It was an awkward moment at the 2021 Billboard Latin Music Awards in September as 74-year-old Lifetime Achievement honoree Paquita La Del Barrio – all 4 feet 11 inches of her – struggled in vain to lower the too-high microphone set up to accept her award. Then, Bad Bunny to the rescue: The 27-year-old 10-time winner of the night (including for Artist of the year), clad in a cream-colored suit, leaped from his front row seat onto the stage, lowered the microphone, and held it up for Paquita as she delivered a teary thank you.
It’s that kind of impromptu gesture — and general omnipresence — that’s allowed Bad Bunny to capture the collective imagination. He’s a superstar who veers from the revolutionary to the familial, climbing to the top of the charts and selling out tours with often overtly sexual lyrics, yet shying from personal controversy and demonstrating very publicly that his mama taught him well. It’s not an easy balance to strike, yet, for the second consecutive year, Bad Bunny is not only Billboard’s Top Latin Artist of the year, but also Spotify’s most streamed artist globally in any genre.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo
The year started on a high for Bunny, still exultant after his El Ultimo Tour del Mundo set, released in November 2020, became the first all-Spanish album to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Much has been said and written about Latin music dominance, but the fact is, no album performed entirely or even mostly in Spanish had ever climbed to the top of the Billboard 200 all-genre chart. It took a shift to streaming and a Latin superstar who only raps in Spanish to achieve stateside supremacy — as well as a major hit in “Dákiti,” the Spanish-language jam alongside Jhay Cortez, which topped Billboard’s global charts in October 2020.
These are tough achievements to best. So, in vintage Bad Bunny fashion, he pivoted 180 degrees, kicking off 2021 by performing “Booker T” (his single named in honor of the pro wrestler) at the WWE’s Royal Rumble in January. The move was obvious wish fulfillment: Bunny is a longtime wrestling fan who’s often referenced the sport and its stars in his songs and videos. But it was also a strategic expansion into a fanbase rarely tapped by Latin acts — and the results were a mutual love fest. Following his performance (including his fabled jump from the ring to level The Miz and John Robinson, after the former “destroyed” his turntable), the name Bad Bunny was part of 25% of WWE’s Monday Night Raw’s social conversations, with his appearance garnering nearly 37 million total video views across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WWE.com.
Bunny followed up his venture into wrestling with his SNL debut, performing “La Noche de Anoche” alongside Rosalía, and playing a house plant in one of the night’s funniest sketches. Then, to top it all off, a performance and subsequent win for best Latin pop or urban album (for 2020’s YHLQMDLG) at the March Grammy awards. And he did it all singing exclusively in Spanish, the kind of “reverse crossover” many Latin artists have been crowing about of late — the “English is no longer needed” message. Bad Bunny has not vocally played into that talking point, and yet, he’s the one who most effectively has delivered on it, with seemingly little effort. (There is a lot of effort involved, of course: Bad Bunny’s manager has often told Billboard that the seemingly arbitrary release dates of his albums are in fact meticulously considered.)
But there’s also that quirky, audacious Bad Bunny X Factor that consistently goes against the grain and emerges victorious. Unlike so many pop stars before him, it’s not about rebellion or disenfranchisement or even shock value: It’s simply who Benito Ocasio Martínez is — as it turns out, he appears remarkably well-adjusted — and the consistency of his persona, physical looks notwithstanding, has lent him a credibility few contemporary hitmakers can match. When he started, Bad Bunny wore nail polish and dresses, turning standards of genre and masculinity on their head, and he’s never diluted his artistic decisions with posturing.
In 2021, his focus has been different. His Rosalía duet, “La Noche de Anoche,” was smoldering sensuality; no gender ambiguities there. Subsequent solo single “Yonaguni,” where the global star actually sang a snippet in Japanese, was all male vulnerability — this Bad Bunny wasn’t afraid to lose the girl and cry over it. The melancholy banger debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, his first unassisted single to do so.
Then, Bunny once again did an about face, not just donning more traditional outfits, but using his stature and industry influence to lend a hand to more veteran acts. In July, he debuted as a producer for other artists – working with Tommy Torres, a respected Puerto Rican singer/songwriter who hadn’t scored a major hit in a decade. Bad Bunny co-helmed Torres’ El Playlist de Anoche album, and while the set wasn’t a chart-topper, it was Torres’ first top 10 entry on Top Latin Albums in nearly a decade.
The move established Bunny as even more of a discerning arbiter of musical taste. “Volví,” his collab with bachata group Aventura, went to No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart – Aventura’s first since 2010 – and cemented his evolving image as a versatile act. Then came “Lo Siento BB,” alongside producer Tainy and Julieta Venegas, a 50-year-old Mexican alt-pop/rocker who hadn’t had a Hot Latin Songs top 10 hit in 14 years. Why then, would Bad Bunny decide to record with her? Because he can.
2021 was the year in which Bad Bunny demonstrated to the world once and for all that he is in a league of his own, immune to the fickleness of the market. He’s charted so much, he is now the artist with the most top 10 hits in the history of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. But Bunny’s real impact was demonstrated with his live appeal, selling 480,000 tickets and grossing $84 million in a single day when his 2022 El Último Tour del Mundo tour went on sale. It became Ticketmaster’s top-selling tour for a first day since Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II Tour in 2018.
What’s left then, for Latin music’s unicorn? There are stadium dates (Dec. 10 and 11 in his native San Juan) remaining this year, with more to come in 2022. In addition to his currently scheduled 36 U.S. arena dates, there’s a global tour planned for the summer that will take Bunny to stadiums in Europe and Latin America, among other regions. And there is the nascent acting career, a natural extension of his undeniable charisma and star power, which kicked off in earnest with a role in the current season of Narcos this November. And yes: It’s all still happening in Spanish.
Later today: Billboard reveals our No. 9 pop star of the year.