Review: Bad Bunny released the best album of 2019 before the year even started

Bad Bunny's 'X 100PRE' appeared right before Christmas and is poised to make an impact well into the new year. (Photo for The Washington Post by Kyle Gustafson)
Bad Bunny's "X 100PRE" appeared right before Christmas and is poised to make an impact well into the new year. (Photo for The Washington Post by Kyle Gustafson)

As opposed to that well-liked boy band from Liverpool, Bad Bunny of San Juan is not bigger than Baby Jesus of Nazareth. Not yet, at least.

So when the 24-year-old Latin trap phenom finally dropped his interminably awaited debut album on Christmas Eve, the gesture itself felt like a mischievous flex. Here was an artist who made his name by taking unpredictable left turns with supreme confidence. Now he was trying to upstage the birth of Christ.

Out on the sales floor, this appears to have been a misstep. Lost in the holiday hurly-burly, the album, titled "X 100PRE," is currently drooping at No. 29 on the Billboard charts. But maybe Bad Bunny is playing the long game. The new year is a good time for gazing into the future, and if you squint hard enough at "X 100PRE," you'll hear an album that's going to change things. After issuing a few summers' worth of motley hits — including "I Like It," his massive neo-boogaloo brainchild with Cardi B — Bad Bunny is giving important new lessons in genre erosion.

He still sounds most comfortable coasting over trap beats, those languorous, flickering rhythms that most Atlanta rappers tend to chew like Juicy Fruit. But "X 100PRE" also features smoggy puffs of reggaeton ("Cuando Perriabas"), delectable pinpricks of bachata ("La Romana"), bully punches of dembow ("La Romana" again), even a surprise power-pop jag that could probably be traced back to Ric Ocasek's 23andMe kit ("Tenemos Que Hablar"). And through it all, Bad Bunny never sounds like some pseudo-syncretist showing off how many styles he can juggle. Everything here simply sounds like a Bad Bunny song.

At the bottom of it all is his voice, a blunted baritone that originates in the abyss of his diaphragm and rises up through his airways, smooth like an escalator ride, finally rolling out of his mouth like a yawned shout or a shouted yawn. It's a monolithic, strangely adaptable tone — one that allows him to deaden his punchlines, gird his brags and cast his most vulnerable pleas in bronze.

So let's presume that the ballast of his voice is what gives Bad Bunny the psychic permission necessary to take such stylish risks.

It's those risky wild styles that set Bad Bunny apart from his closest cousin in pop, Drake. The two work in the same melodic neighborhood, but to hear how different they are, cue up "MIA," the album-closing duet where Drake lilts along in Spanish while Bad Bunny enters his default state of effortless locomotion. The song doesn't come off like an airplay bid, or a synergy exercise, or any kind of torch-passing. Instead, it feels like another mischief-flex — a contrast between one rapper who aspires to sound like everyone else and another who can only sound like himself.

Because unlike Drake, Bad Bunny isn't one of those careerist chameleons, changing his moods or his manicures to match the nearest accent wall. He's got a much cooler thing going. The world changes color around him.

If you go

Who: Bad Bunny in concert

When: 7 p.m. April 7

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena

Tickets: $51-$141

Call: 1-800-745-3000

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