juan Luis Londoño Arias, he made up his stage moniker by joining the first two letters of his parents’ and sister’s names. Monikers matter in crossing over. For instance, “Nigga Flex,” the Panamanian reggaeton star, faced major difficulties while trying to break into the U.S. market, in part because of the controversial appropriation of “nigga” in his name, which required a late-stage rebranding. In contrast, Maluma—an appropriately exotic but empty signifier—has served Londoño well.
He tattooed that acronym on his left leg while he was dreaming of a different kind of stardom as an aspiring soccer player in minor professional teams not more than half a decade ago. Soccer stardom is a dream so entrenched in the Colombian national imagination that it’s become the object of a reality show. But Maluma turned away from soccer and channeled his precocious gifts of speed and rhythm into writing and producing music, inspired by his favorite acts: the hip-hop and reggaeton performers he grew up with, such as Daddy Yankee, Luny Tunes, Jay Z and Lil’ Wayne.
Once upon a time the blockbuster Latin pop star reigned supreme. For the generation of Latinxs who grew up in the nineties with personalities like Thalia, Ricky Martin, and Chayanne, the pop star was a shape-shifting, charismatic figure, whose musical styles ranged from tropical up-tempo numbers to big-voiced ballads. They starred in telenovelas—soap stars are major celebrities in Latin America because of the comparatively smaller movie industry—and constellated around an international Spanish-language star system. Colombians listened to Mexican stars—like Paulina Rubio—and Mexicans loved Colombian pop star Shakira—because they all spoke the language of pop rock in Spanish.
This kind of Latin pop sung by telenovela stars with melodious voices no longer rules the Latin music landscape. It has become a heavily male-dominated field populated by figures selling different forms of urban swagger. Thalia, the Mexican telenovela and Latin pop queen who ruled the 1990s along with Shakira and Rubio, tried to jump ahead of this shift back in the early 2000s during her English-language crossover, when she replaced her massively successful Estefan-produced sound—which created international hits like “Piel Morena”—with hip-hop-influenced beats. Her single “I Want You,” featuring Nuyorican rapper Fat Joe, reached number 22 on the Hot 100.
While her general crossover flopped, Thalia’s instinct was ultimately correct: the Latin pop zeitgeist was shifting towards male-centric urban sonic personae. Perhaps the most well-known figure of this new landscape is Pitbull, whose mixtures of crunk, hip hop, and EDM beats—as well as his duets with pop divas like Christina Aguilera and Ke$ha—have made him the biggest crossover Latin pop star since Shakira (who, not incidentally, featured him in one of her latest singles). But other genres once considered niche or regional have also become the new center of Latin pop: bachata and reggaeton.
Bronx-born U.S. artists of Dominican descent, like Prince Royce or Romeo Santos, use bachata rhythms for hit Latin pop songs in Spanish, like Santos’ “Propuesta Indecente.” A recent New York Times profile of Santos had the headline, “In the Language of Romance, Mr. Santos is a Superstar,” which is code for: here’s the Latino star you’ve never heard of but has sold out two nights at Yankee Stadium. In addition, Santos’ five billion YouTube numbers dwarf those of American pop divas, from Taylor Swift to Beyoncé.
In October 2015, Maluma released his second studio album, Pretty Boy/Dirty Boy. It opened at number one on Billboard’s Latin Albums chart with just 3,000 copies sold, another sad signal of our post-music industry music moment. But the album’s singles’ videos have notched over half a billion YouTube views and Maluma is already on his Pretty Boy Dirty Boy world tour, across Miami and countries like Peru, Canada, Spain and, of course, his native Colombia.
Like fellow Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin, Maluma is from Medellin, the city (in)famous as the birthplace of Pablo Escobar, also known for its beautiful women. It is perhaps no surprise that a fascination with plastic femininity fueled Maluma’s catchy self-produced first single and music video, “Farandulera,” an intriguing play on Colombian vernacular. “La farandula” refers to something like “the beautiful people” or show business types, and a “farandulera” is a woman who wants to show off, to be part of show business. Amid standard reggaeton rhythms and dembow, Maluma raps about a farandulera “who gets in everyone’s car.” In Spanish (“si tiene carro se le monta a cualquiera”) the double entendre suggests she’ll “ride” anyone with a car. Along with the low budget video—in which then-sixteen year old Maluma’s cheesy look makes him appear older—the clever lyrical play made the song a local hit. Indeed, it made enough of a splash to interest Sony Music Colombia in a record deal.
In this first album, Magia (incidentally also the title of Shakira’s first album), Maluma includes a boasting, swaggering “intro,” in which he raps about having his first album at seventeen, about intimidating other guys because their girlfriends want him, and about his ability to beat out any auto-tune competition through a capella. Though the album was initially only released in Colombia and Venezuela, it included English titles for Spanish-language songs like “Miss Independent,” and “Addicted.” Its video singles were massive YouTube hits, with “Pasarla Bien” surpassing 50 million views, and “Obsesión,” reaching 128 million.
