A year ago, you probably didn’t know Latin trap existed.
Despite having historic roots in rap music’s Bronx birth, Spanish speakers have often found themselves taken for granted in the hip-hop conversation, institutionally marginalized in a culture they’d not only co-founded but helped to grow and thrive for decades. With respect to Cypress Hill, Terror Squad, and every Latinx spitter who found success or otherwise made inroads on the creative side, we were more likely to be treated as spectators than creators. Forged from the hip-hop tradition, reggaeton resonated with listeners in Panama and Puerto Rico, yet never truly found the universal acceptance and legitimacy stateside it rightfully deserved.
Thus, when Spanish-language trap began to truly come up right when its English-language counterpart was enjoying some of its biggest successes, few paid it any mind. By 2017, O.G. traperos like Arcangel, Farruko, and De La Ghetto, among others, were enjoying a level of stardom limited by regionality, with no help at all from the music press. Still, with so many Latinx millennials living and streaming in the mainland U.S.—and rappers like Messiah El Artista holding it down for this music in New York—Latin trap’s glow up seemed inevitable.
Though an undeniable boon for música urbana at large, the “Despacito” phenomenon obscured the momentum achieved by Anuel AA, Noriel, and others on their Spanish-language bangers with beats that sounded more like Atlanta than Atlanta. Record execs, who had long relegated such artists to their siloed Latin divisions, saw the mingling of Justin Bieber with Daddy Yankee and apparently drew the myopic conclusion that the way to crossover success was via cross-cultural mixes.
While tacking Beyoncé onto J Balvin’s dembow pop hit “Mi Gente” certainly did the trick on the Billboard Hot 100, Farruko’s 2017 TrapXficante single “Krippy Kush” proved the bellwether of things to come. Over a bassbin rattling beat by erstwhile Vybz Kartel producer Rvssian, featured guest Bad Bunny moaned the song’s hedonistic hook and delivered its blunted opening verse. A couple months later, the remix dropped with Nicki Minaj taking first and a supporting later verse by 21 Savage, a clear ploy for the Hot 100 that worked. (A month after that, another mix premiered subbing out Young Savage for Travis Scott.)
Though its origins may be cynical and even craven, for many hip-hop listeners the “Krippy Kush” remix served as their introduction to Bad Bunny. The tendency of the Barbz to blow up literally anything their queen touches as an instant classic served the Puerto Rican spitter well in the first few months of 2018. Of course, once Cardi B’s gritty boogaloo reboot “I Like It” rocketed up the Billboard charts, granting him an epoch-making national platform, “Krippy Kush” all but disintegrated into the background.
Lodged between Cardi’s and Balvin’s verses, Bad Bunny’s happened to include an English couplet, a rare if superfluous concession to an audience unconversant with his native tongue. His next Hot 100 hit, the all-Spanish “Te Boté” remix with Nicky Jam and Ozuna demonstrated just how unnecessary those two “I Like It” bars were. All summer long, he racked up multiple placements on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs as his headlining tour sold out sports arenas and theaters across the country. By October, he had none other than Drake himself flexing his Rosetta Stone lessons for “MIA,” an instant smash.
Still, so much of what makes Bad Bunny special seemed lost in translation, or rather in the lack thereof. Much like the resistance reggaeton received, Latin trap stayed willfully underrated by hip-hop heads even in the face of compounding successes like the aforementioned as well as Anuel AA’s effective if problematic 6ix9ine collabs. Some reverted to old exclusionary tactics, keeping this music segregated from its obvious analog while hoping that the novelty would wear off. In a year crowded with event album after event album from rap’s biggest names and its rising stars, that nearly worked. But the numbers didn’t lie, and when Bad Bunny gave scarcely a day’s notice about dropping his full-length debut on Christmas Eve, the genuinely excited reaction voided the negative noise.
