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In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.
Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”
A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”
Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.
“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”
On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.
Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”
Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”
Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.
Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.
“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”
While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”
Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”
“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.
Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.
For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.
Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.
“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”
Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”
Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.
Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.
“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”
The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.
On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”
I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?
— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018
“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”
“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”
Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.
“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.
Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).
Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.
“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”
Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:
Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important?
“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”
This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Between hookah pulls, Tory Lanez has devised another master plan. Mirroring his savory sonic palette, the Toronto native reveals how he intends to release three albums over the course of three weeks. Each album is an ode to a personality all his own and sounds we wouldn’t expect from the multi-hyphenated artist. “These are timeless records on these projects,” he insists on the phone. One is an album inspired by the synths of the '80s, an acoustic project akin to the early works of Ed Sheeran and a Spanish album. “I’m beginning to get into a space where there's really just a different genre of music here. It's crazy how I was able to keep it under wraps for so long.” I’m not surprised at his motion picture-like ideas. Just last year during his press run for the chart-topping project, Chixtape 5, he manifested himself on the cover of VIBE. One pandemic, fifty-eleven twerk sessions, and a Drake shot-toast later, Tory has unlocked another goal all thanks to an unplugged mic and an Instagram Live chill session that would evolve in Quarantine Radio.
In the early days of America’s self-isolation from the novel coronavirus, the artist chilled with his team in Miami, enjoying 2000s hip-hop hits on his Instagram Live. Tens of thousands tuned in thanks to people engaging in social distancing in real life but stepping onto the toes of others at DJ sets on social media. In late March, he formed his own soundclash with Bryson Tiller, where the two exchanged songs in the categories of bubblegum pop from Christina Aguilera, pop-punk via early Panic! At The Disco and vintage R&B from Otis Redding. After a very impressive battle, Tory formed Quarantine Radio where more of his talented bredren could hop on, take a shot and look for the real stars of the show–the women.
“It was totally organic, it was not even supposed to be a thing,” he says with a chuckle. “The dude who does the ad-libs, he's a part of my day to day management and he ended up passing me the mic and headphones. He started doing the ad-libs and we found it funny, and it just became a thing, you know? I ended up yelling for four hours because I was just on Instagram having a good time.”
Quarantine Radio is two parts speakeasy, five parts twerking and three parts 2010 Twitter. Some girls dropped it low in gas stations and forests while others absorbed strawberry milk in their thongs. Stars like Chris Brown, Ben Simmons, Lizzo, Casanova, Tinashe, Megan Thee Stallion (who even got her Hot Girl twerk on), and more were in the popcorn gallery chatting with Tory on how to remain “corona free.” There’s also the essence of Demon Time, a red light rendezvous believed to be created by Justin LaBoy. With guests like The Weeknd, YG, and Lil Yachty, the virtual strip club has enticed libidos and increased bank accounts of its participants. In between Tory’s hilarious adlibs, Quarantine Radio adapted Demon Time with fans getting creative with every twerk session.
Before Instagram cut the party short due to a violation of nudity, he found himself with 2 million extra followers and a then record-breaking live session with over 360,000 people watching. But inspiration comes from everywhere. Enter Sha Almighty, a South Bronx native who kicked off the Almighty Trap Show in December 2018, a virtual funhouse on Instagram where Taylor Port wine replaces bottle service and Pandora’s Box is split into two live screens. “I wouldn’t say I’m the inventor of Demon Time, but I am definitely the reason everyone knows what it is now,” admits Sha. With co-host Trap, Sha says his lingo (like “I need a calculator,” “They shooting duck,” "WOWW") and swag have helped boost the profiles of LaBoy and Tory’s interpretation of the scene. “A lot of facts are missing,” he said. “I think [Tory] is a fan and just needs to give me my credit. I just feel anyone can do the Instagram Live show but just at least bring your own originality.”
