album review

Anuel AA and Ozuna Are Better Off Building Separate Empires

When you call yourselves “the Gods,” perfection is the floor. Photo: Anuel AA/YouTube

Born a few months apart in neighboring municipalities in the San Juan metropolitan area of Puerto Rico, the 28-year-old urbano stars Ozuna and Anuel AA took very different paths to international success. The son of veteran producer José Gazmey, who worked with everyone from merengue star Elvis Crespo to salsa’s venerable Fania All-Stars, Anuel felt striations and dualities in his hometown’s culture firsthand, experiencing prejudice as the mixed-race child of an Afro-Latino father and a white Puerto Rican mother and class division as Gazmey lost his job as a Sony record executive in the 2000s, crushing the family’s financial stability. Anuel found music and trouble in equal measure searching for an end to his struggles, while Ozuna steered clear of the streets, singing at a bar where he worked to help his grandmother, who took him in as a child (after his father, a dancer for the early Latin hip-hop star Vico C, was shot to death). As his grandmother taught spirituality, his uncle aided his musical education, giving Ozuna a microphone and exposing him to reggaeton as the music leaped from local to international acclaim in the 2000s.

The differences in Ozuna and Anuel’s stories manifest in music. Ozuna sells yearning, romantic tunes in a high, lonesome croon; Anuel’s gruff tone hints at, and sometimes revels in, a palpable darkness. Ozuna’s 2017 debut album Odisea was the culmination of a long trail of increasingly successful singles that typify the minting of a new commercial star; Anuel’s Real Hasta La Muerte was written during a two-year prison stint stemming from a 2016 gun arrest and released on his first day out in 2018. Ozuna found renown in other markets with DJ Snake’s “Taki Taki” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Mamacita” as Anuel courted drama, lending credibility to the reggaetón bombs on Tekashi 6ix9ine’s Dummy Boy and packing “Intocable,” a diss track aimed at rapper/singer Cosculluela, with enough homophobic, transphobic, and serophobic bile to warrant a long public apology just two days after release. (Ozuna’s trek hasn’t always been smooth either. In 2019, the singer revealed he’d been extorted over an explicit film he says was shot when he was a minor. Queer Puerto Rican trap star Kevin Fret, alleged by local media to have been blackmailing Ozuna, was killed in San Juan two weeks before the extortion story broke. No connection to Ozuna was found.)

Now, the two friends and frequent collaborators have released Los Dioses, their much anticipated collaborative album. Los Dioses catches Ozuna and Anuel at critical intersections in both careers. Last year, Anuel showcased a newfound versatility in his songwriting on his 90-minute opus Emmanuel, and Ozuna rebounded from 2019’s overhyped, undercooked Nibiru with the more confident and commercially viable ENOC, though both albums suffered, both from the inability to tour and from the simple fact that the field of play is changing underneath the two stars. With the three-hit combo of X100Pre, Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana, and El Último Tour Del Mundo, Bad Bunny has proven himself to be the total package, a songwriter unmoored from the limitations of genre who can pull off pop-punk and emo-trap jams with the same ease as reggaetón and Latin trap bangers, and whose political awareness inspires him to advocate for Puerto Rico abroad and for justice for the LGBTQ community back home. J Balvin gets the crossover calls now, having enjoyed hits with Cardi B, the Black Eyed Peas, and Beyoncé. With last year’s 1 of 1, the Panamanian singer Sech made a powerful play for the R&B lane. Maluma made enough waves on the pop end to score Madonna features and a spot in the upcoming Jennifer Lopez romcom Marry Me. A new wave of Latin trap and drill stars is awakening in New York City. The stakes are higher for Ozuna and Anuel now. If they don’t push themselves this year, there is a real danger of getting lost in the shuffle.

That said, rare is the joint album that catches both parties firing on all cylinders. The better ones tend to see the more dominant creative force in the duo lead the way. The bad ones come up short on both ends in the name of compromise. In this world, you’re either a Watch the Throne or a What a Time to Be Alive kind of record — both great collaborative albums where, as much as Drake and Jay-Z impressed in their writing, the stylistic cues came from Future and Kanye — or you’re a Best of Both Worlds, where Jay and R. Kelly strained so hard to find a commercial middle ground that the resulting stink made a joke of the album’s ambitious title. Bad Bunny and J Balvin’s Oasis, the present bar for joint albums in urbano music, stuck to the streamlined sound of Balvin albums instead of the lawlessness of Bunny’s. Los Dioses, unfortunately, is more of a Both Worlds scenario, hampered by cookie cutter songwriting, conversant in popular sounds but always downwind of them, pleasant on the surface but frequently hollow on closer inspection.

Recorded quickly in Miami in October as Florida nightlife establishments began to return to full capacity at the (perhaps premature) order of Governor Ron DeSantis, and as a lengthy lockdown continued back home in Puerto Rico, Los Dioses teems with nostalgia for the sweaty, horny reverie of an evening out on the town. “Antes,” the greatest of these songs memorializing simpler times, hits hard early on as the duo recalls a typical Friday night scene, all weed smoke, bottle service, dancing women, and jealous eyes, and wishes for one more pass at the simplicity of it all. It’s a beautiful song that says what we’re all thinking, yearning for the freewheeling unpredictability and mischief many of us left behind (for the time being) in 2020 but avoiding the depressing reasons why we miss it. The next two songs try to catch lightning in a bottle: “Dime Tú” replays scenes of love-making from memory and “RD” runs back even more sexual encounters from the past. After a while, you start to smell a formula. The women in these songs are two-dimensional, objects to be longed for, penetrated, dressed in expensive linens, cheated on, and apologized to. She’s a textbook good girl being turned out by our protagonists, who will at some point inform her that she looks just as good in designer as out of it. Los Dioses never challenges or interrogates its player mindset. The closest thing to a mea culpa is “Perfecto,” where Ozuna simply asks to have his flaws ignored, and Anuel adds that he lost his ex like Real Madrid lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, a laugh compared to the pain the two have proven capable of conveying in songs like “¿Los Hombres No Lloran?” and “Amor Genuino.”

It’s not that Los Dioses isn’t fun. The menacing “La María” is a showcase for Anuel’s Latin trap excellence and a reminder that Ozuna kicks killer flows when he wants. (The chorus — “Nos cayó la policía, boten la maría,” essentially “cops showed, ditch the weed” — is about the best line on the album.) Anuel pours his heart out on “Contra el Mundo,” elevating the song’s “me against the world” messaging by giving voice to the love that drives him. “Perreo” sports the album’s best beat and simplest conceit in its ode to partying, twerking, and horniness. “Nunca” contains the cleverest expression of the Beauty and the Beast vibe haunting all the love songs on the album, as Anuel compares a spirited, mismatched relationship to the short spell in the early ’90s where Dennis Rodman and Madonna dated. There aren’t enough moments like this to be found on Los Dioses, an album half full of solid tunes and half full of afterthoughts, where the joy of hearing Ozuna soar an octave over Anuel and stand toe-to-toe with his peer as a rhymer is undercut by songwriting that’s beneath both of them. When you call yourselves “the Gods,” perfection is the floor. As deities go, Los Dioses is Loki, smart, sharp, resourceful, and funny, with a notable flop for every success.

Anuel AA and Ozuna Are Better Off Building Separate Empires