Before he came to MedellÍn, Colombia — before Latin America’s most notorious city rescued his career and, quite possibly, his life — Nicky Jam believed the hype. The Massachusetts-born, Puerto Rico-raised reggaetón singer/songwriter knew Medellín mainly as a caricature: land of Pablo Escobar, onetime murder capital of the world, the kind of place for finding trouble, not escaping it.
“I had pretty much the same mentality that everybody has before they come here,” says Nicky Jam, who is 35. “I didn’t know it was this nice.”
He is at the wheel of a gleaming black Mercedes Benz SUV, a six-figure whip on streets clogged with midget two-doors, as a member of his security detail murmurs from the back seat: “Go straight, papi. Turn here, papi.” We have left Nicky Jam’s penthouse condo in the hushed, leafy Conquistadores neighborhood for an industrial pocket along Medellín’s principal highway, where graffiti artists have spray-painted a tribute to his rebirth as a global superstar.
Mile-high bluffs the color of parakeets tower over our route, the equatorial sun playing hide-and-seek through a nappy crown of thunderclouds. A banner announcing a February bullfight flutters in the afternoon breeze as the syncopated pulse of reggaetón — Medellín has four radio stations devoted to the genre — spills from beer halls and fitness centers. At a stoplight, a wizened old woman jumps in front of the car and makes a show of juggling three circus balls.
Earlier this same day, Nicky Jam had learned that his first studio release in a decade, Fénix, would be debuting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart. The release, which would go on to debut at No. 28 on the Billboard 200, features both Spanish and English versions of his impassioned, stutter-stepped duet with Enrique Iglesias, “El Perdón” (“Forgiveness” in its English release), which together have amassed 1.3 billion YouTube views. Nicky Jam also just made his acting debut in Vin Diesel’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, which a week before opened at No. 1 at the international box office, muscling to the top of 32 foreign markets. And for good measure, he is about 72 hours away from getting married to his girlfriend of two years, Medellín model Angélica Cruz.
“Come,” says Nicky Jam, waving an inked arm out of the window. He presses a wad of Colombian pesos into the beggar’s palm.
“God bless you,” she says.
“Amen, amen,” he replies. “We’re with you.”
Within minutes, we pull up to the mural, a portrait that consumes a good 300 square feet of a used car dealership’s brick exterior. It shows Nicky Jam almost exactly as he looks right now: black cap (he owns about 300) and black T-shirt (he has them shipped by the bushel from a New York boutique), unshaven lumberjack jaw and gnarly neck tattoo of a spread-winged owl. In slender, hieroglyphic-y letters, the artists have scrawled “FENIX” — as in phoenix, the bird of legend — over Nicky Jam’s head.
“Nice, right?” he asks. “I look like Che Guevara there, a rapper version.”
Because the mural is identical to the cover of Nicky Jam’s new album, one could be forgiven for assuming that his marketing team commissioned it, a PR stunt masquerading as guerrilla art. It turns out to be the other way around, however, a hat tip from the Medellín underground. Nicky Jam learned of the mural only after a collective known as PeopWall posted it on Instagram last December and tagged him: “A gift,” they wrote. He was so taken, he pledged on his own Instagram account to feature the mural on Fénix’s cover.
Still, if Nicky Jam wasn’t in on this, how could the artists have guessed the album’s title so perfectly? “People here have been calling me ‘The Phoenix’ for years,” he explains, just as a swarm of giggly workers from the dealership spots him. “Everyone has been like, ‘Nicky Jam, el ave fénix, el ave fénix.’ You know what I’m saying?” Every comeback trades on the power of myth, but Nicky Jam’s is inseparable from that of Medellin, a city that itself has risen from the ashes.
Nicky Jam’s unlikely renaissance story begins in the old mill town of Lawrence, Mass., the poorest community in one of America’s richest states. Born Nick Rivera Caminero to a Dominican mother and Puerto Rican father, he remembers a home clouded by addiction and complicated by crime. When he was 10, the family abruptly relocated to Río Hondo, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico; as he understands it now, his father had caught a drug case in Lawrence and jumped bail. “You could say he raised us as a fugitive.”
Starting over in Puerto Rico required the English-speaking boy to learn his parents’ language. “I was American,” says Nicky Jam, who grew up on a mix of R&B and hip-hop, from Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch to LL Cool J. The Puerto Rico of the early 1990s was ground zero for reggaetón, the urban Caribbean hybrid of reggae and rap that became his Rosetta stone. He showed a talent for rapid-fire Spanish rhymes while still in middle school, dubbing himself “Nick MC.”
The name didn’t last long. “You ain’t Nick MC,” a wino who had seen him around the neighborhood counseled one day. “You’re Nicky Jam.” It was meant as encouragement, a swag boost from a street prophet, but all the older kids thought it was hilarious — this prepubescent rapper with a moniker that sounded like preserved fruit. “But the funny thing was, it was a catchy name: Nicky Jam, Nicky Jam,” he says. “So I stuck with it.”