Part of Tory’s originality stems from his unique way to flip a turn up into an opportunity. He says Quarantine Radio and its moving parts came together casually with no one else but those in the Miami hangout. As participants like DJ Duffey, Johnni Blaze, Veronica Rodriguez, and Natalie Nunn made their mark as clear cut winners during contests, Tory was living his childhood dreams on Quarantine Radio by shipping off beat pack requests to Swizz Beatz, and flirting with living legends like Raven-Symoné, Trina and Tisha Campbell. He even plugged “Comeback,” an upcoming steamy collaboration with R&B siren JoJo, and talked DMX into growling. We were soon anticipating Quarantine Radio shows soundtracked by the discographies of Ja Rule, Juvenile, and Mack Morrison with Tory–also known as DJ Corona Free–in the booth. Tory pulled off weeks of potential meetings with his peers into only eight episodes of Quarantine Radio.
But Tory’s casual yet thoughtful viral ideas never overshadowed his music. He recently hopped into his rap bag and dropped The New Toronto 3, his last offering to Interscope before parting ways. It earned Tory another Top 10 album on the Billboard 200 which means next to nothing for him. As an artist who has released 25 projects in ten years would tell you, it’s all about the game baybee.
“C'mon, it's like a million people inflating their streams,” he claims. “Some people are just doing numbers where that's just impossible. As someone who understands a lot of things behind the scenes, I can't allow it to dictate, at least somebody like me, who's not cheating.” Since his debut studio album I Told You was released in 2016 with hits like “Say It” and “LUV,” the Grammy-nominated artist says he’s enjoyed the increase in streams over the years because of its genuine nature.
“I had never passed 60,000 [units in the first week], but I've always been relevant,” he says. The New Toronto 3 moved 64,000 equivalent album units which he attributes to his growth as an artist. “I know that it takes a certain amount of building for you to make real numbers. So when I see people have these numbers out the gate, I'm like, 'You don't have these numbers out the gate, no one knows you.' I just don't think it’s fair for artists nowadays who are not cheating, but this shouldn’t discourage them. At the end of the day, if the music is connecting, and you have an audience that cares about the music, and who is hitting you on Instagram and saying 'That song is crazy,' and doing what they can to let you know your music is great, then you're doing what you need to do and it doesn't matter.”
The New Toronto 3 takes us back to Tory’s ability to steer into MC territory (“Do The Most” and “Broke In A Min” are fan favorites) while enjoying his R&B hits in the rearview mirror. Chixtape 5 brought the journey full circle with the creative teaming up with his soulful heroes like Lloyd, Ashanti, T-Pain, Chris Brown, Mya, and more for a lesson in enjoyable sampling and hilarious skits. Both projects have done Tory plenty of favors as it officially released him into independent waters. The artist has remained vocal against his disdain for Interscope Records, which also houses buzzy artists like DaBaby, Moneybagg Yo, and Lil Mosey. Looking back on some of the creative differences he had at the label, Tory admits he’s held on to his best material and is ready for the world to hear it.
“Sometimes I feel like in my situation I didn't really have the person to be like, 'Yeah, this belongs on 'XYZ’ so we're going to spend this amount of money so you can actually get that',” he says in his best white voice. “I didn't feel like I had that for a long time so I kept certain music away. It's not going to take long for me to release things. I don't have a specific time where I have to get stuff out to the label. I'm putting out a lot of music and a lot of heads will turn my way because they never knew I made this type of music.” That type, Tory says, is everything under the sun. He guarantees his highly anticipated Spanish-language album will see the light of day with fans ready for him to jump into “Fargo Fridays” again (dropping a new song every Friday) or hone in on the hunger found on early projects like Lost Cause. No matter when or how the music drops, Tory knows people are watching.
Derailed albums, canceled festivals, and shows have flooded the concert industry with a projected loss of $9 billion. Streaming has reportedly seen a decline but artists like Drake have continued to shine with the release of the Tik-Tok friendly “Tootsie Slide” and others like The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Lil Uzi Vert have solid fan bases who have taken their recent releases to the top of the charts. There are also artists like Tory who have capitalized on live streaming to either perform, share music, or just talk to fans. While Quarantine Radio wasn’t a part of Tory’s business model, he believes the music industry should learn a thing or two from it.
“Just chill the f**k out (laughs) that's it, bro, chill the f**k out,” he says to the industry. “As an artist, when we're not getting lots of views or anything we want, you feel like, 'Damn I gotta do something to get back and stop putting so much energy into things that don't even work.' When you just don't [give a] f**k anymore, things just start to go your way. It's going to be okay, dawg. Be you, be happy, be humble, and that's it.”
