Music

Cardi B’s “I Like It” Is the Latest Version of a Song that Took 50 Years to Get to No. 1

The post-“Despacito” boom isn’t the only thing behind its crossover success.

Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin in the music video for "I Like It."
Bad Bunny, Cardi B, and J Balvin.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Last year’s undisputed Song of Summer, “Despacito,” was a lilting, thumping, Latin-Anglo hybrid by a pair of Puerto Ricans, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, sung mostly in Spanish with a brief English-language assist from Justin Bieber. This year, the race for Song of Summer has, to date, mostly been a faceoff between streaming gods Drake and Post Malone—but this week’s new No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 makes things interesting: another thumping Spanish-English hybrid that is, at root, a Puerto Rican classic, a new breed of Boricua jam.

At least, it’s Boricua music as reimagined by a Dominican–Trinidadian rapper from the Bronx and a Colombian reggaetón singer from Medellín. That would be Cardi B and J Balvin, respectively, who team with Puerto Rican singer-rapper Bad Bunny on “I Like It.” The triumvirate completes a dozen-week climb to No. 1 just in time for the Fourth of July, ejecting the late XXXTentacion’s “Sad!” after a single week on top. (This affirms “Sad!’s” status as a fluke chart-topper—“I Like It” was No. 2 last week and would have topped the Hot 100 then if the slain emo rapper hadn’t experienced a sudden infusion of mourning-driven streams and sales.) “I Like It” is a single from Cardi B’s smash album Invasion of Privacy, and while the official Billboard chart credit for the single gives equal billing to the three acts (“Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin,” complete with ampersand), the song’s video makes clear that this is primarily Cardi’s show, with her name in bigger type and her rapping and shimmying taking center stage.

In her fast-igniting bottle rocket of a career, Cardi has presented herself as a fairly traditional Anglo rapper, and on “I Like It” her verses—virtually all in English, save for a mami here and a piñata there—are straight-up American hip-hop. Coming after last fall’s “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi’s return to No. 1 is historic enough. As Billboard’s headline trumpets, “I Like It” makes her the only female rapper in Hot 100 history with two chart-toppers, outdrawing such prior No. 1 lead performers as Lauryn Hill and Iggy Azalea. So as a chart phenomenon, “I Like It” is mostly a big deal for women in hip-hop. But make no mistake: Even beyond the Caribbean heritage of the woman born Belcalis Marlenis Almanzar—and the Spanish-language verses by José Álvaro Osorio Balvin and Benito “Bad Bunny” Ocasio—“I Like It” is Latin at its core.

That’s because “I Like It” is an interpolation—really, in essence, a cover—of a multigenerational Latin classic: “I Like It Like That,” an infectious boogaloo with a fascinating history. For Americans of Latin descent, it is one of a handful of contenders for the ultimate standard. If “La Bamba” is the seminal Spanish-language crossover single of early rock ’n’ roll, “Guantanamera” the enduring Cuban standard–turned–’60s folk hymn, and “Oye Como Va” the ultimate pan-Latin jam (and, according to NPR, one of the most important recordings of the 20th century), “I Like It Like That” holds its own as the foundational Nuyorican anthem. These songs have reappeared on the pop charts across the decades, getting transmogrified and Anglicized along the way to suit modern tastes: “La Bamba” was a Top 40 hit for Ritchie Valens in 1958 before Los Lobos took it to No. 1 in 1987. “Guantanamera” was transformed from a pre-rock Cuban son to a Pete Seeger folk staple in the early ’60s, then a Celia Cruz salsa classic and an easy-listening Top 10 hit for white pop group the Sandpipers in 1966, and cropped up on Wyclef Jean’s multiplatinum The Carnival in 1997. “Oye Como Va” turned from a Tito Puente cha-cha to a Santana rock anthem and Top 20 hit in 1971, and it was later sampled by the 2 Live Crew in 1990.