At a local discount supermarket, Pueblo Xtra, that had cut prices by eliminating baggers, he began hustling for tips, improvising verses as he helped customers with their groceries. “I’d be like: ‘You say please, I’ll pack the lettuce with the cheese’ — in Spanish, though,” he says. One day the wife of an independent record executive dropped by and asked if he was signed to a record label. Nicky Jam was 11. The indie imprint offered him an inch-thick contract that he never read and that advanced him no money, but it did spawn a 1994 album, …Distinto a los Demás.
“I’m going to look for a song, so you can hear,” he says. He fiddles with his phone, pulling up the title track while sipping a Diet Coke on his condo’s rooftop. “Now don’t laugh at me!” he insists with a finger jab.
His voice is squeaky and the lyrics are hokey, but his delivery bristles with headstrong ambition. The single helped catapult Nicky Jam to the forefront of reggaetón’s first big wave, a teenage prodigy who found himself collaborating with the island’s breakthrough star, Daddy Yankee. By then, though, the familiar temptations of young fame — of too much too fast — were beginning to undermine Nicky Jam, who as a teenager turned to cocaine and later Percocet. “Coming from a family that already did drugs,” he says, “it was easy for me.”
In 2004, Yankee finally lost patience with Nicky Jam’s sloppiness, aiming a scalding lyric from “Santifica Tus Escapularios” at his protege: “Your courage depends on a pill.” “I would fight with him so he wouldn’t go down the wrong road,” Yankee recalls, “but there comes a time when a human being has to learn from his own experiences.” Nicky Jam replied with an ill-advised diss track of his own, but Yankee was becoming a worldwide brand, and Nicky Jam had turned into a cliché. Broke and depressed, his weight ballooned, reaching an almost unrecognizable 300 pounds.
“He always wore these big, dark glasses, just to hide behind,” says longtime friend Giovanni Ortega, a Los Angeles producer and apparel designer who flew in for the wedding and has joined us at Nicky Jam’s condo. On a visit to Puerto Rico, “I saw these three dudes come up to him, like, ‘Yo, Nicky, what happened to you? You a loser, bro.’ And Nicky tells me, ‘Yo, Gio, I’m sorry for that. I used to be a king here.’ Obviously, he was wearing glasses, but I think he teared up. He was like, ‘My own people don’t love me anymore.’”
The descent featured brawls, debts and arrests, including the spectacle of a 2008 high-speed police chase in a car flagged for repossession. In the video for his album’s first track, “El Ganador,” he re-creates the shame of his jailing, using latex prosthetics to return to his bloated self. The chorus is his new anthem: “Because I already fell, I’m no longer afraid/Come what may, I feel like a winner.”
Down the street from the mural, there’s an outpost of the Costa Rican juice-bar chain Cosecha, where Nicky Jam insists that we stop for a blueberry-coconut smoothie. As his security detail fetches the drinks, he checks his phone and discovers a WhatsApp video message from Diesel. “Dímelo, papi,” says the action star in easygoing Spanish. “I’m here for you.”
Diesel was already a fan of Nicky Jam’s when he recommended the novice actor for the minor role of an island kingpin in the third xXx film. In his preternatural baritone, Diesel chants over the screen: “Oye, no le tenga miedo a ningún envidioso. El todopoderoso me hizo rápido y furioso.” (“Listen up, do not fear the envious. The Almighty made me fast and furious.”)
“I wrote him that!” says Nicky Jam. He tinkers again with his phone, and suddenly Diesel is rapping that same verse to a rollicking, Nicky Jam-produced beat. The lyrics are both a testimonial to their shared convictions and a nod to Diesel’s status as keeper of the Fast & Furious flame (the franchise is expected to bear its eighth installment this summer). “We need that in the movie, man,” Nicky Jam tells Diesel. With his acting mentor’s encouragement, he hopes to return to the screen — most likely in a fourth installment of xXx.
“His talent is unlimited,” says Diesel, who also flew to Medellín for Nicky Jam’s wedding. “His spirit is positive, grateful and humble. He will be here for a long time.”
Much like the musical castaway it accepted, Medellín too has come back from the dead, emerging from its bloody past as a vibrant architectural and environmental showcase, winning a 2013 Innovative City of the Year award in a competition that polled Wall Street Journal readers. It is still a party town — a libertine destination for cool-hunting travelers — but with an artistic spirit and a gracious soul. “People laugh when I say I came to Colombia and cleaned myself out of alcohol and drugs,” says Nicky Jam. “But I’ve seen a whole different Colombia.”
When he made his way to Medellín in 2008, it was an act of desperation. Needing any gig he could get, Nicky Jam discovered that his songs still resonated here — they had become “oldies” — and that to the Antioquia region’s paisas, familiar with the sting of judgment, his foibles mattered a lot less. He found the people unfailingly hospitable, their Spanish full of pleasantries and honorifics. “They’ll stop doing whatever they’re doing to make you happy,” he says. “Sí, señor. No, señor. There’s no excuses.” He still recalls visiting a restaurant and ordering sancocho, a savory island stew; there was none, but the proprietor dashed out to gather the ingredients and whipped him up a bowl on the spot.
