Nuevo Culture

Nicky Jam Has Been There Through Reggaeton’s Past. Now He’s Looking Toward Its Future

Drop a pin almost anywhere in reggaeton history and chances are you’ll land on some version of Nicky Jam, one of the genre’s most enduring elder statesmen and a character who’s been around for nearly every chapter of the genre’s unfolding narrative.

You’ll find him during Puerto Rico’s underground perreo days in the early Nineties, a 14-year-old kid with a local EP that he recorded after impressing a customer who’d seen him freestyling at the grocery store where he worked. He’s there in the late Nineties, too, when he teamed up with Daddy Yankee to form the famed superduo Los Cangris — and then he moves into the 2000s as Yankee’s rival, following a bitter feud driven by Nicky’s drug addiction. He reappears in Medellin in the 2010s, clean and sober and eager to prop up the romantic, wildly commercial style of softer singing that launched Maluma and J Balvin into stardom. And he’s still at it today, at a moment when it seems like reggaeton couldn’t get any more global.

Nicky recounted much of this story in El Ganador, a 13-episode Telemundo and Netflix series that premiered in the U.S. in 2019. In some ways, revisiting the past while making the show helped him shape his latest album, Infinity, which brings together the old-school Nicky Jam with the smoother, more melodic singing he nurtured in Colombia. “The reality of everything is, I’m an old school cat. I’m 40 years old. I started this movement back in the day with Daddy Yankee, so I know what I gotta do when it comes to bringing it back,” he says on a Zoom call from Miami, where he lives. “But God gave me more melody in my voice, and I’m trying to use it.”

When Nicky talks, he sometimes furrows his brow in concentration, looking like the hard-hitting tough guy who shot out of Puerto Rico with classic perreo albums like Vida Escante. Then, he’ll break into a sudden, blinding smile that could sell toothpaste and grace movie posters. (He actually has had roles in films like Bad Boys for Life and XXX: Return of Xander Cage.) That’s his trick — easily gliding between hardness and vulnerable charm — and it’s all over Infinity.

Nicky starts the album with the forceful thwack of “Magnum,” his first collaboration with the up-and-comer Jhay Cortez. He says Cortez had come to him about another song, but immediately wanted to jump on “Magnum” when he heard the beat. “He said ‘You know what, let’s forget the song I gave you — we’re doing this,’” Nicky remembers.

A few other guest features stand out. Romeo Santos steps in for the sensitive “Fan De Tus Fotos,” while El Alfa lets his signature dembow collide with more straightforward reggaeton on “Pikete.” Still, Nicky envisioned the album as more of a showcase for himself. “I want [fans] to see how versatile I am and everything I can do: how I can rap and spit bars but I can do a beautiful, romantic song. That’s always my goal, for people to see that I can mess with every layer of music,” he says.

Sticking to his essence was particularly important to him after his last album, 2019’s Intimo, which was commercially successful but farther from his current vision. “My last album wasn’t really me,” he admits. “It was just me letting producers tell me what to do, and you can feel that.” His newer work, like the hit “Miami,” is much more indicative of his melody-driven style of writing.

Nicky has always seemed able to predict the direction reggaeton is moving toward, and he remains perceptive about what’s coming next. “I think everything is going to be fusions,” he says. “Look, you hear Jhay Cortez doing electronic music right now. Karol G is, too; Farruko’s biggest hit is ‘Pepas,’ and that’s electronic music. So I think it’s going to be changing and changing, so you never know… If you’re asking me position-wise, [the genre] can’t be bigger. What else do you want? We’re doing global hits. What else? Sky’s the limit.”

What he doesn’t see happening anytime soon is a scenario where he’ll be chasing trends. “I’m in a moment right now in my life where I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m not trying to compete with other singers,” he says. “I’m just enjoying my art. It’s about having fun with your art.”