By the time Bad Bunny became the poster boy of the Latin trap scene, it was clear he was no ordinary rapper. Consider the above-the-knee shorts he wore in the “Tu No Vive Así” video; in 2017, he told Remezcla that he fought his team over the stylistic choice because they were sure he’d raise eyebrows in the entire urbano community. It was a minute detail at a time when he was just a budding SoundCloud trapero, but it set the stage for the kinds of statements we’d see the 24-year-old rapper make in 2018.

For some time now, this has been Bad Bunny’s modus operandi – to make a statement. In 2018, the Puerto Rican trapero doubled down on that approach, taking a deeper dive into the role that identity, culture, and gender politics can have in Latin trap.

El Conejo played his cards right – both in his music and on stage – to highlight his islita’s culture and present the doctrine behind La Nueva Religión, the term he coined to describe the generation of listeners that follow his music, from his multiple chart-smashing collaborations to his recently released debut album X100PRE. As he’s shown over the course of the last year, part of this concept includes advocating for better education in Puerto Rico, bringing awareness to gender-based violence, embracing femininity, and believing in self-made dreams.

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me hace falta un retoque rush 🙂 pero estamos bien

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Always the sartorial rulebreaker, nail polish has become a central part of his look – one he premiered at Premios Juventud in 2017 and showcased in the video for “Estamos Bien,” where he appears drying off a newly applied coat of lacquer before heading out with the combo. Even though he’d been wearing nail polish on Instagram and at awards shows for months, not everyone welcomed this move; as expected, homophobic trolls eventually swarmed social media to comment on his manicure in the video. But it didn’t stop El Conejo Malo from getting his nails done again. Over the summer, the trapero denounced a Spanish salon that denied him service because he was a man during his European tour.

He later addressed the issue in an interview with Rapetón’s El Guru on Complex, where J Balvin defended him, saying, “What he’s doing with his nails is very beautiful. People are only seeing the nails, but that’s not the message. The message…is to be yourself.” Bad Bunny has continued to paint his nails ever since the controversy, further proof of the trapero’s commitment to individuality and apathy for traditional representations of masculinity.

While Bad Bunny isn’t afraid to dabble in feminine aesthetics, he still must conform to certain expectations about his heterosexuality.

But challenging gender norms in a world that upholds stereotypes about male sexuality is a little more complicated. As Noisey’s Mariana Viera wrote in October, “El Conejo Malo’s success is a signal that the politics of Latinx culture are changing and becoming more inclusive. Still, he occupies a delicate space. His embrace of femininity is conditionally accepted by the mainstream — the condition being that he emphatically prove his straightness, and that he do so as often as possible.” While Bad Bunny isn’t afraid to dabble in feminine aesthetics, he still must conform to certain expectations about his heterosexuality, whether it’s on social media or in his lyrics. And the fact that he paints his nails doesn’t change the reality that queer urbano artists still face prejudice and significant barriers to entry in the music industry.

The challenge is even bigger when the island Bad Bunny calls home is still conflicted about its perspective on him, and Benito is aware of just how divisive both his image and music are in La Isla del Encanto. Some are proudly part of La Nueva Religión. Others see him as the spark of a moral and social panic; they characterize Benito as a virulent misogynist who objectifies women and promotes violence.

In October, Bad Bunny saw himself in the spotlight on this divided island, when a teacher penned an open letter on Facebook, writing off the rapper as a bad influence. “It’s frustrating to not be able to sleep because when I try to build up minds, you destroy them,” read the post.

Benito, in turn, responded with a risky move – a three-page open letter on Instagram, which has since been deleted, that criticized the Rosselló administration for school closures and proclaimed that he’s just a young chamaco from the barrio, not a government official responsible for educating Puerto Rico’s youth. It’s hard to know if El Conejo won over the half of Puerto Ricans who think of him more as a threat than a success story, but Bad Bunny seems not to care; instead, he turned to music to address social issues back home.

He tackles these problems once again on the track “Ser Bichote” from X100PRE.  The song is a raw portrait of life as a young Puerto Rican, vulnerable to the temptations of money and drugs on an island where the Rosselló administration has closed more than 100 schools. “Chorro ‘e hijo ‘e putas, resuelvan sus asuntos/Se cierran escuelas mientras se abren puntos,” spits El Conejo, asking Puerto Rican politicians to address the island’s drug problem as schools continue to close. Benito is familiar with these issues because he confronted them in Vega Baja, but Rosselló – the son of a former governor and a private school graduate – might never understand.

Despite all the debate about him in PR this year, Bad Bunny showed that he plans to do more to reflect the voice of his people. Take the “Solo de Mí” video, a statement against gender-based violence, an issue that’s been affecting Puerto Rico this year and that the Rosselló administration has failed to address. In 2018 alone, one woman was killed due to gender-based violence every 14 days on the island. Last month, when the Colectivo Feminista held a protest to demand the Rosselló administration declare a state of emergency, the governor kept quiet. Rosselló still claimed he was a feminist, while he sent policemen to tear gas protestors.

Bad Bunny lets his art speak for itself in “Solo de Mí.” As the video opens, Venezuelan actress Laura Chimaras sings into an old school microphone, as bruises and blood splatters spread across her face. She eventually gets fed up of being assaulted by her partner and leaves for a night out with Bad Bunny and his crew. The portrayal of Benito as a savior for this abused woman is still up for discussion, but the video’s attention to gender-based violence is a necessary statement at a time when the music industry is overflowing with rape and assault accusations.

It seems that these maneuvers are all signals of an artistic evolution in his career, one that proves he’s not only a writer, producer, performer, and newly-minted director. With this newfound attention to political issues affecting his homeland, Bad Bunny is becoming a socially aware advocate in touch with the realities and lived experiences of his fans.

We may have seen this side of Bad Bunny for the first time back in 2017, when, after struggling to communicate with his family in the aftermath of Hurricane María, he posted a freestyle rap to honor Puerto Rico. He did so again when he took the stage at the Somos Una Voz concert the same year, wearing a T-shirt denouncing Trump’s tweets against the Puerto Rican government and the President’s disdain for Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. He continued shedding light on the devastation of María in his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, highlighting the year-long blackout in Puerto Rico, the death of more than 3,000 people, and the infuriating negligence on the part of both local and federal governments. As his profile grew, El Conejo continued to pen lyrics with niche, Puerto Rican references, even naming X100PRE‘s “RLNDT” after Rolandito Salas Jusino, an infamous 1999 missing person that shaped the lives of Boricua millennials, who grew up with the constant threat of getting lost or kidnapped. And he ended 2018 with the launch of the Good Bunny Foundation, donating Christmas toys to over 30,000 kids in Puerto Rico.

The rise of Bad Bunny shows that Latino artists can cultivate successful careers without completely erasing their identities or kowtowing to certain industry expectations. In Bad Bunny’s case, his growing fame indicates a sociopolitical awakening that broadens the reach of Latin trap, providing followers of La Nueva Religión with a voice that society and the government have tried to silence for far too long.