The humility of his adopted city in turn humbled him. He shed both ego and weight, ultimately dropping more than 100 pounds (he stuck with his black-tee uniform, a look he’d originally embraced to conceal his girth). He prayed for the strength to kick his other habits, to show the world that Nicky Jam wasn’t without talent — he had just squandered what talent he had. Even the more severe aspects of his appearance — including the avian neck sleeve that required a three-and-a-half-hour session at the Real Deal Tattoo Studio in Medellín’s trendy Poblado district — he sees as symbols of recovery.
“I thought, ‘If I start doing things to take care of myself and, you know, giving myself love,’” says Nicky Jam, “‘people are going to recognize that love, and it’s going to be easier for them to love me.’”
Now, he has to worry about being loved too much: Where once he drove Medellín’s streets without an escort, he now slips off his 80-point diamond Rolex before leaving home, darting in and out of buildings lest he be mobbed by cellphone-wielding fans. “It’s part of the job,” he says, “but they don’t ask for one picture anymore — they ask for Snapchat, they want video for their cousin, video for their side chick. Can you believe that?” And although he has four children from previous relationships (his marriage to Cruz is his first), he found himself soaking one night in his rooftop Jacuzzi feeling utterly alone: “What’s the point of having all this if you don’t have anyone to share it with?” He calls life with his new bride “healthy for your insides, for your heart.”
As he has absorbed Colombia’s musical lexicon, especially the lyrical folk tradition known as vallenato, his songwriting has grown more expressive, even vulnerable. He was already a better singer than most rappers — at his nadir in Puerto Rico, he had resorted to performing Spanish pop ballads in a hotel lounge — and he made a conscious decision to bring melody to reggaetón. Along with kindred Medellín-born artists like J Balvin (who also attended the wedding) and Maluma, Nicky Jam has helped shift reggaetón’s center of gravity from the Caribbean to Colombia. “Nicky Jam to me is a great example of life, of someone who’s shown that opportunities come from within,” says Balvin. Even Yankee, who today calls Nicky Jam a “mature man” with a “noble heart,” makes appearances on two of Fénix’s tracks.
“Medellín gave me so much,” says Nicky Jam. “It gave me back who I am: the person I am, the human being I am.”
“If it wasn’t for Medellín,” says Giovanni Ortega, “I don’t know where Nicky would be.”
Nicky Jam’s studio, not far from the cloister of his condo, sits on a raucous commercial strip of cellphone dealers, watering holes and love motels. The door is unmarked — it leads up a flight of stairs, above a motorcycle-parts store — and the equipment is bare bones. “I made this when I didn’t have money to make it,” he explains.
It is almost comical to think that a multiplatinum recording artist — an increasingly international celebrity with 23 million Facebook followers and nearly 16 million on Instagram — would be practicing his craft in such a rudimentary space. His manager — a Colombian, like his producer, his lawyer and his branding executive — has urged him to relocate, to at least construct something more discreet and secure. “It’s hard for me to move,” says Nicky Jam. “This is where the magic is.”
These are the growing pains his transformation has wrought, the good problems Nicky Jam now navigates. In short order, he has leaped from Colombian idol to Pan-Latin headliner to the brink of mainstream fame: Both “El Perdón” and his previous hit “Hasta el Amanecer” have entered Billboard’s Rhythmic Airplay chart, a feat only three other Latin artists have accomplished in the past couple of years: Elvis Crespo, Prince Royce and Pitbull, all crossover successes. As a native English-speaker, Nicky Jam sees an even wider audience in his future: Fénix features one exclusively non-Spanish song, the calypso-inflected “Without You,” which he vows will someday anchor an all-English-language album. (On the xXx single “In My Foreign,” he holds his own alongside Ty Dolla Sign, Lil Yachty and French Montana.)
As he prepares for a month-long European tour in March, Nicky Jam sees yet another crossroads looming on the horizon, a test of his newfound faith and purpose. “I’m not even on the right path now,” he says, back behind the wheel of his Benz. “To be on the right path, I can’t be singing this music.” Though his lyrics tend to be more romantic than risque, reggaetón is still “music of this world, not God’s music.”
“The way I’m seeing it, God has given me all this for me to realize that this isn’t what I really need in my life,” says Nicky Jam, whose own playlist is heavy on Spanish-language Christian tunes. The conversation turns to soul legend Al Green — the Rev. Al Green — and his lifelong tug-of-war between the sacred and the profane. “Al Green is something else,” says Nicky Jam, who lights up at the mention of a name not often associated with reggaetón. He starts to sing, in an aching falsetto: “I’m so tired of being alone, I’m so tired of on my own…”
Nicky Jam is, of course, no longer alone, with a new wife and fans spanning the globe. But for a moment, as the years and miles and languages overlap like stamps on an old passport, he’s also aware of having traveled a singular path. “I’m a little bit of everything,” he says. “That’s what makes Nicky Jam so different from everybody else.”
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of Billboard.