Like most contemporary pop stars, Maluma understands that the album is less important than the event single. In the interlude between this first reggaeton-heavy album and his current release, he put out a mixtape with the promo single “La Temperatura.” The song’s propulsive percussive merengue energy—referenced in the tropicalizing lyrics about heating up—made it his first major radio and award show hit, and the video pushed past 200 million views. Most importantly, it signaled Maluma’s move away from strict reggaeton beats and vocals. In the Premios Lo Nuestro he performed the song with big Justin Bieber hair, backed by a battalion of carefully choreographed dancers sensually grabbing him, as he finally ripped his jacket off in a Chayanne-like display of eroticism. The follow up single, “Carnaval,” with its synthesized soca beats featured a pop vocal performance that had many fans—and casual listeners—confusing Maluma with Ricky Martin.
Even Beyoncé waited until her third solo album to unleash Sasha Fierce, but Maluma jumped into self-narrating, alter ego territory with his sophomore release. Pretty Boy/Dirty Boy, an explicit bid for pop domination, means to convey both his romantic ballad/bachata side, as well as his “dirty” reggaeton side. He launched the album with a reggaeton banger, “El Tiki,” which plays on sex and music as mutual metaphors, followed by “Borro Casette,” which pushed past 300 million views on YouTube and gave him his first #1 US Latin hit. Third single “Sin Contrato” starts with electric guitar chords that might’ve opened a Juanes rock song, as Maluma sings about being with a girl in a no-strings-attached relationship. Turned into a duet with the carefully market-tested, Simon Cowell-created, multicultural neo-Destiny’s Child group, Fifth Harmony, the girl groups’ big, melismatic soul voices in the second verse—sung entirely in English—add another weapon to Maluma’s arsenal of pop takeover.
But perhaps the most intriguing artifact of Maluma’s current moment is his duet with Thalia, because it is so suggestive of his unique positioning. Unlike, say, a typical Pitbull feature in which he raps and leaves the melodious singing to his pop diva of choice, “Desde Esa Noche” is a throwback to more conventional 50/50 duets. The single launches with soft mariachi chords, as Maluma introduces himself and Thalia. The song is about lovers who remember a one-night stand but are afraid of falling in love. Maluma demonstrates his pop “pretty boy” chops, straining as he exhibits the upper range of his tenor tones, as well as his “dirty boy” reggaeton side during his rapping interlude. Thalia similarly mixes it up by having her own quasi-rapping interlude. The mariachi chords are accented with dembow beats as their brands of Mexican romance queen and urban good “bad” boy meet on a swirling pop dance floor. During their performance at Premios Lo Nuestro, Maluma “surprised” Thalia with a sudden kiss. Though it was just a boyish peck, the combination of eroticism tempered with chivalrous reticence made the YouTube video of this performance a bigger hit than the official video.
The most successful pop stars establish their own form of erotic charisma. Maluma’s erotic appeal is totally unlike, say, Juanes’ minimalist—for some, bland—long-haired, rocker persona. It is also not the coastal, hip-shaking Caribbean sensuality of Shakira. It is too twinkish and tatted up to match Pitbull’s hairy chested phallicism, evident in his aggressively canine name and dramatized most flamboyantly when Jennifer Lopez rubbed against his crotch. Maluma performs with a kind of elegant and gentlemanly-but-sexy urban smoothness. It takes a certain kind of charm to be able to declare yourself a “pretty boy” and pull it off; the boyish Maluma captures “it,” however one defines that necessary configuration of flaunting and self-effacement.
His latest single moves into new territory by flirting with pop politics. The “Perdedor” video ends with a black screen and the words “Latinos Unidos,” Maluma’s small gesture of Latino unity in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s statements. But the video’s co-opting of a discourse brought to the mainstream by #blacklivesmatters through its Romeo and Juliet melodrama raises questions about the contestations between Latinos, Afro Latinos and African Americans over the racial hierarchies of reggaeton that plagued Nigga Flex. Indeed, Pop Star incisively critiques the commodification of politics and highlights the racial hierarchies that in many ways continue to structure the “new” music industry. In an interview by Jorge Ramos about these gestures, Maluma already plays pop diplomat: he admits the words were a response to Donald Trump but explains he’s not interested in waving an ideological flag.
In one of the funniest moments of Pop Star, the movie mocks the kind of inventive sponsorship deals that now keep the music industry afloat. Andy Samberg’s character partners with a home goods company to get his music played whenever a refrigerator door opens. We are, indisputably, in a different moment of the music industry, which some interpret as the era of the shrinking pop star. There are no refrigerators yet in Maluma’s arsenal, but his savvy instincts for sonic reinvention and celebrity self-narration, make him the shiny new face—and hairless abs—of reggaeton-era Latin pop. In the aftermath of his success Maluma tattooed a crown behind his left ear; a gesture, he says, to honor his fans making him king through their mutual relationship. It sounds like the declaration of a new monarch in town. Pitbull, take note.