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J Balvin talks Beyoncé, worldwide success and ‘cool vibes’ at RodeoHouston

March 7, 2018

J Balvin utters just one word when I tell him upwards of 70,000 people could show up Tuesday night for his RodeoHouston debut.

“Wow,” he says.

“I didn’t know it was that many people.”

The reggaeton superstar shouldn’t be so surprised. He’s emerged as one of Latin music’s freshest and most vital voices over the last few years. His song “Mi Gente,” which translates to “My People,” was one of 2017′s biggest hits, thanks in part to an assist from Houston’s own Beyoncé.

And there’s much more to come. Balvin is currently featured on five tracks on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. A new collaboration with fellow reggaeton star Nicky Jam, “X,” dropped this month. And he surprise released a new solo single, “Ahora,” in February that mines an old-school reggaeton sound.

He’s up for a dozen Billboard Latin Music Awards, including artist, hot song and album of the year. And his numbers are astounding in any language - more than 8.6 billion YouTube views and 32 million monthly Spotify listeners, ranking him 16th in the world on the streaming service.

He’s working on a new album that is said to feature collaborations with Skrillex, Camilla Cabello and Pharrell Williams. But for now, Balvin is ready for “cool vibes” and a big crowd at RodeoHouston.

“I was born ready to do music and cultivate the people,” he says. “We’re gonna have so much fun.”

He also talked about why he wants people to get his songs stuck in their heads and about being a good example through his music.

Q: Why was “Machika” the right follow-up after the worldwide success of “Mi Gente?”

A: “Machika” is like a dance hall and trap mix. It’s just a song to have fun and dance and enjoy it. It has this global sound that, even if you don’t understand what we’re saying, the beat and the melodies are so catchy that they’re gonna get stuck in your head.

Q: Is that earworm quality something you think about when you’re putting a song together? My six-year-old says he can’t get it out of his head.

A: That’s great. I love that. The idea is that it sticks in peoples’ heads. Like everywhere they go, they’re going to be a living promo, like a living billboard. That they’re going to be singing the song all the time. Like your kid right now. That’s the idea - to spread the song in an organic way.

Q: As a music fan, what’s a song that’s stuck with you from the past year in a similar way?

A: “Despacito” was one of those, absolutely, that you just can’t stop.

Q: It feels like a watershed moment for Latinos, to have Spanish-language songs like “Despacito” and your own “Mi Gente” connecting with audiences all over the world.

A: I’m so grateful. We are changing things. We are helping the new generation of artists that are coming. With these songs, we made Latinos feel prouder of themselves and what we represent.

Q: As a bonus, you got Beyoncé to sing in Spanish on the “Mi Gente” remix.

A: She did it in the best way, in a way that helps the culture, that helps the perspective from the world about us, about our movement and our music. We’re in a good place, and I think this is only the beginning.

Q: Were you a Beyoncé fan before the collaboration?

A: Of course. Since she was in Destiny’s Child. I was always a big fan of Beyoncé. “I’m a survivor” - I love it.

Q: Whose on your dream list of collaborators?

A: Rihanna, The Weeknd, Bruno Mars, Drake.

Q: You had success right out of the gate, but the past year really raised the bar. What have you learned that you’re taking into this next phase?

A: It just gives me hope. Hope for more dreams. It’s not even just me. It gives hope to everybody that has dreams and wants to achieve them. I think this goes beyond the music. We’re really inspiring other people to do what they want. The idea is to be a good example for people.

Arsenio Hall never wanted to do theater. He says that’s why when he left the Midwest as an aspiring entertainer he chose Los Angeles over New York.

“I didn’t want to do ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ ” the Cleveland native says. “I didn’t want to do any plays.”

So Hall went west, started doing stand-up comedy, which led to success in film and TV - from starring roles next to Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America” to hosting his own late-night talk show on Fox.

For nearly two decades, though, Hall stepped back from stand-up, spending more time with his family. But recently, he’s found a hunger again for writing jokes and finding the best way to present them to an audience. And one of the things he loves now about comedy was there when he first started: the opportunity to visit a city or town, take the temperature of a room and make a set of comedy based on what he felt. Which is what he’ll be doing this Saturday and Sunday with two sets each night at the Improv.

Hall checked in with a “How’re you doing, buddy?” to talk about his apolitical approach to comedy, progress on a sequel to “Coming to America” and how he tries to make each stand-up set unique for that particular audience.

“You tell Houston I’m coming,” Hall says. “It’s what I love about this, making a show that’s customized for each audience. I just did a set in Sarasota. The first 15 minutes were about Sarasota. When I hit the stage, I never know what the next hour is going to be like. That is why I didn’t ever want to go to New York and do plays.”

Q: There are rudiments to stand-up that I assume don’t change over the years. But then there are aspects that have to change with the times. How does this feel as you get back into it after a layoff?

A: Yes, nuances change, and people change, and so do the obvious things you have to talk about. Just one example is, since I stepped away, there’s a whole lot of new things to talk about since I became a dad. So I have that new life to talk about. And being a guy who can say, “I’m an American, and Trump is my president, but he was also my ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ boss,” that doesn’t always work for my 14-year-old.