It’s seven days into 2022 and Anuel AA has one very lofty goal. “My resolution is to be number one for the rest of the year!” the 29-year-old Latin trap artist declares.
365 days of being numero uno isn’t necessarily realistic, but as his track record shows, the Puerto Rican musician — néeEmmanuel Gazmey Santiago — has consistently continued to defy the odds.
How so? He was younger than even Justin Bieber when, at age 14, he was discovered by Rick Ross’ Maybach Music after recording and releasing music on Soundcloud. This led to collaborations with some of the world’s hottest hip-hop artists, including Meek Mill, Lil Wayne, and DJ Khaled. It also led to the sound that would define him: a unique mix of reggaeton, trap, hip-hop, and rap.
But while he was becoming one of the most in-demand Latin crossover artists, his personal life hit a stalemate; he was arrested on gun possession charges and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Yet, this did not break him. In fact, on July 17, 2018, just hours before his release from jail, he also debuted his very first album, Real Hasta la Muerte (Real Until Death), which would go on to become No. 1 on Apple Music worldwide and in less than a month, earn Platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA).
He didn’t stop there. All three consecutive releases — 2020’s Emmanuel, Los Dioses (Gods), a 2021 collaboration with Ozuna, and his most recent studio album, Las Leyendas Nunca Mueren (Legends Never Die) — would hit that sweet top spot; the latter also debuted at No. 1..
So when Anuel tells me his plans for global domination during our early January Zoom chat, I’m confident he’ll succeed. After all, he’s made every other one of his dreams come true.
“I’m growing a lot, working on myself, working on being a businessman. There’s a lot of big things going on. I have big goals, big mountains to climb, but I ain’t scared of that. I’m trying to surpass my own limits. That’s the main goal. [My other goal] is to keep pushing this album, for it to get bigger and bigger and to maintain number one for as long as possible.”
Photo Credit: Nick Garcia
He’s referring to Las Leyendas Nunca Mueren, which dropped on Nov. 26, 2021, his 29th birthday. The 15-track album, his fourth, was crafted during the pandemic and predominantly built around his love of sports and the legends who inspired him, with a 10-minute introduction called “Real Hasta La Muerte” that pays homage to the celebrities and close friends who have shown him their support. He also created album covers that paid tribute to his heroes, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Floyd Mayweather, and Conor McGregor, with accompanying music videos — which he directed — sharing their most iconic moments. In the most recent, “Subelo” with Myke Towers and Jhay Cortez, Anuel re-creates Jordan’s college life in North Carolina, the time before he made it big in the NBA.
But to simply say that Anuel’s album is about the greats would be missing the nuances, the point he’s personally making. This is his own message of hope, a reminder not to give up when life gets tough, that anything is possible if you put in the work and have a vision.
“This new album is really special, and I’m still really excited about it,” he admits. “The concept, it just speaks to me; mixing music with sports, my story with sports. You see me [throughout the album] when I drop music, trying to stay number one, trying to stay on top. That’s me. It’s like when I used to watch Kobe [Bryant] finish a game: The game is tied, there’s only six seconds left and Kobe is about to score the last point. This is me trying to score the last point. Or when I see [Conor] McGregor fight. That’s me in the octagon, fighting for my life, trying to stay on top, trying to be that person that people believe in and need me to be.”
His favorite tracks all showcase different parts of his journey, the “phase I’m going through now in my life.” On “McGregor,” his ode to the UFC champion, he raps “Maldito ídolo, genio! ¡Mundial, ídolo supremo!” (“Damn idol, genius! World idol supreme!”). “When I listen to that song, people might think I’m bragging about myself, but it’s really a song I feel in my heart,” he admits, noting that he also identifies with “Una Palabra” (“One Word”) and “Última Canción” (“Last Song”). “[I really identify with] “McGregor” in an ‘I’m the man’ kind of way, and “Una Palabra” in a more human, vulnerable way. They’re all me; I know I can accomplish anything I put my mind and body into.”