As someone who spent 2018 writing about Latin trap like a beleaguered televangelist, the arrival of an album as exemplary as X 100PRE feels like the birth of a savior, a fitting mood from a rapper who dubbed his movement La Nueva Religión. The most befuddling title since “XO Tour Llif3,” Bad Bunny’s naming convention makes perfect sense to those willing to take a moment and solve the riddle—Por Siempre, or Forever. Carrying on a custom fostered previously by Puff Daddy and the Wu-Tang Clan, the boldness of his title suggests an intention to stick around, a sentiment reinforced by the high quality and repeat listenability of its contents.
Over its respectful 54 minute duration, X 100PRE showcases an artist evidently unwilling to pander for plays. A righteous rebuke of the “Despacito” crossover logic, he limits the features severely even though he assuredly could have scored just about any desired guest of note in hip-hop or pop. Those who’d question the intent or politics behind more or less going it alone face certain speechlessness fairly early on with the unannounced placement on “Caro” of bilingual pop veteran Ricky Martin, someone who saw both the best and the worst of the turn-of-the-century Latin explosion. More than mere Easter Egg, including the “Livin La Vida Loca” singer here serves as subtle defiance, a declaration of institutional independence not just for himself but for Spanish-language music as a whole.
Following a split with DJ Luian, his former manager and one of the architects behind prior Bad Bunny hits including “Chambea” and “Sensualidad,” production duties on the record lie mostly in the more than capable hands of La Paciencia and Tainy. While that translates to the slightly stinging absence of 2018 Luian and Mambo Kingz cuts like the doleful fan favorite “Amorfoda,” it leaves room for a dozen new songs alongside the three previously released ones, including the upbeat anthem “Estamos Bien.”
Beat flips galore await listeners from the jump, with opening kiss-off “Ni Bien Ni Mal” leading with breezy Latin pop styled a touch too close to “I Like It” before gear-shifting into tougher fare and then ending in apparent repose. Less frenetic in approach, the empowering “Solo De Mí” trots gracefully for two minutes until an air raid siren signals the coming satisfying rumble of trap. The only other credited guest vocalist apart from Drake, Dominican dembow practitioner El Alfa El Jefe waits patiently on “La Romana” as Bad Bunny indulges his sincere love of bachata, coming on strong in the second half with what his fans expect of him.
Even with a fairly consistent production team holding it all together, X 100PRE nonetheless offers sonic surprises. The trop-punk of “Tenemos Que Hablar” might leave some fantasizing about the prospects of a Conjejo-182 album, though to these ears it comes closer to the grandeur of Angels And Airwaves than the reductiveness of +44. Built up with melodious San Junipero synths, "Otra Noche En Miami" evokes the same existential crises and vintage vibes found throughout The Weeknd’s moody discography, replete with affluent debauchery and unadulterated despair.
Though some may crinkle their brows at the subject matter of X 100PRE, more likely to explore matters of the heart than ways to run off on the plug, Bad Bunny’s honesty feels right at a time in rap where we’re expected to swallow cartel kingpin fictions from rappers who in all likelihood were low level dealers on their best days. Still, when some of the most notable names in hip-hop today got their big breaks on television and now lead tabloid quality lives, the presence of a somewhat flamboyant insurgent is more than welcome. This, perhaps, explains why Drake continues to succeed even while easing into hip-hop legacy act mode. His truth may not jibe with Kanye’s truth, but their warts-and-all openness makes them relatable to their massive audiences in ways tales of pushing weight don’t. Similarly, emo rappers like Juice WRLD appear more than willing to share, for better or worse.
Naturally, a great deal of trap music in both English and Spanish stays faithful to its core themes, as well it should and indeed must. Yet listeners now demand more from the scene’s breakout stars. If Migos members can’t bear to open up to us on their middling solo efforts, Bad Bunny and his Latin trap peers will have to do the heavy emotional lifting for them. Given where things currently stand, that looks like a recipe for longevity.
Follow Gary Suarez on Twitter.