When Juan Luis Londoño Arias was a thin but sporty high school sophomore in Medellín, Colombia, his dreams ran big and small. Getting a girl, playing soccer, meeting Shakira and visiting Los Angeles, a 3,300-mile journey, topped the list.
"I was always imagining something," says the 23-year-old reggaetón star who now goes by Maluma, a combination of his sister's and parents' names. Mostly he daydreamed about music. "I filled the margins of my schoolbooks with lyrics. My boys asked me to write beautiful letters for their ex-girls so they could get them back. I thought, 'I should be writing songs for myself.'" In class, on buses, during any free moment, he sketched out ballads, pop songs and beats. One style stuck.
"Where I lived, reggaetón was on fire," he says, his heavily tattooed arm draped over a chair at the offices of Billboard. The other one taps out a beat on his leg. In person, Maluma is soft-spoken and exceedingly polite -- holding doors for others, greeting people with eye contact, firm handshakes and traditional Latin cheek kisses -- all of which contrast with the inked arm sleeves, ripped jeans and nearly nude shots populating his Instagram feed. He's that "cute boy next door that moms and grandmas love, with a dirty edge that girls dream about," says Jesus Salas, executive vp programming for Spanish Broadcasting System.
Maluma's brand of reggaetón syncs nicely with his image, managing to be both romantic and raw. His sound represents an evolution of the genre, which in the last decade migrated from Puerto Rico to Colombia, where the music industry has thrived thanks to Shakira, Juanes and Carlos Vives. Reggaetón itself has benefited from the country's musical foundation -- a strong infrastructure and lack of censorship -- and from a population eager to "replace its violent history with a more positive story," says Dr. Michelle Rivera, a communications scholar at the University of Michigan, who's publishing a book on reggaetón.
But Maluma's turn almost didn't come to be. As the song-scribbling teen graduated to recording tracks in local studios, he was finding fame on the soccer field. "I would get out of class, play for hours, then go record," he says. "I only slept four hours a night." He decided to pass up a slot on the starting lineup for the national soccer team, even though it "almost gave [my] father a heart attack." He says, "It was like dumping a lover. It hurt. But I saw a chance, and I had to take it."
His songs recorded, he started performing at local schools, which he documented on his growing social streams. Eventually, he shopped his singles to local radio stations and got friends and fans ("Malumaniaticas") to share his video, "Farandulera," on YouTube. When views hit the six-digit mark, Sony Music reached out. The album, 2012's Magia, yielded the single "La Temperatura," which hit No. 24 on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart. The success fueled him: "All I wanted was to do the next one."
That album, 2015's Pretty Boy, Dirty Boy, was slicker, faster, more urban. "I was known for singing romantic songs to women, but I can also be that guy talking about why you can't be the only girl for me," he says. The album ruled the Top Latin Albums chart but also had detractors. A follow-up song, the profane "Cuatro Babys," infuriated feminists, resulting in a petition demanding it be pulled off the airwaves.
"In Latin America, people want you to write beautiful melodies and words," says Maluma. "But there are also songs that do well because they show the reality of life."
The clamor did nothing to slow his ascent, and in due time Shakira herself reached out to collaborate. "Chantaje," which came out in October, became Maluma's first Billboard Hot 100 hit, peaking at No. 51. It has been streamed more than 96 million times in the United States, according to Nielsen Music.
His boyhood dreams fulfilled, Maluma is still finding his way. "Everyone thinks this is a fairy tale, but at night, it's often just me staring at the walls of my hotel alone. But it's the life I chose." For now, he is single. "I'm looking for a woman who is intelligent and spiritual but can also handle my crazy life."
On tap this year is his next single, "Felices Los 4," which drops April 21, then he's hitting Europe, Mexico and Brazil. Maluma also wants to make his latest dream a reality: working with his hero, Justin Timberlake. "I want to be completely mainstream," he explains, while promising to "never not sing in Spanish, or at least Spanglish. I want to cross over, but not in a way that ever leaves my audience behind."
Watch Maluma talk about his first crush, the first song he wrote, his biggest musical inspirations (Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson) and more on 'You Should Know.'
Maluma shares his watermelon vodka recipe in Maluma Mixology:
This article originally appeared in the April 29 issue of Billboard.
Maluma will speak at the Billboard Latin Music Conference April 25. To register, visit: https://billboardlatinconference.com