It wasn't that long ago that Bad Bunny was still just Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, a kid growing up in the rural Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja, just went of the capital city of San Juan. After all, he only began posting his own music to Soundcloud in 2016.
But here we are, in 2019, and he's gone from just another face in the crowd to Latin trap king, landing two top 10 singles and two nominations, for The Male Artist of 2019 and The Latin Artist of 2019, at this year's People's Choice Awards (held on Sunday, Nov. 10 only on E!)—all while hardly ever uttering a word in English.
Growing up middle class on the island—an American territory sitting about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Fla. in the Caribbean Sea—Bad Bunny began singing young. He joined a church choir at the age of 5 and became enraptured by rap en Espanol around the same time after receiving Puerto Rican hip-hop royalty Vico C's record "Ángel Que Había Muerto" for Christmas.
As a teenager, he spent weekends listening to the salsa legends his mom loved, like Hector Lavoe and Juan Gabriel while doing housework—"On Sundays and Saturdays, when it was time to clean the house, when I heard those records, I knew I would have to at least mop the floor or something," he told NPR through a translator in January—before retreating to his room to lose himself in the sounds of Daddy Yankee, Calle 13, Wisin & Yandel and, inexplicably, Linkin Park.
Knowing he wanted to be a singer since he came out of the womb, he says, Bad Bunny began creating his own rhymes and uploading them to Soundcloud while he was bagging groceries at a local supermarket and studying audiovisual communications at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. By the time his self-produced track "Diles" had racked up a million listens on the streaming service, it caught the eye of DJ Lucian, head of label Hear This Music. He quickly signed the wunderkind, who'd adopted his unique stage name from the time he was forced to wear a bunny costume as a child and wasn't exactly thrilled about it.
By the end of 2016, his breakthrough single, "Soy Peor," would be released and eventually peak at No. 19 on Billboard's U.S. Latin chart. It was clear that Latin trap had a new face—and one that gleefully subverted the machismo that so thoroughly permeates throughout the culture. While his sound blends genres, his style bends genders. From his brightly painted nails and fiercely flamboyant fashion sense to his willingness to call out misogyny both on social media and in his music, the Latin pop world had never seen anything quite like Bad Bunny.
"I can simply tell you that since I was a kid, I didn't like to look like anyone else," he told NPR. And while he admits he was warned to tone his individuality down at first, he never seriously entertained the idea of being anyone other than exactly himself. "When I came into this industry, I was never afraid to be myself," he told Billboard in February. "There were others who would advise me to tone down a bit, but I just always thought, 'What's the worst that could happen?'"
Turns out he was right.
He churned out single after single—he's appeared on over 70 in three short years—but didn't really skyrocket until he was recruited for Cardi B's smash 2018 hit "I Like It" alongside friend and frequent collaborator J. Balvin. It became his first No. 1 and delivered him to a level of fame that he admits he wasn't quite ready for. After all, he'd yet to even release a full-length album.
"It was everything new in my life that perhaps I wasn't ready to handle," he told Billboard. He enjoyed creating, but "I was pumping out music just to make it. It's not like I was really sitting down to work on music like I [later] did with my album. It was like everything had become very monotonous. Like I was just on autopilot and forgot what I really wanted."
It was around the same time that, after he called out a nail salon in Spain for refusing to give him a manicure on Twitter simply because he was a man—"What year are we in? F--king 1960?" he wrote—he was attacked by trolls for wanting the harmless bit of pampering done in the first place. He responded by threatening to impregnate his haters' wives.
"The world can criticize me," he told Rolling Stone about the incident in December "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." Nevertheless, he apologized immediately and quit Twitter. He also stopped working with DJ Lucian.
With the deadline for his album looming, he retreated to a rented mansion on the beach in Vega Baja, sequestered from anyone outside his tight-knit circle of childhood friends, and focused on putting together a body of work worthy of his debut album. Eschewing the common practice of calling in all manner of powerhouse producers, Bad Bunny worked almost exclusively with La Paciencia, a childhood friend, and Tainy, an "I Like It" producer.
"It influences not just the quality of the album, but also the sentimentality of it," he told Billboard. "That energy translates. You feel like you're listening to an artist, not just music meant for radio play." He admitted to finishing he album, entitled X100PRE, "like, four days before it came out" on Christmas Eve 2018—a year in which YouTube noted he'd racked up an astounding seven billion views.
Along the way, he's been unapologetic in the way he stands up for what he believes in. His lyrics are written from perspectives not his own—"Solo de Mi" is a ballad sung as someone reclaiming their own identity after an abusive relationship—his videos feature plus-size, trans, nonbinary and disabled models, and he's stood up for his on The Tonight Show, of all places.
In September of last year, while making his U.S. television debut on the NBC late-night series, he used a performance of hit single "Estamos Bien" to make a sobering plea on behalf of Puerto Rico, still feeling the effects after being ravaged by Hurricane Maria. In uncharacteristic English, he said, "After one year of [Hurricane Maria], there are still people without electricity in their homes. More than 3,000 people died and Trump's still in denial."
In between tour stops, he would jet home to deliver water, food, and large sums of cash to his hometown. His own parents went without power for months. "Praise god, they're all fine and happy now," he told Rolling Stone 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."
As his star has risen, Bad Bunny has also be unafraid of turning a critical eye towards abuses of power happening back home. The release of "Solo de Mi" and its accompanying video, which focused on a young woman with bruises and bloody cuts on her face as she lip-synced to his lyrics, arrived just as feminist activist stormed Governor Ricardo Rossello's mansion in San Juan, demanding he declare a state of emergency regarding the 41 women already murdered in 2019 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 police.
"I'm not sure if cockfighting is abuse," he 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?...Less violence, more dirty dancing! (Only if she wants to. If not, leave her the f--k alone!)."
A month later, he and friend Residente, of Calle 13 fame, did a march to the governor's mansion all their own, hoping to talk about the gun and domestic violence ravaging the island. Documenting their attempt to get in for several hours on Instagram Live, they were finally let in for some coffee and a chat around 5 a.m. Sadly, he's soon lose a friend and bodyguard, Jeffrey Ayala Colón, to gunfire in Guaynabo.
Through it all—the Coachella spot, the Grammy nod for Record of the Year, the joint album with J Balvin released in June—he's breaking barriers left and right. And though the way he's done it is downright revolutionary for his genre, he doesn't see it that way. At least, not exactly.
"At the end of the day, these are basic messages," he told Billboard. "Ultimately, I'm not doing that much. I'm only doing what a human being who feels wants to do—in my way, without stepping out of my flow, while staying in my lane. Without, I guess, boring people."
Lucky for us he's just getting started.
(This story was originally published on Sunday, April 21, 2019 at 4 a.m. PST.)