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Reinventing Karol G

After Covid struck, the Colombian reggaeton star started over and found a bold new sound for her latest album

Karol G photographed in Medellín, Colombia for Rolling Stone. Styled by Karen Ramirez & Daiky Gamboa, Makeup by Duvan Foronda, Hair by Simon Aterhortua

Sebastian Quintero for Rolling Stone

Last March, the Colombian singer Karol G was just weeks away from finalizing an album she’d been working on for months. The songs had been mixed and the album images had been shot. Then, one afternoon, she was sitting at home in Miami, going through all of her past work and everything she’d accomplished as an artist. The new record had been made during one of the most hectic periods of her life: She’d been touring and celebrating the smash success of her 2019 hit “Tusa,” so she’d scraped together concepts in hotels and scribbled lyrics on planes. “I feel like this project is cool, but something is missing. It doesn’t have a base,” she remembers telling one of her closest friends. She realized that she wanted to toss the entire thing. “I said, ‘No. I need to refocus, I need to start over.”

Within days, she had. “It was heavy because obviously, there had been so much time involved,” says Karol, 30. “Literally, everything we had done ended up in the past.” When Covid hit, it gave her time to dive headlong into research and work on nothing but her music. She studied sounds from the ’70s that her parents loved, as well as the qualities she admires most in her own favorite pop acts — Beyoncé’s airtight production, Rihanna’s natural delivery, Lady Gaga’s wild aesthetics. She tried producing for the first time, and soon, she had an entirely new set of songs to share with the members of her team, who were just as excited as she was. “I feel blessed that I’m surrounded by people that believe 100 percent in my vision and my ideas,” she says.

Karol G shares all of this on a Zoom call while she’s sitting in the sun on her parents’ farm in Llano Grande, just outside of Medellín, Colombia. Her hair is dyed a jolting mermaid-blue, standing out against the lush green grass that feeds her family’s mini-pig, Lupita, who is lurking out of frame. (“She’s a medium-pig now!” Karol jokes. “She’s getting big.”) It’s early February, and it’s the first time Karol has been to Colombia in more than a year, since the pandemic struck. She’s enjoying some time off before she starts releasing a string of singles off of her new album, KG0516, which comes out on March 25th. This time around, it’s a project she fully believes in.

Karol calls the album the product of her experiences during the Covid-19 era. It was a difficult period for her: She says it pained her to see how much devastation the virus caused as people lost their loved ones and their livelihoods. She was worried about what would happen in the music industry and in her own career; before the pandemic, she felt like she’d been at the top of her game, and then it all came to a screeching halt. “I felt like I had lost my moment,” she says. Then, in the summer, she and her assistant came down with bad cases of Covid-19 themselves. The news that she was sick leaked in Colombia, and her mother called her in tears after being hounded by the press.

One way she got through it all was by watching the videos friends sent her of quarantined people around the world blasting “Tusa” from their balconies. Karol was so moved when she saw the first one that she cried. “Even people who don’t know my face, who don’t know me, who don’t know my name, they’re feeling something,” she recalls thinking. As the clips kept pouring in, they re-energized Karol, especially while she worked on new music. “I took everything bad that was happening to me and turned the page 180 degrees,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m Karol G, the one from ‘Tusa’! The one with the superhit! I need to bring this attitude into everything I do from now on!’”

But although 2020 taught Karol to take a more empowered approach to her work, there have been other personal reckonings for her. Last June, following the police killing of George Floyd, Karol posted a picture of her black-and-white dog, Goku, on Instagram. “The perfect example that Black and White TOGETHER look beautiful,” she wrote in a caption that was called out across the Internet as completely tone-deaf. Some people pointed out that the image was especially harmful given that Karol has borrowed aesthetics and built a career on music created by Black communities. The incident also underscored the ways that white and light-skinned Latin stars, whom the industry has prioritized in genres started by Black artists, have been unprepared to discuss race and Black Lives Matter.

Karol deleted the post and says she understood the criticism, given the gravity of the conversation. “I was like, ‘I’m so stupid,’” she remembers. Ultimately, she sees the experience as something that pushed her into more awareness. “At the end of the day, I feel like [2020] was a year of a lot of wake-up calls,” she explains. “Not just for me, but for a lot of humanity — of opening our eyes and going, ‘Okay. Life gave us a pause so that we can understand that so much needs to change,’ and ultimately, that’s a positive thing.”

How those changes actually play out in the industry and in artists’ future work is something audiences are waiting to see, for Karol and for many other acts. Comments about appropriation resurfaced earlier this month, when Karol debuted the cover of KG0516, in which she wears braids and stands next to the model Quinten Barnard, who is almost entirely nude. In an email, Karol didn’t respond to questions about the cover critiques, but said she wanted to do “something different” for the cover art and praised photographer David LaChapelle for “taking the idea to the next level.” (She also said she hopes to continue deepening her understanding of the struggle against racism: “I’m aware that I will never be able to talk about these causes in a way of experience, but I can better educate myself in these topics.”)

On the new album, she’s embraced new genres and sounds more fully than she has before. The first single, “Location,” features a country-inspired riff and verses from her fellow Colombian J Balvin and the Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA. Especially after scrapping the last album, she explains that wanted to be intentional about each detail. She spent hours tinkering with programming software to get just the right sound or samples. If she couldn’t get the specific artist she wanted for a song, she threw it out. While the tracklist includes collaborations with Ludacris, Emilee, and Nicki Minaj, most of her guests are from Latin America. She proudly mentions a few “legends” who represent people she’d been dying to get in the studio — likely a reference to “Leyendas,” the album’s closer, with Ivy Queen, Nicky Jam, Wisin & Yandel, Zion, and Alberto Stylee.

Most importantly, Karol thinks these songs are closer to representing who she is as an artist. “I’m not making all these crossovers and fusions so that my music reaches a ton of people,” she says. “It’s that I love all types of music and sounds, and ultimately, that’s what I want to express to people…. There are a lot of feelings, a lot of flows, and a little bit of everything.”

From Rolling Stone US