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What Bad Bunny’s No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Means to Latin Music

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What Bad Bunny’s No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Means to Latin Music

Bad Bunny’s debut atop the Billboard 200 albums chart this week marks a milestone for Latin music: El Último Tour del Mundo (The Last Tour in the World), is the first all-Spanish album to ever reach No. 1 in the 64-year history of the chart.

The bow is a huge win for Bad Bunny, but more so for a Latin music industry that for decades has seen its artists systematically undermined by the mainstream media, and by the industry overall, unless they either sing in English or collaborate with a mainstream act who does. The global star, who in the past 24 months has been tearing barriers down one by one — most recently he was crowned Spotify’s most streamed artist of 2020, the first Latin act to bear that distinction — has shattered one of the final glass ceilings: the misconception that an album only in Spanish couldn’t become No. 1 on the U.S.-based Billboard 200.

The feat being unprecedented come as a surprise to many. Didn’t J.Lo and Shakira and Ricky Martin and other big Latin names have No. 1s on the chart before? They did, of course — but never with Spanish-language albums.

Selena’s Dreaming of You, released just a few months after her death in 1995, debuted at No. 1, but it featured five tracks in English, six in Spanish and two in both, in part because Selena died before finishing what was conceived as a predominantly English album. In 1999, Ricky Martin debuted at No. 1 with his dazzling self-titled “crossover” set, which included No. 1 hit “Livin La Vida Loca” in both languages, plus three other Spanish-language versions of songs in English. Jennifer López’s sophomore album, J.Lo, also debuted at No. 1 in February 2021; it included three tracks in Spanish. And Il Divo’s Ancora in 2006 had six Spanish tracks.

Beyond that, Maná’s Amar es Combatir in 2006 and Shakira’s Fijación Oral: Vol. 1 in 2005 both made it to No. 4 on the chart; at that time, standing for over a decade as the highest rank achieved on the Billboard 200 for an album performed totally in Spanish. That mark was broken this February — by Bad Bunny once again, when he debuted at No. 2 with YHLQMDLG.

Back in February, Bad Bunny’s manager Noah Assad was achingly aware that the No. 1 had been within reach. His artist had insisted on releasing on February 29, a Saturday, which meant he lost crucial traction for one day in an already-competitive week. (In fact, YHLQMDLG still technically had a stronger first week than El Último Tour del Mundo — moving 179,000 equivalent album units in its first week, to El Último’s 116,000 — but the former had the misfortune of going up against the debut week of rapper Lil Baby’s My Turn, one of 2020’s biggest albums.)

This time, Assad left nothing to chance. Reaching No. 1, he tells Billboard, “was important to me because it was never done before — and we always want to mark una huella en el camino (a footprint on the road). We’re very excited about breaking the barriers, looking for new horizons, new goals, new dreams and it was one of those things we really wanted. Especially me.”

So, what made the No. 1 possible now? Beyond the fact that Bad Bunny is the single most popular Latin act right now and arguably one of the most popular (and certainly one of the most streamed) artists globally is the fact that he’s riding a wave of rising Latin popularity. Never has the genre seen such sustained growth both in the U.S. — where its expansion is bigger than that of any other genre, according to the RIAA — and globally; according to IFPI, Latin America has been the fastest growing music consumption region for five years running. (It also didn’t hurt that Bad Bunny had less-stiff competition for the top spot this time around; the second-best-performing album this week, Miley Cyrus’ Plastic Hearts, earned just 60,000 equivalent album units.)

But perhaps most importantly, Bad Bunny wasn’t subjected to the barriers of entry that Latin artists have had to crash into for years. In the United States, Latin acts never had the same distribution, the same radio airplay, the same media coverage or presence, the same award show nominations or the same opportunities for award show live appearances as mainstream acts — even when their global music sales merited it.

The stock explanation was that to reach mass consumption, their music needed to be in English. And so, the concept of “crossing over” took hold: If you wanted mass marketing and mass distribution, you had to record in English. But there was a catch: Before you recorded in English, you had to establish mass success in Spanish, in your region, as proof of concept. Ricky Martin, Shakira, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias all recorded in English after becoming stars in Spanish. Artists who weren’t stars didn’t get the same support — and while Maná’s No. 4 on the Billboard 200 back in 2006 should have rung all kinds of bells about the commercial potential of just singing in Spanish, it didn’t at the time.

That is, until “Despacito,” the historically successful pop smash from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, broke all rank in 2017 — and even then, it needed a guest vocal from North American superstar Justin Bieber to make it to No. 1 on the Hot 100. But in the past four years, the rapid acceleration of streaming has rendered many of those barriers of entry moot. Bad Bunny and his equally audacious manager had no notion of prior rules, of what was right or wrong or tried and tested. They didn’t have to convince a distributor to take their music from point A to point B. What they knew with certainty was that there was an audience for the music, and that in the era of streaming, that audience could easily find the music.

This doesn’t mean there are dozens of Bad Bunnys in the waiting. Make no mistake; this a unique artist with a unique appeal that’s not easily replicated. But the achievement lays bare a realm of possibilities for albums in Spanish: Bad Bunny may be the first, but I’d wager he won’t be the last.