In late 2020, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny’s El Último Tour del Mundo became the first Spanish-language album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The milestone followed years of meteoric popularity for Latin music, which is now one of the fastest-growing genres in the world. In Decoding “Despacito”: An Oral History of Latin Music, Billboard Latin Music VP and American Way en Español editor Leila Cobo spotlights some of the songs that paved the way forward—and the vibrant places that inspired them.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
“Despacito,” Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber
Filmed in San Juan’s colorful seaside La Perla barrio, the music video for this blockbuster reggaeton hit once held the record as YouTube’s most viewed. Cuatro player Christian Nieves plays the opening notes, adding a traditional flair to the Latin pop song.
“Conga,” Miami Sound Machine
This party playlist fixture is a pop twist on a quintessentially Cuban sound, but its lyrics—sung in English by Gloria Estefan—anchor it to post-Mariel Miami, with its campy music video nodding to vibrant ‘80s nightlife on Calle Ocho.
Santa Marta, Colombia
“La Tierra del Olvido,” Carlos Vives
Vives fuses the accordion-based vallenato genre with electric instruments, paving the way for a new sound: tropi-pop. The album cover depicts Vives at the foot of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and its title track became a powerful ode to the homeland during an historic period of social unrest.
"Smooth," Santana featuring Rob Thomas
Though Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas penned and sang “Smooth” in English, the song is fundamentally “Latin in spirit and direction,” writes Cobo. Thomas’ wife, Puerto Rican model Marisol Maldonado, was the muse for his lyrics about a “Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa,” and the song’s Latin rhythms and music video set in El Barrio firmly ground the song’s origins to the Puerto Rican Upper Manhattan neighborhood.
While Rosalía does not make Latin music under its strictest definition, the singer/songwriter broke through to global audiences with an album—2018’s El Mal Querer—sung entirely in Spanish. On lead single “Malamente,” the Barcelona artist pays homage to her Spanish roots with beats accented by looped palmas (handclaps) over a traditional flamenco rhythm.