“I Like It Like That” has gone on a similar cross-cultural journey, one that now spans even more chart decades than any of these crossover Latin classics. Unlike its ’50s and ’60s Latin brethren, “I Like It Like That” was conceived by songwriters Tony Pabon and Manny Rodriguez as an Anglophone crossover record from the jump: All of the original lyrics were in English. And unlike “La Bamba,” “Guantanamera,” or “Oye Como Va,” it was not a national pop hit in the first two decades of the rock era, even though it dates back to 1967. That’s when Pete Rodríguez y Su Conjunto recorded a brassy, jazzy, piano-vamping “I Like It Like That” for the storied Bronx-based Latin jazz label Alegre. Despite missing the Hot 100, “I Like It Like That” was a radio smash in Rodríguez’s hometown of New York, placed in heavy rotation by New York disk jockey  Symphony Sid, a jazz and salsa aficionado.

“I Like It Like That” would not actually become a Top 40 Billboard hit until three decades later—and even then, the recording that cracked the pop charts took years to catch on. In 1994, the song served as the titular inspiration for the film I Like It Like That, director Darnell Martin’s debut feature about young Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx (itself a seminal work, as the first major studio movie helmed by a black American woman). On the film’s soundtrack, the song was rerecorded as “I Like It,” a Latin club track credited to a one-off collective calling itself the Blackout Allstars. They weren’t kidding with that name—in the Latin music world, the group members really were all-stars: lead singer Tito Nieves was joined by legends Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Valentin, Grover Washington Jr., and Sheila E. (better known for her ’80s R&B-pop hits with Prince but born Sheila Escovedo, the Latin-drumming scion of percussionist Pete Escovedo). Despite that mind-blowing lineup, “I Like It” was, again, not a hit in ’94—a period when the charts were ruled by grunge and post-gangsta R&B. The Blackout Allstars’ recording wouldn’t debut on the Hot 100 until late 1996, and while many credit a ’96 Burger King commercial for finally making “I Like It” a hit, an unsung, more pivotal factor was—just as in the 1960s—New York radio. “I Like It” broke in late 1996 on WKTU, a revived disco station that brought all-dance radio back to New York City airwaves for the first time since the early ’80s and codified a new late-’90s format that mixed select Latin music alongside current house and Europop. It was the crossover moment “I Like It” had been waiting for, a hospitable radio environment when multicultural dance-pop was returning to the hit parade. Finally catching on nationwide, the Blackout Allstars’ “I Like It” reached No. 25 in 1997.

There’s a temptation to call this latest, chart-topping version of “I Like It” a watering down of the original, but both the original and the ’90s version were crossover records from the jump, birthed by an American-born Latin community making a space within U.S. pop culture. Why shouldn’t Cardi B revive it for a new generation? (As a knock-on effect, Pete Rodríguez’s original 1967 “I Like It Like That” has seen a massive streaming boost of its own.) And here’s the irony: By bringing Bad Bunny and J Balvin onboard, Team Cardi has made “I Like It Like That” more pan-Latin—they increase the Spanish and Spanglish content from zero to almost 50 percent. It’s not as if these guys are dumbing the record down for Anglo audiences—I particularly love Bad Bunny’s rhyming the names of Puerto Rican bassist Bobby Valentín and Dominican singer-actress Charytín with the brand name of over-the-counter medication Claritin.

This polyglot language mix is causing confusion in chart land, however. Because Cardi, an English-language artist, is essentially the lead act, Billboard is not tracking “I Like It” on its flagship Hot Latin Songs chart—a list that combines all-genre radio airplay with digital sales and streams of Latin tracks. If it were permitted there, “I Like It” would be No. 1 now—for weeks, possibly months. Here’s the weird part: On Billboard’s Latin Airplay chart, which tracks spins on just Latin/Spanish-language radio stations, the B/Bunny/Balvin “I Like It” does appear, for the simple reason that Spanish stations are playing it—in fact, it’s a Top 10 Latin Airplay record. In other words, because it starts as an English-language record and adds in Spanish, “I Like It” is only allowed on one of these charts. This wasn’t a problem for “Despacito,” 2017’s dominant Latin track, which started all-Spanish and got turbo-charged by a layer of English. Even after Justin Bieber added his vocal, “Despacito” sat atop Hot Latin Songs for a record 52 weeks, above and beyond its unprecedented pop crossover success.

