Backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards last month, at the Prudential Center in Newark, the out-of-nowhere Mexican superstar Peso Pluma gathered his band for an inspirational talk. That night, he was to become the first Mexican artist to ever perform on the show, but before the dress rehearsal of his song “Lady Gaga,” he set aside around 10 minutes to reminisce with the musicians who have been with him for years, telling them how none of his success would have been possible without them. At the end, almost the whole band walked out of the room in tears.
Peso was in a reflective mood because of the milestone he was about to achieve. But some somberness was in the air, too. That morning, there were news reports from Mexico about banners posted in Tijuana, signed with the initials of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a powerful rival to the Sinaloa Cartel. They demanded Peso cancel an upcoming concert in the city, threatening his safety if he were to perform.
A handful of personal security guards were milling about, but at the moment, there wasn’t much to do besides press on. Before Peso hit the red carpet, he and his manager, George Prajin, huddled quickly, to talk about how to handle any questions about something other than music. Then, he stepped out in front of the paparazzi phalanx, playfully jabbing out his tongue, Jagger-style, and sidled into cheerful interviews with “Entertainment Tonight” and “El Gordo y La Flaca.”
The following day, at the Hard Rock Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Peso woke up late after a long night at his V.M.A.s after-party. But he was alert, and pointed in underscoring the importance of the prior night’s performance.
“I took it as an opportunity to show the world what I had,” he said. “I just wanted all these artists to get to know me. To get to know what I do, and to get to know better the genre that I do.”
More than a dozen weeks after the release of Peso’s third album, “Génesis,” it remains in the top 10 of Billboard’s all-genre album chart.Credit…Josefina Santos for The New York Times
Peso, 24, is the reigning king of corridos tumbados, a modern version of traditional Mexican music, which has found great success over the last couple of years. Peso sings and raps in a fashion indebted to contemporary hip-hop and reggaeton over production that holds close to traditional forms. (Peso Pluma is both his stage name and how he refers to the musical project and band as a whole.)
In July, “Génesis” — Peso’s third studio album, but his first since refining his sound and growing his ambitions — made its debut on the Billboard all-genre album chart at No. 3, the highest position ever for an album of regional Mexican music. And it’s had staying power — more than a dozen weeks later, it remains in the Top 10. On Spotify alone, his songs have been streamed several billion times.
There have been occasional moments of Mexican American musical crossover in this country — the gangster rap of Kid Frost, the emotional ballads of Selena, the lite R&B and hip-hop of Frankie J and Baby Bash. But Mexican performers have largely been relegated to, and musically remained faithful to, the traditions of what is termed regional Mexican music, an umbrella term that encompasses varying styles from different parts of the country and the southwestern United States. Peso has reframed this music from regional to global. He has collaborated with artists from across the Spanish-speaking world — the Puerto Rican rapper Eladio Carrión, the Dominican dembow star El Alfa, the superstar Argentine producer Bizarrap. And his song “Ella Baila Sola” — a collaboration with Eslabon Armado — was the first Mexican song to hit the Top 5 on the Billboard all-genre Hot 100
Peso — whose real name is Hassan Emilio Kabande Laija — was born in Guadalajara, and sometimes spent time in Sinaloa with family as a child. He found inspiration in the work of Chalino Sánchez, a seminal singer of narcocorridos, which tell stories about the Mexican drug trade. Peso fell for “his raspy voice, his very unique way to sing corridos, his very unique way to sing romantic songs,” he said. “When this type of music was playing in the car, I literally took my earphones out to hear what he was saying.”
Peso also gravitated to Ariel Camacho, a rising young star of the 2010s known for impressive guitar playing. (Sanchez was murdered in 1992; Camacho died in a car accident in 2015.)
But even though Peso enjoyed that music, he didn’t feel particularly connected to its aesthetics, which tend toward crisp Western wear, embroidered suits and cowboy boots.
“Since I was a kid, my favorite genres have always been reggaeton and hip-hop,” he said. (He spent some of his teenage years in San Antonio and New York, where he found himself gravitating to the likes of Kanye West and Drake.) “That’s why I don’t wear the sombreros. I don’t wear the boots. I’m not that.”
Instead, he dresses like a rapper — loud designer clothes, expensive jewelry and watches that a member of his entourage is tasked with carrying around in soft blue cases from the Atlanta celebrity jeweler Icebox.
On the V.M.A.s stage, he was dressed in all black, like a luxury spider — wide and angular puffy vest, shamelessly wide and crinkly pants, short leather gloves and boxy sunglasses. Backstage, he gamely stood for a signature antic TikTok interrogation about his outfit from the social media personality Christoosmoove, a clip that was viewed over 10 million times.
