In a Latin genre dominated by men, reggaeton's Karol G takes aim at the top
"It's so much fun being the bad girl," Karol G says. "In the movies, I think people remember the villains best."
For the Colombian pop-reggaeton star, being "bad" consists of a few things that aren't terribly negative, unless you're a woman: racing across the city in your flashy new car, getting reckless on the dance floor with your girlfriends or sporting a revealing new outfit, just in case you stumble on your ex. Such is the life Karol leads as a "Bichota," which is the title of her most recent hit: Spanglish slang that's roughly equivalent to hip-hop's "bad bitch," or an "empowered, strong woman" in Karol's words.
"There is no way to say it prettily," she says. "You have to say it with force and with attitude. Bichota."
Videoconferencing from her apartment in Miami, the Latin Grammy-winning artist is still winding down from her 30th birthday, which falls on Valentine's Day. She celebrated by motocross racing in the Dominican Republic with her family, then came home and bought herself a white Ferrari Spider 812 GTS. 2021 promises to be a pivotal year for Karol: Her new studio album, "KG0516," takes aim at the kind of rarified crossover stardom enjoyed exclusively by male Latin MCs like Daddy Yankee, Bad Bunny and J Balvin. "For years, I heard that women do not do reggaeton," she says. "Reggaeton and urban music belong to men, but as a woman, you belong to men.
"Women are on a whole other level now," she adds. "We are well prepared to lead. We've earned it, and we will fight for it."
"KG0516" is Karol's first record as co-producer, and it features collaborations with Nicki Minaj, Balvin and Ozuna. Spelled out like a flight number, the "0516" corresponds to May 16, 2006, the day the performer signed her first record deal as Karol G. Karol grew up Carolina Giraldo Navarro, the youngest child in a middle-class family in Medellin, a sprawling metropolis in the heart of the Andes Mountains.
Her father, music manager Juan Guillermo Giraldo, helped shepherd her through her burgeoning music career in Colombia, landing her a role in the country's spinoff of "The X-Factor" and eventually a quinceanera gig where she first met and opened for future collaborator Balvin.
Karol closely studied not only the pop-R&B sensibilities of contemporary anglophone divas like Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Amy Winehouse but also the tao of reggaeton godfathers El General and Tego Calderon. In pooling together her influences, Karol emerged with the silken, laid-back flow of a girl who grew up on island music.
"I can easily make a cumbia or a ballad, because I enjoy them just the same," Karol says of her style. "But when I started making music in 2006, there was already a very strong reggaeton movement in Latin America. The music I wanted to make was the music I loved listening to."
In the 2000s, however, women in reggaeton were few and far between. In early talks with Universal Latin, Karol says, one executive tried to steer her away from the genre; the now-renowned Puerto Rican MC Ivy Queen was both reggaeton's most visible and its most despised woman, whose feminist verses were met by sexist attacks on her appearance and her smoky contralto. (Karol invited Ivy back to revive her 2002 classic "Quiero Bailar" on the nostalgic "KG0516" cut "Leyendas.")
Karol carefully earned street cred as the pop-adjacent sidekick to male artists like Reykon, Nicky Jam and Ozuna. Her 2017 major-label debut, "Unstoppable," featured her now diamond-status breakout single with Bad Bunny, "Ahora Me Llamas." Then, on her sophomore LP, "Ocean," Karol established her staying power as a solo artist on its lead single, "Mi Cama," or "My Bed" — an instant reggaeton classic sealed with a squeaky horn sample, emulating the bounce of a bed frame when making love. She followed "Mi Cama" with 2018's "Punto G," an ode to a particular erogenous zone.
That same year, Karol was named best new artist at the Latin Grammys, and an increasing number of women surfaced in the commercial reggaeton scene.
Much like the eccentric superstar Bad Bunny, Karol hopes to establish herself as a Latin pop auteur with "KG0516," shaking and stirring whatever sound comes to her. Joined by Balvin and Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA, Karol cosplays a cowgirl in the video for her western-themed song "Location," which fuses American country music, dance pop and Latin trap. On her latest single, "El Barco," or "The Ship," currents of bossa nova and bachata riffs, played by Aventura guitarist Lenny Santos, flow delicately in conversation with her forlorn verses, informing an ex-lover that their ship has sailed. "There are neither sad endings nor happy endings," she sings, "but I do believe in new beginnings."
"El Barco" and other breakup songs on "KG0516" have further fueled speculation regarding Karol's relationship with frequent collaborator Anuel AA, whom she began dating in 2018. Univision reported that the couple had split, citing both anonymous sources and the couple's waning social media presence as evidence. "Anuel and I decided to move away from social media because we became a target," Karol says. "If something definitive were to happen, we are going to be the ones to communicate it."
Karol's musical lineage, and that of reggaeton, leans heavily on the influence of Black people in the Caribbean; yet save for Ozuna, reggaeton's most popular artists are non-Black Latinos.
Race has been a sticky subject for Karol G. Amid the protests after the police killing of George Floyd, she posted a photo of her black and white bulldog, Goku, calling it "a perfect example of black and white together in harmony."
"I did wrong with my photo, and the lesson cost me a lot," she says. "You don't know how much I cried. I disappeared from social media for a month. But having offended people by saying something so ignorant, it was also my opportunity to understand it better. I talked to Becky G, who shared articles and videos about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor ... I just grew up in such privilege (as a mestiza woman, she's part of a majority in Colombia) that I didn't understand the (scale of) racism. To tell you the truth, I used to be a little scared to talk about it, but I'm learning now."
Uncomfortable as it may be, Karol's stumbles remain critical components to her journey as an artist. She's coming to fame in an era when gender and racial parity are not just buzzwords but also principles demanded by a new generation of listeners.
"I believe in what people are fighting for today, for rights, for equality," she says. "But I understand now as a leader, I have to be better connected."
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