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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.
The smooth sounds of R&B never get old. When it comes to the soothing tunes of Robin Thicke, they're no exception. To bring that heart-warming vibe to our days of self-quarantine, the soul singer is delivering a new track titled "Forever Mine."
As the piano, guitar, bass, saxophone, muted trumpet, and drums set the jazzy tempo, Thicke sings about holding on to the love of your life while keeping the romance alive. No matter how long it takes or what's going on in the world.
"Made for each other, feels like no other / Once in a lifetime, can't let a love like this pass you by," he croons. "Tell me your stories and I will tell you mine / I don’t mind living in paradise..."
"When you meet the perfect someone, you can’t let them slip away,” said Thicke to VIBE when asked about his new single. The 5-time Grammy Award nominee and The Masked Singer judge shared the personal significance of the new record, adding: “'Forever Mine’ was the last record I finished with Andre Harrell, my mentor, executive producer, and Godfather to my son Julian."
During BET and REVOLT's A Tribute to Andre Harrell: Mr. Champagne & Bubbles special on Sunday night, Thicke revealed that Harrell gave a "stamp of approval" for this single one week before his untimely passing and teased the song for viewers hear.
Play Robin Thicke's new record, "Forever Mine," which is slated to appear on his upcoming studio album.
Why was this night different from all other Verzuz battles? Streamed live from Kingston, Jamaica, the Memorial Day “Soundclash Edition” of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s flagship IG Live series was easily the most exciting and entertaining yet, as well as the first to delve into dancehall reggae.
Considering the fact that Jamaican sound systems pioneered the sort of “beat battles” have made Verzuz a social media sensation well over half a century ago, the creative decision was more than fitting. By pitting two icons of the genre, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, in head-to-head competition, this Verzuz battle did not just showcase two of its most respected lyricists ever to hold a microphone, it also tapped into an epic rivalry that stretches back more than a quarter of a century.
At that time the youth born Moses Davis in the Waterhouse section of downtown Kingston was already on the second leg of his career -- having released his first album a decade earlier at the age of ten. Young Rodney Price, formerly known as Bounty Hunter, had just started to make noise under his new artist name Bounty Killer, recording hardcore hits for the legendary Waterhouse-based producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James.
Like all young aspiring artists, Killer had looked up to Beenie as an inspirational figure -- until he felt that the artist had borrowed his style. Beenie and Bounty’s face-to-face clashes, especially their Boxing Day battles at the storied Jamaican stage show Sting in 1993 and 1995, are the stuff of dancehall legend. Despite whatever differences may have existed between them, both artists channeled all that energy into great records -- many of which were played in the heat of the Verzuz battle.
Arguably the most exciting and spontaneous edition of Verzuz yet, the Beenie and Bounty battle was not a “clash” in the traditional Jamaican sense, but it was hardly a conventional beat battle either. Predictions that the island’s WiFi might not be able to handle the strain were soon dismissed -- in keeping with Jamaica’s long tradition of raising the bar when it comes to using technology to create next-level musical entertainment, this was the best-produced beat battle of them all. On the other hand, this was also the first time a Verzuz competitor has had to take a break in the action to negotiate with police officers.
This was surely also the first Verzuz battle to be live-tweeted by a prime minister: PM Andrew Holness took to his official Twitter to declare “Jamaica’s culture is global” and share a screenshot of the action. In keeping with the national pride, the battle opened with a rousing rendition of the Jamaican National Anthem.
When Beenie and Bounty came through VIBE’s IG Live one day before performance, they both declared that they would not be preparing for the battle as the art of war should be spontaneous. This has had people on tender hooks as no one really knows what would happen on the night. But of course all celebrities were out in full force for this highly anticipated battle, as everyone from Diddy to Swizz to Rihanna came through to catch the vibes. It was the only place to be if you were on IG, with more than 400K people checking in at the event's peak.
Here’s Billboard's tune-for-tune breakdown from the top to the very last drop.
ROUND 1: Beenie Man's “Matie” vs. Special Ed feat. Bounty Killer's “Just a Killa”
Beenie kicked things off with his first No. 1 hit (on the Jamaican charts) in honor of the late great Bobby Digital, the legendary producer of this song and countless more, who passed away May 21. Bounty opted to open on an international note, leading with his first hip hop collaboration, a 1995 single by Brooklyn rapper Special Ed featuring a guest verse from young Bounty.
ROUND 2: Beenie Man's “Memories” vs. Bounty Killer's “Suspense”
Sticking with the hardcore dancehall, Beenie reached for one of his fan favorites, a mid-’90s banger on the “Hot Wax” riddim that was recorded during the height of his great lyrical war with Bounty Killer (and sampled by Drake on the album version of “Controlla”). Killer responded in kind with a track on the same hard-hitting riddim, making this round feel like a flashback mid-'90s dancehall session.
