The day after leaving a halfway house in Miami, Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago—a.k.a. Latin trap star Anuel AA—finds himself on the 38th floor of EAST Miami hotel in Brickell, Fla. His two gold and silver necklaces gleam atop his black T-shirt, as his pendant, which reads “Real Hasta La Muerte” or “Real to death,” glisten in the limelight. He’s treated like an international icon as he sits at the helm of the room while surrounded by his team and a gallery of RIAA certification plaques for his various platinum singles like “Ayer 2” with DJ Nelson featuring Nicky Jam, Cosculluela and J. Balvin.

Since entering the music industry in 2010, the Latin trap star faced intense criticism for his sexually explicit and violent lyrics. Critics in his homeland have gone as far as claiming his music has a negative influence on Puerto Rican society. Now, for the first time in the U.S., Anuel gazes upon a room full of media members who eagerly await his new music instead of criticizing him for it. Despite the haters and a recent grueling experience behind bars, Anuel’s brazen smile and positive glow shows the world that the real Latin trap god is finally a free man, and he’s ready to make history.

Before Cardi B topped the Billboard charts with "I Like It" alongside Puerto Rican rappers Bad Bunny and Ozuna, Anuel AA (pronounced An-Well Doblé-Ah) had already laid the foundation for the new era of Latin trap on the island and set the standard for the rest of Latin America. Although he caught the attention of mainstream rappers like Rick Ross and French Montana back in 2012, Anuel’s notoriety truly skyrocketed in 2016 when he dropped his mixtape Real Hasta La Muerte, which features his banger with DJ Luían & Mambo Kingz “La Ocasión,” along with his Spanish remix of Ty Dolla $ign’s “Or Nah.”

Anuel’s career took an abrupt halt when he was pulled over by police in Puerto Rico on April 3, 2016. After leaving Tabaco & Ron Lounge San Juan nightclub in Santurce, Puerto Rico, police discovered three guns, a dozen clips, and 152 rounds of ammunition in the car in which he was traveling. Anuel was arrested and later sentenced to 30 months in jail for unlawful possession of a firearm. Since his arrest two years ago, his diehard fans rallied behind him and began the #FreeAnuel movement on social media, much like Kodak Black and Meek Mill’s fans have done for them.

“I love them with all my life, and I appreciate them with my life,” Anuel said about his fans’ viral campaign. “I will never be able to repay them.”

Anuel served the majority of his sentence in Puerto Rico’s Metropolitan Detention Center in Guaynabo. Then, back in May, he was transferred to a halfway house in Miami to serve the rest of his sentence. Within the first 48 hours of his release from jail on July 17, Anuel made his way around to every Latin media outlet in Miami and returned to the studio with reggaeton legends Wisin y Yandel to work on a special soon-to-be-released remix. He also managed to break the internet by dropping his surprise album Real Hasta La Muerte, which shares its title with the aforementioned mixtape but is comprised of entirely different songs and features (Zion, Ñengo Flow, Wisin and Ozuna).

During his time behind bars, Anuel AA appeared alongside Future on Spiff TV’s single “Thinkin.” However, after his stagnant affiliation with Maybach Music Latino, Anuel is ready to make fresh moves independently under GLAD Empire. Today, his face is hidden behind lavish sunglasses, he wears ripped jeans with a black Louis Vuitton jacket, brown shoes and a diamond crusted pinky ring. Anuel AA speaks with XXL about his new album, plans to work with J. Lo. and Cardi B and what’s next for his career now that he’s a free man. —Tony Centeno

[Editor's note: This interview has been translated from Spanish.]

XXL: Aside from dropping your album Real Hasta La Muerte, what was the first thing you did when you got out?

Anuel AA: Be with my son and my family. I have so much love for them. They are my life. I appreciate them for everything they said and did for me.

You did your time, now you're out and it seems like more success is coming your way. What helped you?