He’s definitely put in the work and, as a result, is living out some unexpected fantasies. Because of his athlete-focused album and some incredible work from his behind-the-scenes team, he’ll be playing in the Celebrity All-Star game during NBA All-Star weekend on February 18 (where, though he’s “Miami Heat all day” since he’s been based in the Magic City for the past two years, he’s hoping to meet his hero, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant), and was just part of the NBA’s 75th anniversary campaign that debuted in January as well. And to further showcase how much the sport means to him, he recently even bought his first team, becoming owner and sponsor of the Capitanes de Arecibo of Puerto Rico’s National Superior Basketball League, as well as the main sponsor of his home country’s Women’s National Superior League. “I’ve been playing basketball since I was a little kid, and so owning a team in Puerto Rico is like a dream come true for me, and it’s going to open doors for a lot of people to chase their dreams, and have more opportunities to make it. Since I bought the team, Bad Bunny bought a team, too. We’re growing more and more, and the goal is to have more Latino players in the NBA,” Anuel says.
He rattles off a list of athletes who listen to his tunes while they’re getting pumped to hit the court, diamond, or octagon, including the UFC’s Jorge Masvidal, the NBA’s Luka Dončić, and the MLB’s Robinson Cano and David Ortiz, saying, “All of the Spanish athletes are showing their support. It’s taken a while, but the world is finally starting to put respect on the Latino name. I feel really proud of being Latino and having all of these big legends around me in sports that really support me, too.”
While his first love is basketball, he stresses that the relationship between sports and music he’s promoting isn’t confined to b-ball alone. “Sports and music are the same,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what language you speak — sports and music bring us all together.”
He adds, “When you see Mayweather, McGregor, Drake — when they become champions, when they win Grammys — everybody asks them, ‘How did you do that?’ They say the same thing: ‘Hard work and dedication.’ When you put hard work and dedication together, the result is always going to be a win.”
Photo Credit: Nick Garcia
IT’S A RAINY DAY in the Dominican Republic, but it doesn’t matter much to Anuel AA. He’s currently hunkered down recording the Deluxe edition of Las Leyendas Nunca Mueren, which is slated for a midyear release, and while it’s hard work, it’s rewarding, too. Nothing can wipe the smile off his face. Even when his 6-year-old son, Pablo (mom is ex-wife Astrid Cuevas) calls on repeat, he just laughs… and finally answers. Life is good.
But (there’s always a but). “It’s nice now, but there’s been a lot of tough times, too,” he admits.
He grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, to a wealthy family: His father, José Gazmey, was vice president of the Puerto Rican division of Sony Music Entertainment’s A&R department. But, when Anuel was 15, his dad lost his job and he, in turn, turned to the streets. Anuel has since had a failed marriage, as well as a broken engagement, as of last March, to girlfriend of three years, Colombian singer Karol G. And then, of course, there was his prison time, the worst — but perhaps also the best — thing that has ever happened to him.
“When I went to prison, I really thought I messed everything up,” he divulges. “For the first six months, I stopped working. I had no power, no will to write. But then, new inmates started coming in, telling me, ‘Yo, you in the streets. Everybody is listening to your music, and that is not a joke. Nobody’s forgotten about you.’ And little by little, I started to feel better, music-wise. I could start writing again. I started feeling myself again through the music. I was writing every day. The system wasn’t holding me back, my mind state was good. I was really straight.”
The credit, he says, can go to two things. “Music saved my life,” he declares, continuing, “They say God works in mysterious ways, and this was one of those occasions. I started to live through faith. I read a lot and started to learn more. The way I was seeing things changed. I knew that something big was going to happen even though I didn’t know at the time what it was. And when I came out [of prison], I just evolved. I had to evolve in order to be a better person and a mainstream artist. Now I know how to keep that balance in life and find the balance between street music and commercial music.”
Photo Credit: Nick Garcia
Anuel believes that everything he went through was necessary to get him to the spot he’s in today: not even yet 30 years old, with the world at his fingertips. Would he have liked to avoid jail time? Definitely. But was it necessary to make him into a man he could be proud of? That’s a resounding ‘yes,’ too.
