How do you know you’ve made it in the music business?
When Madonna gives you her cellphone number — that’s one sign. For Maluma, that moment arrived in 2018 at the MTV Video Music Awards, where Madonna requested to see the reggaeton star backstage. After they met, she decided they were musically compatible. “I almost s— my pants,” Maluma, whose real name is Juan Luis Arias, confesses.
As Madonna describes their introduction in an email to Variety: “We immediately started talking about working with one another, and before we knew it, we were in the studio working on music for [2019’s] ‘Madame X’! I found him to be extremely good-natured, positive vibes, open-minded, fun and very musical! We did not waste time in the studio but just got down to work (between sips of coffee-flavored tequila).”
The resulting “Medellín” was “one of the most effortless collaborations I have done,” adds Madonna. The video for the sprawling multilingual dance anthem (she sings in English, he in Spanish) was shot over two days at a costume banquet in Portugal, culminating with the two svelte stars riding horses in the desert at sunrise. It has amassed more than 47 million views on YouTube.
For Maluma, who is 26, the song carries weight. It’s named after the city where he was born and grew up and still lives part-time (along with Miami) when he’s not touring. “I come from Medellín, Colombia,” he says on a recent afternoon during a phone call. “Yeah, the place that is well-known around the world because of Pablo Escobar, the cocaine, the violence. But I feel like right now I have this responsibility, a big responsibility, to change the face of my country.”
That’s been Maluma’s mission since he first made noise as a teen heartthrob, and he’s built a career on Spanish urban pop and dance hits, including “Obsesión,” “Sin Contrato,” “Mala Mía” and “Felices los 4.” A decade later, Maluma has become one of the biggest male superstars in Latin music, filling stadiums around the world on the strength of four hit studio albums (his latest being last year’s “11:11,” from Sony Music Latin) and reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Latin airplay charts with 16 different songs. He’ll release his next album, “Papi Juancho,” later this year; its first single, the breakup track “Hawái,” is out now.
On Instagram, Maluma has 52 million followers, who admire his latest selfies in the sun, too-many-to-count tattoos (including one on his finger of “this eye” that “takes care of the bad energy and takes it away from me”) and perfectly sculpted abs (which he swears are the result of less than an hour of gym time a day: “I would say 45 minutes,” he says. “In 30 minutes, I’m almost dead”).
As for his music, Maluma seems to be going for a world record when it comes to A-list collaborators. In addition to Madonna (with whom he also teamed on the 2019 banger “Soltera”), he counts Shakira (“Chantaje”), Marc Anthony (“Felices los 4”), Ricky Martin (“Vente Pa’ Ca” and “No Se Me Quita”), the Black Eyed Peas (“Feel the Beat”) and Jennifer Lopez as his soul mates in song. And he’s scheduled to make his big-screen debut — when movies return — opposite Lopez in the upcoming Universal Pictures romantic comedy “Marry Me,” in which he plays a narcissistic pop star named Bastian who lives his life on social media.
“We knew we needed someone who authentically understood the role and wasn’t afraid to lean into the tropes that are associated with it,” Lopez says. “He was perfect for it.” Beyond the movie’s soundtrack, Lopez and Maluma have recorded two other songs together, which will be released in the near future. “He has a few songs in the film, and the truth is that we had such a fun and natural chemistry that we wanted to do more after filming,” Lopez says. “And we have. I can’t wait for you guys to hear it.”
In the late ’90s, the first Latin explosion showed its commercial might when Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, among others, logged massive radio hits. Back then, it was more common to have Hispanic singers assimilate, recording in English — with the occasional line, verse or chorus delivered in Spanish.
Today, it’s the opposite. For Maluma and contemporaries such as Bad Bunny and Ozuna, roots come first. “Sorry, America,” says Will.i.am, frontman for the Black Eyed Peas, whose “Mamacita,” which interpolates Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita,” recently topped the Latin charts. The Grammy-winning artist and producer describes these new acts as “bigger than the British Invasion,” noting their international appeal. Says Will: “They’re touring stadiums everywhere. These artists are bigger than their songs. If you were to ask anybody in the Latin world, ‘Yo, name a Maluma song,’ they’d be like, ‘Yeah!’ They’ll know all the titles. They’ll sing you the hooks. They’ll sing you the choruses.”
Maluma grew up with ambitions of becoming a sports star. “I was actually playing in one of the biggest teams in Colombia that is called La Nacional,” he says of the popular fútbol club. As chronicled in the YouTube Originals documentary “Maluma: Lo Que Era, Lo Que Soy, Lo Que Seré,” his aunt Yudy gifted him a recording session for his 16th birthday. The studio felt like home.
With his aunt and uncle acting as his team, Maluma started performing at local venues and birthday parties, where he quickly discovered enthusiastic groupies. But he also found a need for sacrifice as the demands of being a budding star sidelined the anything-goes mantra of youth. “I wanted to go out and party and do all the things that a normal high school guy wanted, and I couldn’t,” Maluma recalls. “And every time I went out, I felt drained. My first manager, he was like, ‘You have to stay at home. You cannot do these regular things.’ And I couldn’t understand it at the time, because I wanted to be happy and free.”
Still, Maluma listened to the advice as his star continued to rise. For several seasons of “The Voice,” which airs in Colombia and Mexico as “La Voz,” he served as one of the celebrity coaches. For inspiration, he watched Shakira and Adam Levine on the U.S. edition of the show, which he says he’d join if offered the chance.
Maluma has spent plenty of time in Hollywood. He even ventured to Los Angeles to record an English-language album. When he finished the songs, he wasn’t sure they represented what he wanted to be. “I was sounding like Justin Bieber competition or Justin Timberlake competition,” Maluma says. “Super pop. I’m more rock. I’m more urban. I’m more street, more hip-hop. So when I heard the songs, they were good, but I didn’t feel that was the Maluma that I wanted to build as a brand.” He decided to shelve the project and stick to making hits in Spanish.
Maluma’s process is to labor until it’s right. He’ll often compose songs on his iPad, then “go inside the vocal booth and record all of the things that I’m thinking,” he explains. If he’s inspired late at night, he’ll keep everyone around him awake — for as long as it takes to finish the song. A recent session that involved “drinking and talking about life” prompted a writing session that began at 2 a.m. Says Maluma: “Until I finish a song, I cannot go to bed. I cannot go to sleep. My producers are very tired.”
Keeping up with Maluma — from video shoots to television to his film debut — is to watch the star constantly fine-tune and sharpen his skills in multiple creative areas. In “Marry Me,” he plays a detestable musician. A departure? “I’m not that bad,” the singer cracks. Acting has been more of a challenge in part due to the language. “Learning the script — oh, my God, that was so hard, because I like to improvise. The thing with acting is that I cannot change the words because I’m going to change the whole conversation.”
As a performer, Maluma is the conversation. But when he looks ahead, it’s not all career-oriented. “One of my biggest dreams is becoming a father,” he says of his personal goals. “I want to share my success with someone else. Right now, it’s not even in my head, but if I see into my future, I really want to have a family. And, of course, to keep recording music, and I want a lot of Grammys and a lot of Latin Grammys. I want to keep doing concerts, but the most important thing is to keep being healthy and safe with all this crazy s— that is going on right now.”