ROUND 3: Beenie Man's “Slam” vs. Bounty Killer's “Living Dangerously”
Shifting into another gear, Beenie drew for his first Billboard hit, a tribute to the sexual prowess of “ghetto girls” recorded on Dave Kelly’s irresistible “Arab Attack” riddim. Bounty responded with one of his most popular songs for the ladies, a collaboration with reggae vocalist par excellence Barrington Levy. Counteracting a classic with another classic, this round was too close to call.
ROUND 4: Beenie Man feat. Chevelle Franklin's “Dancehall Queen” vs. Diana King feat. Bounty Killer's “Summer Breezin’”
Keeping the energy high, Beenie unleashed this soundtrack cut from the movie Dancehall Queen (in which he also appeared). Bounty responded with a relatively obscure guest verse on a record by Jamaican pop hitmaker Diana King.
ROUND 5: Beenie Man feat. Lil Kim's “Fresh From Yard” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Jeru the Damaja's “Suicide or Murder”
For his first international selection, Beenie chose a DJ Clue production featuring the Queen Bee in her best Brooklyn Jamaican patois mode. Killer kept it BK with a grimy Jeru collab produced by New York’s own Massive B productions.
ROUND 6: T.I. feat. Beenie Man's “I’m Serious” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Mobb Deep's “Deadly Zone”
Sticking with the hip hop collabs, Beenie dropped T.I.’s first major-label single featuring a hard-as-nails Neptunes beat and a street-certified Beenie Man hook. But he should have known that badman business is the Killer’s wheelhouse. Bounty clapped back with a grimy Mobb Deep collab off his My Xperience album and took the round.
ROUND 7: Guerilla Black feat. Beenie Man's “Compton” vs. Bounty Killer feat. The Fugees' "Hip-Hopera”
Beenie dropped his third straight hip hop crossover track, this one a guest verse for Biggie soundalike Guerilla Black over a bouncy Stalag Riddim. Bounty brought out the big guns, returning fire with a Fugees collab. As the Warlord would say, “People dead!”
ROUND 8: Beenie Man's “Romie” vs. Bounty Killer's “Worthless Bwoy”
Returning to straight-up dancehall, Beenie served up one of his worldwide club classics, a song about a girl named “Romie” set to Shocking Vibes’s hard-driving version of the Punany Riddim. Killer replied with a Dave Kelly banger burning out the guys who lack the stamina to satisfy their significant others.
ROUND 9: Beenie Man “Old Dog” vs. Bounty Killer “Stucky”
Beenie Man has plenty of classic dancehall joints, and this Dave Kelly sure shot is one of the most ubiquitous. “Old Dog” recounts his exploits with the opposite sex, shouting out female dancehall stars Patra and Lady Saw along the way. Bounty replied in kind with his own kind of “gyal tune,” more rough than sweet, just the way Killer likes it.
ROUND 10: Beenie Man feat. Mya “Girls Them Sugar” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Nona Hendryx & Cocoa Brovaz “It’s a Party”
Beenie closed out the first half of the battle on a strong note with one of his most beautiful records, a Neptunes remake of one of his immortal dancehall classics adorned with a sweet hook sung by Mya. Bounty’s response was strong, but the Wyclef-produced party joint (with a hook by the former member of Labelle and bars from Boot Camp MCs) fell just short of Beenie’s selection.
ROUND 11: Beenie Man feat. Wyclef Jean's “Love Me Now” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Swizz Beatz' “Guilty”
Flipping catchy lyrics over Naughty By Nature's classic “O.P.P.” beat, Beenie sounded strong on this Wyclef collab, but Bounty countered with a hard-hitting Swizz Beatz track featuring a blazing guest verse from the Killer.
ROUND 12: Beenie Man feat. Barrington Levy's “Murderation” vs. Bounty Killer's “Look”
The vibes were sweet right up until the moment when officers of the Jamaican Constabulary Force interrupted the action. Beenie took care of the situation, informing the police that there were hundreds of thousands of people watching internationally. He then asked his DJ to run one of the hardest tracks in his catalog, a song about the abuse of authority in the ghetto streets. It was such a perfect segue the whole thing almost seemed planned. Killer had no choice but to counter with one of the most powerful songs in his catalogue, another Dave Kelly masterpiece, just barely winning what was arguably the strongest round of the entire battle.
ROUND 13: Beenie Man's [Showtime Juggling] vs. Bounty Killer's “Fed Up”
Still charged up by the unexpected visit from the police, Beenie felt a vibe and decided to perform his next song live. Starting out with “Hypocrite,” a blistering broadside against haters on Dave Kelly’s “Showtime” riddim, Beenie’s performance inspired Bounty to join in for what became a multi-song medley that included snippets of Killer’s “Eagle & The Hawk” and “Bullet Proof Skin” as well as Beenie Man’s “Done Have We Things,” “Badman Medley,” “Bury Yuh Dead,” and “Fire Burn.”