He doesn’t hold any resentment about his past record deals. Instead of folding, Tory has made diamonds from the pressure. “I'm a person that will not accept defeat in my career,” he says. “When it comes to you know, that fourth-quarter pressure, I'm someone who's going to always rise to the occasion. Being that I went through what I went through and I still somehow came out of that and exceeded five albums. I own all my masters and my publishing, so even for me to be at my hottest moment culturally—where the cultural acceptance of Tory Lanez the brand is now a thing—and to be in this place when I'm leaving the label, it's truly just a blessing. It's something I'm extremely happy about because like I said, I learned that I'm a person that won't accept defeat. It took this situation for me to really really realize why I feel that way.”
His love for the culture almost wrecked his sound as casual listeners pigeonholed him for sampling. His breakthrough 2016 hit “Say It,” samples Brownstone’s “If You Love Me,” and “LUV,” samples the classic reggae jam “Everyone Falls In Love Sometimes” by Tanto Metro and Devonte. Tory’s rookie year in the game continued to receive some blows as he and fellow Toronto native Drake engaged in a brief beef of sorts. Despite the pushbacks, Tory says he’s always remained true to himself.
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QUARANTINE QUARANTINE QUARANTINE 😂😂. Whose your favorite guest on #Quarantineradio so far ?
“There's a demographic of people for everybody,” he explains. “Nothing looks purer to people than you being yourself. Like ni**a, I don't walk around being mad all the time or being angry every single day so why would I walk around like that? I'm truly happy inside and whether the world knew that or not, that's who I was. I'm very outspoken and whatever the case is, but at the end of the day, I'm a very happy guy. If you're going to see me for four or five hours, you're going to see me being happy. I will say that I am happy that the show helped a lot of other people not really take things so seriously. Let's just get drunk with everyone, that's it. I don't take any of it seriously. The buttons are funny, the sound effects are funny. I really laugh at the ad-lib guy, it's just funny to me.” Ad-libs like “Ultimate Light Skins” to reference artists like Drake and Chris Brown, repeating “quarantine” and air horn sounds help drive fans into a frenzy.
In addition to a new album, new fans, and a renewed energy, Tory has also pulled out his philanthropic hat. This week, Tory partnered with charitable organization the Dream Center to officially launch The Tory Lanez Dream Fund to help with COVID-19 relief efforts for struggling families. So far, companies like Amazon Music have matched Tory’s personal donation of 50,000 diapers by covering the cost of 100,000 diapers for families searching for help at the Los Angeles Dream Center. Meals have also been provided through home deliveries, walk-ups, and drive-thru Dream Centers nationwide.
For Tory, giving back in and out the industry has always been a goal worth manifesting. “When I think about ownership, I think about One Umbrella [his label imprint], I think about what I’m about to do,” he says of his label which includes Latinx powerhouse like Melli, R&B vocalist and Coachella bound Mariah the Scientist and Mansa, “who everyone should fear,” he says. The deals keep coming his way. He recently discussed Viacom’s interest in teaming up with MTV for a 30-minute segment, but his focus is on the art of independence.
“Especially in my case right now, when these labels are trying to tell me, ‘Hey, $20 million for two albums!' and I'm like, 'Bro, no. Simply no.' I would like to own my music. Ownership to me is the most important thing right now. It's a very powerful word.” Family is another priority when asked about his biggest inspirations. “I find the joy out of life,” he says while thinking about his son, Kai. “If it's not God or my child, I'm not taking it seriously.”
There’s a raucous of laughter that spills between those hookah pulls and my inquiry about his comments about the late Tupac Shakur. After sharing with Genius.com's Rob Markman recently how he’s been inspired by Tupac, the rapper was met with immediate backlash.
“I don't know why motherf**kers get so upset when a ni**a says something about Pac,” he says.“Bruh, to all those ni**as in the comments that get so mad about it when anybody says anything about Pac, Suck my d**k, my ni**a.” Tory goes on to reference Pac’s 1994 MTV interview where the late rapper shared his intentions on inspiring the youth. “Every time I speak I want the truth to come out,” Tupac said two years before he was gunned down. “Every time I speak I want a shiver. I don’t want them to be like they know what I’m gonna say because it’s polite. I'm not saying I’m gonna rule the world or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that will change the world."
