Miguel “Fuego” Duran, the Dominican rapper currently situated on the razor edge of Latin trap’s incursion into the commercial mainstream, was born in Washington D.C., the cradle of the so-called free world. Perhaps it was due to growing up Latino in this global headquarters of realpolitik hypocrisy that throughout his career, he has found ways of flexing and bending industry rules when it comes to what artists in certain genres are able to accomplish.
At a fateful gig as hometown opener for Plan B, he caught the interest of vocalist Chencho. “I was just a kid in the hood,” Fuego told the Miami New Times in 2017, remembering the moment when he picked up the phone and the legendary Puerto Rican artist was on the line. Chencho’s patronage set Duran on a path that led to working with Rick Ross on “Hustlin’ Time,” an entry on the endless list of seamless mainstream rapper and Latino star crossover collabs. Eventually, Fuego hit new career high points, appearing on Pitbull’s Mr. 305 Inc. roster, slinging a zeitgeist-capturing Spanish-language version of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” It’s been a long grind, and respect is due to an artist who has managed to emerge, phoenix-like, from contracts that were not always the best friend to his boundless talent. Don’t front like he doesn’t deserve it. Now Fuego’s in the middle of a new adventure: top-shelf, major label representation.
Some may argue that with the release of Libre: Fireboy Forever, Fuego’s first album since joining Universal Music Latin’s Transcend.ent division, that regardless of where Duran started, he is now at that know-it-when-you-see-it “here.” The LP is the height of commercial appeal, engineered to woo trap’s massive younger following with songs that range from the darkly paranoid (“Amigos”) to the pointedly sexual (“Lewinsky).” Throughout, some of the most exciting Latino producers have left presents. The stealthy beat on “Gold Rush,” brought to you by Eminem and Lil Wayne collaborator DVLP, is understated and delicious, a deservedly rich tapestry for Fuego’s famously slight rasp.
This is to say that you will love this album. To make a pat comparison, Libre: Fireboy Forever is a somewhat like a slightly darker incarnation of Energía, the crossover courting 2016 album from J Balvin. Fuego underlines the connection by name dropping “35 Pa La 12,” the eminently fun track from Fireboy Forever II that was re-released on Energía, lending texture to Balvin’s squeaky clean oeuvre and reinforcing El Negocio’s status as the ultimate connector in urbano — or really just the Latin music market, given his recent turn to global pop. Did Fuego fans imagine, with the release of that track, that one day their boy would be stepping into the same kind of industry spotlight as Balvin? While some had faith in the trajectory, it’s fair to say that not everyone envisioned that this day would finally come.
Fireboy Forever I is not on Spotify. To find it, you’ll have to hop to SoundCloud, home of Fuego’s merengue urbano jams from five years ago. But Fireboy Forever I, surprisingly, does not sound entirely divergent from its brand-new brethren — perhaps even more so than Fireboy Forever II, whose trap beats and touches of 112-style romance took further strides from Fuego’s previous work and crucially, qualified the album as one of the first widely recognized trap en español full-length releases. Maybe Steve Lean and Sky weren’t on the team back in those days, but Fuego was just as alluring, just as able to flex between seduction and club sovereignty some nine years after joining Chosen Few. Duran’s been surfing 2018’s hybridity of Latino genres and Spanglish lyric work since back before Bad Bunny, since before Anuel AA could legally get into R-rated movies.
It’s no controversy to say that he has earned this moment, these dollars, your ears. He’s well within his rights to ask, as he does in a track that gave birth to the new album’s first video, “¿Quien lo hace como yo?” Forget framing it in reverse; this moment has stepped into Fuego.
Fuego’s Libre: Fireboy Forever is out now on Universal Music Latin.