After they wrapped up their explosive tag-team performance, Beenie calmly stated “My song dat,” indicating that he wanted the whole extended set to count as one song. Bounty retaliated with “Fed Up,” one of his signature reality tunes that cemented his reputation as Jamaica’s “Poor People Governor.” Another close round, and highly unorthodox. Advantage Killa.
ROUND 14: Beenie Man's “World Dance” vs. Bounty Killer's “Gal”
Beenie Man took it back with one of his biggest early hits, a “buss the dance” selection on Shocking Vibes’ Cordy Roy Riddim. Killer’s response was another hardcore tune for the girls, explosively energetic and lyrically intricate.
ROUND 15: Beenie Man's “Modeling” vs. Bounty Killer's “Model”
Taking it back to the early days of his career, Beenie served up a song designed to inspire all the “bashment girls” in the dance to show off their freshest outfits and dance moves. Killer responded in kind with a similar type of song, every bit as lyrically precise as Beenie’s was melodic, making this round a dead heat.
ROUND 16: Beenie Man's “Oyster & Conch” vs. Bounty Killer's “Benz & Bimma”
Sticking with the “gyal” segment, dancehall’s “Doctor” prescribed a musical aphrodisiac, stressing the importance of seafood in your diet. Killer responded with a dancehall smash likening his appreciation of the female physique to his fondness for expensive European automobiles.
ROUND 17: Beenie Man's “Dude” vs. Bounty Killer's “Greatest”
Beenie delivered yet another Dave Kelly sureshot, this time on the festive Fiesta Riddim. Killer responded with a little-known 2003 track on the “Hydro” radio, basically conceding this round.
ROUND 18: Beenie Man's “Mm-Hmm” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Cham's “Another Level”
As the battle neared its final rounds, Beenie played this hard-hitting Tony Kelly production and grabbed the mic to chat his lyrics live and direct, showing that dancehall artists of a certain age are still in top form lyrically. Bounty replied with a musical killshot on Dave Kelly’s Clone Riddim, joining forces with Cham to take things to “Another Level.” Feeling the spirit, Beenie grabbed the mic and spit a verse over Bounty’s record.
ROUND 19: Beenie Man “Nuff Gal” vs. Bounty Killer “Cry For Die For”
Beenie changed up the pace with a jazzy tune for the ladies featuring a swinging horn section. This 1996 Jamaican single could have been a bigger hit for Beenie if it had the right promotion, and still sounds great all these years later. Bounty Killer responded in similarly eclectic mode with a jaunty track on a Riddim based on The Champs' 1950s rock chart-topper “Tequila.”
ROUND 20: Beenie Man's “I’m Drinkin’ (Rum and Red Bull)” vs. Bounty Killer's “Smoke the Herb”
Beenie closed out his regulation 20 rounds with one of his biggest crossover hits, a collaboration with Fambo that somebody at Red Bull should probably sign up for an endorsement deal. Bounty Killer responded with perhaps his greatest ganja anthems. This one was too close to call. Pick your poison.
After running a couple of exclusive dubplate specials -- “War Uno Want” by Bounty Killer and a Buju Banton and Beenie Man collab on the M.P.L.A Riddim -- Beenie and Bounty served one final tune. ”Why Beenie saved one of his signature songs, 2004's "King of the Dancehall," for the 21st round is anybody’s guess. Bounty’s response ("Nuh Fren Fish") was something for the hardcore fans only.
Wider Catalogue: Beenie Man
While both artists did a good job displaying the breadth of their respective repertoires, blending hardcore dancehall hits with international collaborations, Beenie Man showed off his versatility with a mixture of old and new dancehall hits as well as mixing moods and tempos.
Biggest Snub: Beenie Man (Point to Bounty Killer)
Beenie Man opted not to play “Who Am I” (aka “Sim Simma,”) perhaps his best known international hit. Not to be outdone, Bounty Killer also neglected to play “Hey Baby,” his high-profile collaboration with No Doubt from their Grammy-winning 2001 album Rock Steady. Still Beenie’s oversight was the more inexplicable of the two.
Best Banter: Beenie Man
When police stopped by in the middle of the session and Beenie Man somehow kept his cool telling them “Officer, the whole world is watching… do we have to do this right now? Do you really wanna be that guy?”
Biggest KO: Bounty Killer
Not long after the police stopped by, Beenie and Bounty joined in on an eight song freestyle, venting their frustration at the police. But Bounty’s response, “Poor People Fed Up,” trumped an extended live performance, demonstrating just how much of a punch that song still packs.
People's Champ: Bounty Killer
While Beenie proved the more strategic selector, Bounty Killer’s off-the-cuff adlibs an manic energy -- especially when he noticed Rihanna in the IG audience -- kept the mood up. Even when he played unexpected selections, the Warlord’s respect levels were on 11.
FINAL SCORE: 13-10-3, Beenie Man
This article originally appeared on Billboard.