The reggaeton of the Colombian pop star meets the reggae of Jamaica on a short and sleek album that, as far as cross-cultural projects go, just barely skims the surface.
Though reggaeton’s popularity has offered some artists a dependable ride to global stardom, the genre’s non-stop commercial expansion has meant that even its top ambassadors have had to find ways to avoid monotony. For Maluma, this has been tricky. Innovation isn’t quite his thing; the Colombian singer has been more interested in nailing formulas that produce massively successful hits—and he’s good at it. He’s tweaked the ratios over time, dialing up his lecherous side in early songs like “Cuatro Babys”’ and switching on the gooey sensitivity for 11:111’s syrupy ballads. His penchant for sliding in and out of characters has resulted in a few unexpected fusions, including collaborations with Brazilian artists Anitta and Nego de Bordel and traces of salsa on last summer’s Papi Juancho. But his surprise visual EP #7DJ is one of his most pronounced creative attempts and direct experiments with cross-cultural sounds yet.
In January 2020, before the pandemic began, Maluma took a week-long vacation to Jamaica and returned home inspired by reggae and dancehall traditions. The focus on Jamaica carries a specific weight: Workers from the island—who migrated to Panama alongside thousands of Caribbean laborers to build the Panama Canal among other infrastructure projects—shaped reggae en español, which is the backbone of reggaeton. Songs such as Farruko and Bad Bunny’s “La Cartera” and J Balvin’s “Ambiente” have hinted at these diasporic connections, and Maluma is aware of at least some of the music’s history. “We wouldn’t have Urban Latino music without Africa and the contributions of the Black community in Latin American and here in the U.S.,” he said recently. “This album is a small way to show my love for Jamaica and for Black culture.” Such a statement is a rare and overdue acknowledgment of the Black and Caribbean erasure that occurs in the Spanish-speaking music industry.
Still, this is reggae made in the image of Maluma, which is to say it’s sleek and commercially minded. Flashes of authenticity appear in certain details, such as the Jamaican musicians and live instruments blended into the production, and the seven videos that premiered alongside the album celebrate locals and quotidian life on the island. However, these visuals also operate like a Maluma vacation lookbook, particularly in scenes where he chases after his co-star, former Miss Jamaica Davina Bennett. The music is benign and unobtrusive as the two splash on crystal beaches and grind on dancefloors in a never-ending spiral of prettiness. Even tracks that boast the co-signs of reggae legends—the brassy “Tonika” features Ziggy Marley and Charly Black lends vocals to the laidback melodies of “Love”—are lacquered in a high-sheen gloss designed for feel-good radio play. Though Maluma seems to appreciate Jamaican sounds, the album isn’t a deep interrogation or absorption of the styles he’s using. There’s a clear strategy involved in the decision to keep things light: It’s what works best for the singer’s brand and for his spumy delivery. “Agua de Jamaica” and “Desayun Arte,” in fact, are some of the record’s best vocal performances precisely because of their breeziness.
Maluma doesn’t dive too far into Jamaican culture. Instead, he floats on the surface of the music and focuses on churning out a tidy, marketable compendium that, despite its limits, manages to broaden his range. And while he passes on the chance to do anything radical or cutting-edge, there is one flicker of inventiveness on “La Burbuja,” a slinky sliver of dancehall that trades the project’s mellow vibes for smoky clubbiness. The moment doesn’t last long though, and #7DJ ends without becoming more than a quick, seven-day dip into the island.