“I'm a fan of Pac and I'll say this. I never said, ‘I am Pac,’ what I said was that I had similarities to him,” he said while pointing out comical, but iconic similarities like their nose rings and love for bandanas. “I'm not Pac, but I do feel like I was one of the minds he sparked and I hope another person feels the same way. Wasn't that the point?”
In an effort to keep the creative train going, Tory promises when “this is over, Quarantine Radio is over.” He hasn’t gone on Live to promote Quarantine Radio, but he has promised fans it will return this week. “I'll say this; if it gets to a place where they say, 'There's one more day left of quarantine, and it's done on the 30th [which is probably won't be] then on 29th, we'll have the last day of Quarantine Radio. Some things are just meant to be what they are.”
Love isn’t an afterthought in our current time of self-isolation. The mélange of it all is felt in the spirit of singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. Resting with her family in Toronto in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, her tribe of fans waits patiently for her to jump on Instagram Live. The intimate meetups were provided in the past but with her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us in the ethos, fans are eager for Jessie’s magnetic energy.
One of her Lives, in particular, was life-changing as aspiring artists had the opportunity to sing for her. Diligently listening to every nayhoo, chord, and harmony from Israel, Florida, and Brazil, Jessie gives strong advice to her young fans. From taking advantage of studio time to the perks of platforms like Soundcloud, the gems are passed from one growing artist to another through the telephone screen.
The transfer of loving energy is something that comes easy for Jessie. At 28, the Colombiana embodies the wisdom of her ancestors and wit of a whiskey-toting millennial. The world’s current apocalyptic omens would shake some, but Jessie is focused on the brighter elements of life. “Love can help with actual survival tactics; survival not for the individual but for the community,” she says on her current mindstate around the outbreak. “The only way I think it could hurt us is if we don't think about the community and approach this selfishly. Anyone that’s scared of losing people to this is hard. Every day I’m calling every single one of my elderly family members to make sure they’re good. There are so many celebrities and politicians talking about it so I feel silly reiterating the same information but it’s literally about the curve.”
Our conversation comes days before the release of her debut, a concept album ripened with the everlasting relationship between love and mortality. We have her fans to thank for its release. After an online poll pushed for the album, Jessie committed to the March 27 release date. “I had a hard time too because the title is literally Before Love Came To Kill Us, like, the whole premise of the album was to trigger people into thinking about mortality and now it almost seems like it's a theme song to what everyone is going through. Everybody is thinking about how to survive right now so I’m embracing it because I made the decision to go with it. I've been connecting with fans online, which has been a nice silver lining. I'm not mad at this. It can be worse for me right now.”
The project arrives four years after her breakthrough hit “Figures” lodged a dagger into our musical hearts. With just a guitar and her signature messy up-down hairstyle, Jessie highlights her worst fears—giving love but never receiving it. It made her stand out in 2016 and soon become a notable rising act and fan-favorite alongside fellow newbies like Khalid and SZA.
”I’ve been chasing this sh*t my whole life man, don’t ever think I take this sh*t for granted,” she said during a VEVO Halloween show in 2017. Her debut EP Kiddo proved this with diary-entry songs about her journey in the industry. The harrowing “Gatekeepers” dropped in the middle of the #MeToo movement and pointed out a producer who attempted to pressure the young singer into sleeping with him. The single showcased Jessie’s lethal songwriting skills and her bravery in a competitive, and at times, misogynistic industry.
Jessie’s resilience paired with her unparalleled voice has kept her shining in R&B. With the release of her EP Being Human In Public in late 2018, Reyez began to align herself with other fearless women in the game like Kehlani and Normani. The project, featuring sobering tracks like “F**k Being Friends” and “Sola,” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Despite losing to Lizzo, Jessie’s voice in R&B had finally been heard.
Women of Latinx descent have always been entwined in soul music. Lisa Velez, known for her groundbreaking group Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam in the 1980s, released songs like “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (1985) and “From Head to Toe” (1987) in a time where Latinas were expected to sing in Spanish or constantly keep the party going with 120 bpm tunes. The release of their tender, 1986 ballad “All Cried Out” would go on to be sampled by R&B quartet Allure in 1997. Sheila E.’s vital percussions not only inspired Prince but are also infused into the tracks by Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, and Lionel Richie.
