Late on the night of December 23rd, while most families in Puerto Rico were wrapping presents, cleaning house and preparing for the next day’s Christmas Eve feast — known across Spanish-speaking countries as Nochebuena — Latin trap lord Bad Bunny was plotting the surprise midnight release of his long-awaited full-length debut, X100PRE. Had it been just one day later, he might’ve upstaged Jesus, upset his mother and been forever known as the Bunny Who Stole Christmas.
But that wouldn’t have been like him: Bad Bunny knows just when and how to make an entrance. A month earlier, when he shows up at Las Vegas’ Palms Casino for Rolling Stone’s Latin Grammys pre-party in November, he’s sporting a bold outfit of rainbow-flecked board shorts, flip-flops and lime-green sunglasses. The Puerto Rican star, 24, towers over everyone else in the room — and proceeds to steal the dancefloor with Nineties raver moves. “I can dance to just about anything,” he tells Rolling Stone in Spanish. “In Puerto Rico we dance to everything.”
Smiling, he adds: “And a Latino who doesn’t dance? Is not a Latino!”
The next night, he steals the whole awards show with performances ranging from the nü-metal fury of “Soy Peor” to the electro-psych bliss of “Estamos Bien.” This time, he graces the red carpet wearing a full suit and a necktie with Stone Cold Steve Austin’s face on it. One thing he doesn’t do at the Latin Grammys is win the single category he’s nominated for, which is Best Urban Song. But despite the Latin Recording Academy’s apparent reluctance to reward urban artists with its highest accolades, Bad Bunny has done plenty of winning this year: According to Youtube, the singer scored 7 billion views in 2018 alone. Just two days before the Latin Grammys, he flew direct from Las Vegas to Miami so he could join Drake for a performance of their hit duet “Mia” at the American Airlines Arena. (He says he’s been helping the Canadian rapper practice his Spanish: “He knows enough to get by.”)
Since his hit 2017 mixtape, El Conejo Malo, Bad Bunny has released many other singles to great acclaim; this year he achieved his first Number One hit with Spanglish trap single “I Like It,” co-starring “New Latino Gang”-sters Cardi B and J Balvin. He spent the latter half of 2018 racing against the clock to wrap up X100PRE — short for “por siempre,” which translates to “forever” in Spanish.
Evoking genre-busting firebrands like Lil Uzi Vert, and fellow ‘Rican Residente, Bad Bunny’s ambitious new record reflects his own visions of urbano music’s potential, veering into roads less traveled for any Latin artist. Take the pop-punk guitar chug of “Tenemos Que Hablar”; the gothic trap of “¿Quien Tu Eres?”; or the Eighties synthwave wash of “Otra Noche en Miami.” Reggaeton’s leading producer, Tainy, makes some wiggle room for American producer Diplo on “200 MPH”; Dominican dembow singer El Alfa lights up the skittish bachata-hop song “La Romana.” Then, last but not least, Puerto Rican pop royalty Ricky Martin bleeds into the boastful “Caro” with a gospel croon. (The most impressive feat of all is how long they were able to keep it all under wraps.) If it wasn’t clear already, X100PRE spells it out: With songwriting that ranges from shamelessly crude to totally vulnerable, Bad Bunny and his slow-burning baritone have opened the floor for a more twisted, freakish Latin pop.
Born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio in San Juan, Bad Bunny grew up in Vega Baja, a rural town west of the capital city, listening to classic salseros like Héctor Lavoe and singing in his local church’s choir. As a teen he worked shifts at the grocery store, skateboarded with friends and studied audiovisual communications at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. While he reveled in music by Daddy Yankee, Calle 13 and Linkin Park, Bad Bunny was soon making Latin trap history on Soundcloud; with the help of enigmatic producer La Paciencia, he garnered millions of listens with his 2016 release “Diles.” (“Tell them that I know all your favorite poses,” he harmonizes alongside fellow superstar Ozuna in the 2017 remix.)
Bad Bunny’s eclectic taste is one of the biggest factors that has powered his rise — not to mention his fashion sense, through which he’s pushed the boundaries of masculine expression in the Latin urban world by pairing wrestling tees and shorts with floral patterns, hoop earrings, cat’s eye glasses and colorful manicures. Yet every once in a while, masculinity bites: This summer, while on tour in Spain, Bad Bunny said he was refused service at a nail salon for being a man. “What year is it? Fucking 1960?” he wrote on social media, where he also posted a photo of the offending storefront. Then, after trading barbs with homophobic internet trolls — including threats to impregnate their wives — he apologized for these macho antics and deleted his Twitter. “The world can criticize me,” he tells me, “but l can always criticize it back. I don’t want to be fake. I’m just being me. And I have the power to break stereotypes and whatever useless rules that society puts on us.”
By the end of the year, he was back on social media. Don’t you ever say baby to me again, he tweeted cryptically in December. It turned out to be a line from “Solo de Mí,” his latest single off X100PRE. “Solo de Mí” is a ballad written from the perspective of someone reclaiming their sense of self in the aftermath an abusive relationship. “I’m not yours, or anyone’s,” he sings somberly, “I’m mine alone.” (It’s hard not to notice the contrast with the possessive streak that runs through “Mia.”) The music video casts a spotlight on a young woman, amassing bruises and bloody gashes on her face as she lip-syncs to Bad Bunny’s vocals, then closes with Bad Bunny whisking the woman away to a club, where they happily dance the night away.
The video arrived almost a month after feminist activists occupied Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s mansion in San Juan, pressing the governor to declare a state of emergency regarding the 41 women murdered this year in Puerto Rico — more than half of whom were killed by intimate partners. On the third day of the occupation, protesters were reportedly beaten and pepper-sprayed by the police. “I’m not sure if cockfighting is abuse,” Bad Bunny wrote on Instagram. “But gender violence against women and the absurd amount of women who are murdered a month IS. When are we going to prioritize what really matters?” He followed up with a slogan well worth a banner drop from the balcony of Capitol Hill: “Menos violencia, más perreo!” (“Less violence, more dirty dancing!” He also included a stipulation: “Only if she wants to. If not, leave her the fuck alone!”)
When asked what compels him to address such issues, he describes songwriting as an exercise in venturing beyond the island of his own emotions. (He also says he first devised “Solo de Mí” while in the shower.) “When I write, it’s like choosing which shoes I’m going to put on,” he says. “More often than not, my lyrics are personal — but I sometimes have to put myself in other people’s shoes. How does this person feel? What would they want to say? At the end of the day, music is for the people. I always think of other people when I write my songs.”
Bad Bunny comes across as sincere when he describes his music as, in part, a vehicle for public service. This past September, when he made his U.S. television debut on The Tonight Show, he pulled an impressive stunt by opening his song “Estamos Bien” with a sobering plea for help on behalf of Puerto Rico. “After one year of [Hurricane Maria], there are still people without electricity in their homes,” he said, uncharacteristically speaking in English. “More than 3,000 people died and Trump’s still in denial.”
Although he’s spent the better part of the past year jet-setting on his La Nueva Religión tour, Bad Bunny tells me that his own parents went without power for months after the storm — which is why he made personal journeys between tour dates to deliver water, food, and large sums of cash via jet ski to his coastal hometown. “Praise god, they’re all fine and happy now,” he says of his family. “But many people still don’t have basic necessities. I think it’s important as an artist to never forget where you’re from. If I have a platform and a voice, I should use it for my people.”