One year ago this week, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s juggernaut hybrid of swooning balladry and thumping reggaetón was in its seventh week at No. 1 on the Hot 100, out of an eventual 16 weeks on top. (That makes two Julys in a row where America’s No. 1 song is mostly or partially in Spanish—every Independence Day during the Trump era to date—an irony not lost on veteran Billboard Latin music columnist Leila Cobo, who even ties together “I Like It’s” success and the recent New York congressional-primary victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.) The question last summer—even after “Despacito” tied Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 21-year-old mark for most weeks atop the Hot 100, and set the all-time YouTube global viewership record with 5 billion views—was whether the song could reopen U.S. Top 40 airwaves to more crossover Latin music. Did “Despacito” have coattails? Would our post-Fonsi chart boomita have legs?

“I Like It” provides another persuasive data point. For all the cross-cultural success of “Despacito” last spring and summer, the song didn’t even enter the pop Top 40 until Bieber jumped on the remix. The same went later that year for J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” the first major test of the post-“Despacito” chart world. While Balvin’s team-up with producer-vocalist Willy William did very well on the Hot 100 for an all-Spanish reggaetón track, scraping the Top 20, it wasn’t until Beyoncé pulled a Bieber and jumped on a late-breaking remix that “Gente” surged to No. 3 last October. Basically, all of the big Latin crossover records over the past year either started as core Spanish records that needed an Anglo megastar’s assist or, in the case of Camilla Cabello’s teen-pop-with-salsa-flavoring “Havana,” which reached No. 1 in January, they were J Lo–like English-language records tailored for mainstream pop radio.

Cardi’s “I Like It” is tailored for American radio too, but it is a different and more interesting animal, a Trojan Horse distinct from any of the crossover records either of the 2017–18 wave or of the Latin Boom 1.0 wave back in 1999. Conceived from the jump as a mashup, it fronts like a hip-hop joint but rides a Latin trap beat, stays in Spanish through all of its two guests’ verses, and, start to finish, makes a 50-year-old Nuyorican dance classic a more accessible hit than it’s ever been. It’s even got room to grow—Billboard reports that “Like” reached the Radio Songs Top 10 only this week, and its streams are a solid 37.5 million but could enter an even more virtuous cycle if radio spins it more during the dog days. That is, assuming Cardi gets past Hurricane Drake and the explosive streaming records his new Scorpion tracks are poised to set on the charts next week.

Regardless, Cardi B is having an amazing summer—now more than eight months pregnant, she’s reportedly spending this holiday week counting the days until the arrival of her baby girl with husband Offset of Migos—and an amazing year in general. She has spun a dizzying array of singles onto the charts in a 12-month period, even before she dropped her debut album: from “Bodak Yellow,” obviously, to her Migos team-ups “Motorsport” (No. 6, December 2017) and “Drip” (No. 21, April 2018), to her smash new jack remix of Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” (No. 3, January 2018), to her prominent appearance on G‑Eazy’s “No Limit” (No. 4, January 2018). When Invasion of Privacy landed in April, both “Bodak” and its follow-up “Bartier Cardi” (No. 14) were already hits, soon followed by the Lauryn Hill­­–reimagining “Be Careful” (No. 11), all of which rolled out a long, lush red carpet for “I Like It” to make its run at the top. And Cardi’s probably not even done with summer hit-making—she’s lodged in the Top 5 right now with a second smash, “Girls Like You,” an über-pop team-up with the unsinkable Maroon 5. Even if Drake is just days away from taking back the charts, the summer of Cardi will likely continue. We’ll be grooving to “I Like It” at the beach all July and August while she nurtures her most precious release.