“I don’t regret anything, for real,” he swears. “I’m the human being I am right now thanks to everything I’ve lived through, been through, gone through. [Prison] made me stronger. I learned how to live by myself, too. It turned me into a survivor. I thought I was a man [back then], I thought I knew everything about the world, but I didn’t. But that’s when I did learn about life, about being a real man, about responsibilities and priorities. I don’t regret it, because it had to happen.”
Anuel says that this time helped put things into perspective, and that he slowly began to shed his younger, less mature self like a second skin. “It really helped me focus and to realize the things that really matter in life. There’s a lot of things that come with the fame and the money that don’t really matter, that you can get caught up in. I had to dedicate myself to the work, to having a vision, and to not letting anything get in the way.”
This includes beef with rivals such as Puerto Rican rapper Cosculluela. Anuel famously released the widely criticized diss track “Intocable,” which resulted in the cancellation of a major show and which he has called “the worst mistake of my career.” But it was part of his learning curve. Today, he says of his feud, “That was three years ago. That’s not a thing anymore. I don’t know what that guy is doing now. I don’t even waste my time with that kind of stuff anymore; I’m in another phase entirely. Those were the things I used to do back then, but not now. I’m playing in the NBA celebrity game, my new album is doing great, my personal life is great. There’s too many good, big things happening in my life to pay attention to small things, so I’m not sweating the small stuff.”
Seriously, though, why would he need to focus on the past when the future is so bright? And by “bright” I mean that guys like Jamie Foxx have come a-calling. The A-list actor has not only helped Anuel to secure a YouTube docu-series, but the two are also in talks about creating a movie based on his life.
Photo Credit: Nick Garcia
Enquiring minds want to know: How did these two even meet? Through a mutual love of luxury cars — and a man who sells them, as it happens. “I met Jamie through RD [Whittington], a close friend of mine who sells me cars. And anyone who knows me knows how much I love cars — I’m always posting about customizing them on Instagram. RD is Jamie’s best friend. So he just put us together one day, and we started vibing. He’s treated me like a king since the first moment we met. He’s really respectful, humble, and funny.”
Anuel repeatedly shakes his head as if he’s still in awe of the situation, and he very well might be. After all, it isn’t every day that an Oscar winner wants to tell the story of your life. To this he declares, “It’s been a roller coaster! But to be honest, the stuff that’s happened throughout my life really feels like a movie.”
That said, fans shouldn’t expect a biopic, or even a biographical TV series, any time in the immediate future. “It’s going to take time to build into whatever it’s going to be. We’re really close, but we’re not there yet. I’ve had all these offers, but I haven’t said yes to anything fully yet, because whatever I end up doing, I want it to be legendary. I want it to be perfect. It might be a series, it might be a movie, it might be two movies. Whatever it’s going to be, it will have a lot of action, a lot of drama,” he says.
Anuel will allow that his “whole life” will be the focus of said project. “You’re going to see the real story of somebody who ended up in the streets that wasn’t supposed to be there, who came from a good family but fell on hard times; a lion who ended up in the water with the sharks. He was not supposed to make it, but I made it — I’m here.”
Everything can be explained in one phrase, in his opinion, and that is ‘God’s plan.’ “[If the bad things hadn’t happened to me], I wouldn’t be on the journey I’m on now. That’s why I’m telling you, God’s plan is perfect. I don’t feel fazed by anything now. I know that no matter what happens, I’m going to be OK.”
The proof lies in the numbers, the records sold, his five Latin AMA awards, a Latin Billboard award, seven Premios Juventuds, three Premio Lo Nuestros and one Heat Latin Music Award. It is playing in Celebrity All-Star, in attention from Jamie Foxx, in his 10-plus luxury cars (his favorite of which is a Lamborghini SVJ).
Further proof is in his 20-30 tattoos, the visible scars that highlight his journey in indelible ink, including the most recent, the words “Fear of God” on his face and a giant, unfinished Japanese samurai mask on his chest. “It represents the soldier than I am. I’m fearless, no matter what,” he says.
And a legend in the making, perhaps, just like those athletes he so admires. One way or another, one day or another, he may just join their ranks. So watch this space, UFC fighters. “You might just see me out there in the octagon one day,” he confides. You’ll probably see me there, fighting.”
Said like a warrior.