O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire
In an age of rapid-fire sharing and globalised meme-networks, it’s rare that nobody’s heard of a superstar.
The show starts in near enough three hours time but the queues are round the block snaking behind London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They are here for J Balvin – Colombian superstar and the man who’s been tipped as Latin-American pop’s answer to Drake and The Weeknd. Determined to overtake Escobar to become the “face of Colombia”, J Balvin (real name José Álvaro Osorio Balvin) has been on a one-man mission to bring the sounds of reggaeton into the American mainstream without letting it derail into some exotic caricature.
His 2014 single Ay Vamos recently surpassed 1 billion views on YouTube. 2015’s Ginza stayed at the top of the USA Latin chart for an eye-watering 22 weeks. With this year’s full-length Energía, he began to set his sights beyond the home fans by collaborating with Pharrell Williams and harnessing social media and positioning himself as a global superstar in-waiting. As he told The FADER in their March cover story on him, “I want mainstream artists to accept Latino artists as equals, without us having to sing in English. I want Rihanna to pick up my phone call.”
When he takes to the stage at 9PM, you’d be forgiven for thinking his transition was complete. Barely audible beneath the screams, the glossy production (courtesy of his Infinity Music production house) rumbles and his unmistakable, Spanish-speaking vocal creeps through. He walks on stage dressed in the kind of elaborate designer garb you might expect to see on Pharrell or his other high-profile collaborator Justin Bieber. His handle on social media is shown through the sea of phones which immediately rise up.
The show that follows buzzes with a definite magic. Even without understanding the language, the atmosphere is electric. Almost comically, Balvin himself looks like a rather atypical heartthrob. When his backing dancers perform supercharged routines, he kind of half joins them – less agile and slightly bulkier. It doesn’t get in the way of the hits though – the sensual chorus of Ay Vamos is positively euphoric, Safari simmers with salsa syncopations, Ginza closes out the show with a bouncy, urban energy.
Tonight (17 November), Balvin is up for Best Urban Album at the Latin Grammys. Having won at the ceremony before, this appearance in front of the home community won’t faze him in the slightest. In London he doubled up on his on-stage conversation with the crowd. Speaking once in Spanish, then repeating in English. It’s a rare tactic for him, an artist intent on infiltrating the mainstream without deviating from his mother-tongue – firmly believing that “vibes” alone will translate his music across the planet. He thanks London in both languages then the show wraps up. Along with his band, they leave the stage clutching Colombian flags which had been chucked on stage throughout the gig. They might be shooting for the world, but they are planning their own route.