These steps would also go on to enlighten artists like Amy Winehouse and Ms. Lauryn Hill–two pivotal artists who Jessie Reyez looks to for inspiration. With fearless grit, Reyez takes risks like her sheroes. For one, she’s not afraid to tap into her latinidad by singing in Spanish (hear the touching “La Memoria”) and incorporating the Mexican traditions of Día De Los Muertos in her new video for “I Do.” As R&B turns a new corner with acts like H.E.R., Ella Mai, and Tory Lanez topping the charts, Jessie's abilities make her a new leader Latinx R&B heads can stan and the music industry execs can take note of.
The combination of mindfulness and rustic songwriting taps into a new kind of pop star for people of color today. With love taking a new shape through apps, FaceTime dates and social media, the love songs have become more brutal with Reyez hitting every wrapped high note.
Speaking with VIBE VIVA, Jessie shares the tragedy of soulmates, creating Before Love Came To Kill Us, her consistent chemistry with Eminem and the perks of being yourself.
Before Love Came To Kill Us seems to be here at the right time. How are you feeling about the release?
Jessie Reyez: I'm definitely nervous and I hope it's the best it can be, I hope it is. I tweaked the sh*t out of it. I kept loving it Monday and hating it on Tuesday. Then I would love it on Wednesday and hate it on Thursday. It was very tumultuous. I wasn't feeling pressure when I started. I was free. The more you fu**ing talk to people, the more you risk their perspective affecting your core. Like when people say, “Oh, it's your first album, did you feel pressure?” “Uh, Nah.” And then the second person asks I say, “Nah.” But then the tenth person is asking if you let that sh*t seep in. You're getting closer to the zone where you might be second-guessing your intuition and that never ends right.
On top of that, we had certain people being like, “We have to make sure the album is cohesive.” I remember dealing with song selections and having this word in my head. As a human being, my innate nature and soul are sporadic. I am polar. I am high and low. I am a Gemini. I am a loving woman and a violent woman. I am all these things and for me to comprise and make this album cohesive, as opposed to making the first album me? I had a window of clarity where I was like, f**k that. People are gonna cry and people are gonna bop. The same way they did on Kiddo and the same way they did on Being Human In Public. I didn't want to make everybody cry for the sake of having everybody cry. F**k that. If I'm a rainbow, I'm the worst ends of the rainbow. If it's a bloody rainbow then it's gonna be a bloody rainbow, you know?
I enjoyed the highs and lows of the album because that’s what love is. I enjoyed the collaboration with Eminem. How was it hearing his verse for the first time on "Coffin"?
He's actually one of the last features of the album. To be honest, Eminem could've sent me the verse saying “Quack, quack, quack,” and it still would've been dope. He's a legend and to welcome a legend on my project, someone I listened to as a kid, it's an honor. When I got it, and it wasn't “Quack, quack, quack,” I was like, “Ahh this is dope.” It could've been nothing and I still would've been honored. The fact that's it dope it's a double W.
There’s a quote about soulmates I heard on The Good Place. It goes, “If soulmates do exist, they're not found, they're made.” Do you believe in soulmates?
I'm one of those people who are reluctant to love because I know that the moment I do, I'm f**ked. When I say I'm f**ked I mean it's an uphill to get me to fall in love. Once I get there, it's like I'm crawling out of hell. Like a vertical crawl. It's the worst because now I'm at the point where...everybody's great because everybody starts great. I'm trying not to let my past experiences harden my heart. Sometimes it feels like the hell always wins for me. I think it's a beautiful sentiment.
I'm not sure if I believe this anymore but there was a point in my life where I really thought that you choose to love. You choose who you love because it's not always going to be easy. But you fight through it when it's hard because it's not always gonna be there. Some days I'm an optimist and some days I'm a pessimist. It just depends. Today, I guess I'm just indecisive.
Does it ever get annoying being the "deep girl?"
