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When Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny — whom you’ve most likely heard on Cardi B’s ubiquitous hit song “I like it” (which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart this summer), walked into a nail salon in Oviedo, Spain last month to freshen his lacquered, colorful nails and was subsequently denied service, he reacted how many 24-year-olds would: by decrying gender norms on social media. What followed was a messy case study of a rapper attempting to reinvent masculinity outside of homophobia — however clumsily and problematically — in a genre steeped in machismo.
“I just wanted to tell you all that I went to this sh**ty place to get my nails done (manicure + color) and they told me NO because I’m a MAN hahaha,” he wrote. “I don’t know what to think, but it seems very very very unfortunate haha. What year is it? F**king 1960? What do you call this?” After an outpouring of support for the singer from his mainly millennial fanbase, detractors took to Twitter to criticize him and question his sexuality. Bad Bunny, whose real name is Benito Martinez Ocasio, responded to the homophobic comments in the traditions of rap — by boasting about his virility. After saying he could impregnate an internet troll’s wife, his fans called him out for his sexist rebuttal. The singer apologized soon after and admitted his response was in itself misogynistic. Seemingly distraught over the whole ordeal, he then deleted his Twitter account.
Bad Bunny’s quick remorse stands in stark contrast to the behavior of other popular rappers, who can range from unapologetic to outright hostile when called out for their problematic behavior. Like recently, when 50 Cent questioned Terry Crew’s claims of being sexually assaulted, then essentially doubled-down with a non-apology on "The View."
Referred to by critics as “the poster boy of Latin Trap,” Bad Bunny’s fame has surged into the mainstream in just a couple of years. He’s collaborated on a track with Nicki Minaj, posts selfies with Drake and has amassed millions of loyal followers in both Latin America and the U.S. that have led to shattering of records: four billion views on YouTube, being the first Latin Trap star featured in a No. 1 song on American charts, and appearing on dozens of well-received tracks including hits by Enrique Iglesias and J Balvin.
Though many might be quick to make comparisons to rappers like Future or even Migos, Bad Bunny’s rhythmic cadence, and low, slow slur give him a singular sound within the trap rap world. He feels just as at home on a flowing trap rhythm as he does on a dembow-backed Reggaeton banger — something the previously mentioned English-language rappers might have a harder time executing.
But even still, what sets Bad Bunny apart is his ability to push the rap form in ways that redefine masculinity within the genre. His music is equal parts traditional rapper boasting and equal parts emotional vulnerability. His lyrics reveal his fight against depression and mental illness. Even in his most recent, ever-positive single "Estamos Bien," that serves as a collective proclamation of well-being, the subtext is that today he feels everything is going to be OK. There's an urgency to seize the ephemeral positivity.
Bad Bunny is also transparent about not being impervious to the insecurities that come with flaunting his flamboyant aesthetic in a still homophobic genre. Despite his nail polish and his renouncement of gender norms, he essentially freaked out when enough people called him gay on Twitter. He's steering the ship in a new, more enlightened direction but he's still on board.
Bad Bunny certainly isn’t the first trap rapper to push the bounds of established masculine behavior. Young Thug, and most recently Lil Uzi Vert, have made waves with gender-bending statements like wearing dresses, makeup and nail polish. Thematically, trap has steadily been veering toward confessional-based songwriting. Like on the aforementioned Lil Uzi Vert’s most known anthem “XO Tour Llif3” where the young rapper says “I might blow my brain out, xanny [xanax] help the pain, yeah, xanny make it go away.”
Even one of the perceived godfathers of current trap music, Future, has his share of emotionally wrought numbers. But while Future’s confessional depression comes with heaping doses of blame toward others –– particularly women — Bad Bunny’s comes with self-reflection, openness and a general willingness to learn and do better.
His willingness to address many of the issues other rappers seem to steer away from, often in the form of Twitter rants further sets Bad Bunny apart. He recently spent a couple of days chastising men for failing to join in the body positivity movement, and told his followers to get over their preconceived notions of how women should look, act and dress.
Bad Bunny may be introducing a more vulnerable disposition within rap, but he still clearly operates within the genre's cultural confines. Some of his lyrics arguably objectify the very women he at times tells us we should respect. Like on Cardi B’s smash hit, “I Like It,” where the rapper lists the traits he likes about various Latin American women including certain accents, body features and ways to copulate.
He may be paving a new way, but he’s still carrying the baggage of his predecessors. He pushes some boundaries and settles within the space of others. The duality of the cultural moment is what makes Latin Trap so fascinating to watch.
Based on his trajectory so far, Bad Bunny is bound to be a household name in the U.S. very soon. But he's still in artistic puberty. His legs are a bit wobbly, like a baby giraffe. He's figuring out how to grow — not just as a rapper, but as a human — in the limelight. Catch him now in this formative moment and be witness to the evolution ahead.
To see Bad Bunny perform on Friday, Aug. 17, at Agganis Arena in Boston will be to revel in what makes rap rap — the bragging and the swagger — but look closely and you’ll also catch a glimpse of hip-hop’s future in a moment of self-reflection and growth.
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