Maturity—learning how to value the important things in life. All that has helped me focus more in my music made me want to work harder. When I was in jail, I saw a lot of artists who were achieving great levels of success. Trap internationalized itself. When trap first came out, people didn’t think it would be successful. But you see artists like Bad Bunny and Ozuna who helped trap music reach another level. Trap music is the future.

Do you think going to prison was a blessing for your career?

Yes, it was a blessing. For my personal life it was hell, but sometimes God allows things to happen for bigger blessings to come.

Where did the phrase “real hasta la muerte” come from?

My style of life. We need money to live, but the most valuable thing is a man’s word and I never let my word fall. I always keep it real.

Your album Real Hasta La Muerte broke the Internet around the world. What inspired you to make it?

All the suffering, lost time, criticism, the reports on the news—the negativity. I wanted to prove I was a real artist, especially because they saw me as just another street rapper. I’m a complete artist and time will tell. We will make history.

Why did you release the album as a surprise with no promotion? Was it a last-minute decision?

It was a team decision. In seven days, I recorded 22 tracks when I went to the halfway house. We were working on the album and right when we were about to choose the best songs for the album, they imprisoned me again so we couldn’t just release the album just like that. My team decided to put it together and leak it as a tactic and I decided to go with the flow. Thank God it’s been very successful and we made history. We are making history and we are going to continue making history.

The album skews a bit more commercial in its sound. What made you decide to go that route?

That decision was made right before I went to prison. I started talking to the street because only the streets made me and we can’t never forget the street, especially because they didn’t know me in the commercial side. As I started growing, I started talking to the commercial and thank God the numbers speak for [themselves].

Based on the early success, this album could’ve dropped with a million dollar contract under a major label. Why did you decide to do it independently?

There was no time. And we are in different times. There are a bunch of independent artists who became millionaires and they don’t owe anything to anybody. They don’t have to give anyone any percentage.

Do you see the possibility that some major record labels might want to work with you now that you’re free and your music is popping?

I mean, I don’t see it as something bad. Everything is business. If one day it benefits my team and I to do business with them, then I will do that but for right now I’ll stay independent.

With the boom of female artists in the industry now, would you record with artists like Cardi B, Natty Natasha or Becky G?

I would record with Natty, I like her music, I like how she sings.

What about Becky G or Cardi B?

Of course I would record with Becky G. I like her. I never said I wouldn’t. It's just I have something set up with Natty and that’s hitting the streets soon. But before anything I’m recording with Anitta, who—thanks to J Balvin—introduced us. We are going to go up to heaven with this one.

I would like to record with Cardi B. I don’t know her personally but Ozuna has a very good relationship with her. He was talking to me about some big things and hopefully soon I can record with her. We are also recording the remix of “Te Bote” with J. Lo.

How was the experience of working with Jennifer Lopez in the studio?

I wasn’t in the studio with her. She recorded her part in her studio and I recorded my part in my studio.

There have been plenty of comparisons between you and Bad Bunny. How do you feel about that?

There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t think nothing is negative. Bad Bunny and I have a great relationship. We communicated while I was in prison.

How do you think Latin trap is going to transform now that you’re free?

I’ve been telling you guys we are making history. Right now it’s me, Bad Bunny and Ozuna. We are making history.

What else are you planning to contribute to the trap movement?

Just good music without letting it fall.

After your experience in prison, can we expect anything like a documentary or book?

We are definitely doing a documentary. It’s confirmed. There are offerings to do a series and possibly a movie.

Now that you’re free, what else are you planning to do next?

I’m working on a world tour. I am also working on an album with Ozuna. I just recorded a trap song with Wisin & Yandel yesterday. We are doing the remix of their song “Pensando En Ti.” Wisin Y Yandel are legends. They’re very smart and really humble. They count on me for anything. We are also working on the video for “Brindemos” with Ozuna and are finishing this week actually. I don’t know what date exactly but its coming soon. We are planning to do a video for all the songs in the album with God’s grace.

Ozuna and Tory Lanez recently collaborated on a joint album coming soon. Would you be interested in doing a joint album with an English-speaking rapper?

It depends on who it would be with. I would like to do something like that, but it just depends who it is.

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