Well, I did when people were telling me to make the album cohesive. But sometimes I just wanna go nuts and it's not that serious, it's just who I am. I definitely feel that sometimes people have that expectation but I think I have that discernment to not let that affect how I'm gonna move. So when Monday and Tuesday show up and I feel like I want to be an intellectual, then on Wednesday I wanna post some ridiculous f**king meme or like Sunday I wanna just mess around with my nieces and put it online, I'm gonna do that. I feel like people expect it but I don't really care (Laughs).
What do you think of people still looking for love via FaceTime dates during the coronavirus outbreak? I don’t understand how dating can be a priority right now.
It's funny how situations like this can pull people in different ways. I was having a conversation with someone about this too and they were like, “How the f**k can you be thinking about this right now?" They had the same reaction as you. I don't know but that's just people are different. If you push someone towards death, some are going to figure out ways to get out and some people are just going to accept that it's the end and they're going to see what else they can do before the end. Go find a King or Queen.
The pandemic put a hold on the music industry and like many other events, your tour with Billie Eilish has been postponed. How were the first two dates you got to do together?
We got to do Orlando and Miami together and that was nice. It was great man, she's got puppies on her rider which has gotta be the smartest most potent way to happiness. To see a little baby puppy everywhere you go while you work, that's been my highlight.
If you had to pick the “Best Part” and “Worst Part” of your life, what gets put on the table?
The best part is (pauses) not dealing with slimy dudes anymore, like when I was a bottle service girl/bartender. There were a lot of times where I had to bite my tongue and just thug it out. Especially when I was a bottle service girl, that job is f**king hard. At least when you're a bartender, you have the bar standing in the way, so there's a little bit of protection against you. But the bottle service girl, you're in the trenches. You have to slide through there and cover your ass because guys will slap your ass and be matter-o-facto, it's a f**king jungle and I'm happy I went through it because it made me thicker skinned and it made me hustle more.
The worst part would be (pauses) I read this often in books, the f**ked up part is that when you get everything you want and you're still not happy. There are a lot of things I have been blessed with; a career right now that's blossoming right now and I've been blessed to help out people in my family financially, but I still battle a lot of demons internally that I haven't been able to grab a hold of yet. There are just times on the road where I'm like, “I gotta figure it out.” I gotta figure out how to make my psychological health a priority because as good as my brain and my heart are, I wonder, "Am I doing life right?"
It’s so amazing to watch you grow. How do you keep yourself so centered?
When I started, I made it a point to be as authentic as possible. From the jump, it's been that and I owe a lot of that to my parents. My family was very strict in regard to me not being able to go to sleepovers, not having boyfriends, being raised in a Colombian household in Canada because kids are allowed to do whatever they want but you're not.
Your a** is still getting beat, your ass is still in the house. So that's the case with a lot of minorities, the culture is just different in regards to what we're allowed and not allowed to do as kids. I wasn't allowed to do a lot of sh*t but the stuff I was allowed to do was through self-expression. Even if I wasn't allowed to go to sleepovers, have a boyfriend or leave the block, I was still allowed to wear all my brother's clothes. If I didn't wanna wear any girl clothes, it was fine. I was still allowed to bleach my bangs if I wanted to bleach my bangs.
My dad was prepared for me to cut my hair off and dye it pink, I used to take the old curtains my mom was going to give away and chop them up and make dresses and make hairpieces and all this sh*t and if I wanted to go to school like that I was allowed. My parents were very liberal in that regard, allowing me to spend time writing and doing poetry all day.
I remember once when we moved, they were taking down the (switch border light). The place we moved into had a ton of those that were metal and embellished and my mom hated them so then she took them all down. They all had them downstairs in a box and I took the whole box and brought them to my room. I thought it would be so dope if I took them and hammered them all over my room. So my mom came in and saw and was like, “What the hell did she do? This looks ridiculous but okay.”
Now, I'm grown. If I feel like someone is telling me what to wear, or if I feel like someone is strongly suggesting I need to be in this, the first thing I think of is, “My parents don't tell me what to wear. You think you're gonna tell me what to wear?” I've had that feeling of self-expression since I was a kid. That's not something I'm willing to give up cause I know that it was a gift from my parents. A lot of kids have that repression. You have to make sure your hair looks like this, your shoes are f**king this, all that sh*t and I didn't have that. So I honor it by being true to myself now.