Peso was also the first Mexican musician to film an episode of “Sneaker Shopping,” a YouTube series that’s a favorite of rappers and social media celebrities; he spent over $32,000, including sneakers for all his bandmates, putting him in the show’s top 10 all-time spenders. The day after the V.M.A.s, the show’s host, Joe La Puma, sent him a gift: a rare pair of 2005 Cinco de Mayo Nike SB Dunks in the colors of the Mexican flag.
Peso’s path to the MTV stage was nonlinear, and also improbably fast. He released a pair of albums in the early 2020s, just as the corridos tumbados scene was being established. And he began working extensively with other artists — the majority of his earliest songs to chart were collaborations, including with Natanael Cano and Fuerza Regida, some of the young performers who established the movement just a few years ago. (Cano’s 2019 collaboration with Bad Bunny on the remix of “Soy El Diablo” was one of the first crossover moments for corridos tumbados.)
Some of Peso’s songs tend to the romantic, some are boastful, and some are in the vein of narcocorridos. (These are the songs that have led to the reported threats against him.)
The young stars of corridos tumbados initially received a cold welcome from the older, more established traditionalists of Mexican music. “I know it’s not envy, I know it’s not any of that,” Peso said graciously. “It’s just they weren’t sure about how to react.”
But while he has been able to befriend and continue to collaborate with Cano, there has been rumored tension with Jesus Ortiz Paz of Fuerza Regida, one of the scene’s most prominent acts. (Peso largely declined to discuss any friction he’s faced: “I feel everything that people say, but I try to focus on the positive things, not the negative.”)
It has provided a story line for the media outlets that document the scene, including the Agushto Papa podcast, which has been enthusiastically covering the rise of Mexican music for the past two years.
“I think that he has pushed how these artists do concerts a lot,” said Angel Lopez, one of the show’s hosts. “I don’t think they’ll ever admit it. But after seeing how Peso Pluma performs, everybody had to step their game up. They can’t just stand there in front of a microphone, play their instrument, or sing. They need to add more.”
Onstage, Peso is loose and a little eccentric, always shimmying; his band also moves with controlled jubilation. Jason Nunez, one of the other hosts, added, “Another thing too is the dances — no one danced like that. And even if people thought it was weird, they would hate on it and it would just make him bigger. And also, I feel like it’s like a small thing, but it still matters — the hair.” (The hair does matter. Peso has a rangy mullet that’s become a style marker, and is in perhaps unconscious dialogue with the mullets of Morgan Wallen and various K-pop stars.)
The speed of Peso’s ascent has been dizzying and disorienting. “A lot of people don’t know that I have anxiety breakouts,” Peso said. “It is very important for people who have mental issues to be treated and to talk about it.”
The Tijuana show was eventually canceled out of safety concerns, even though the police had yet to publicly confirm the authenticity of the handwritten banners. “There’s a lot of things that is fake and a lot of things that is not,” Peso said.
Prajin, his manager, said the team had to take every threat seriously. “I want to make sure that not only is he secured financially, but that also we take care of his mental health and his physical health,” he said. “And of course, his security. He can’t go anywhere without having a bunch of security — I won’t let him.”
A couple of weeks after the cancellation, Peso announced shows in three other Mexican cities. “I do feel safe,” he said. “Being close to God is the most important thing. And I think that’s why I feel safe. It’s more of a spiritual thing for me.”
Prajin suggested that Peso’s subject matter might evolve as he became better known, and his musical footprint widened. “He’s never going to stop singing those songs because that’s what he grew up with, the culture that he grew up around,” he said. “But I do see that he’s definitely going in a different direction in terms of the music that he’s singing. There’s a lot of love songs, a lot of different fusions.”
Given Peso’s popularity, the collaboration requests are coming in fast. “You have no idea of how many rappers, how many country singers, R&B singers are connecting with us,” Peso said.
He plans to release a reggaeton EP soon, and following that, strategic collaborations with American rappers. Prajin said conversations had already begun with Cardi B, ASAP Rocky and Post Malone.
These new pathways, he hopes, will be available not just to him, but to Mexican artists who might follow in his footsteps. And thanks to his success, more new doors are open to Mexican performers beyond just the V.M.A.s.
“I saw Taylor Swift moving her head, dancing to my song yesterday.,” he said, marveling at the unlikeliness of it all. “That, we couldn’t even imagine.”