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Young Miko upended norms in Latin pop. On her debut 'Att.' she raises her own bar

In a matter of three short years, Young Miko's become one of reggaeton and Latin pop's most promising stars. On her debut album 'Att.,' she keeps pushing the genre forward.
Joshua Rivera
In a matter of three short years, Young Miko's become one of reggaeton and Latin pop's most promising stars. On her debut album 'Att.,' she keeps pushing the genre forward.

Early into her debut album, Att., Young Miko says what so many men in reggaeton have basically said before: "Vente conmigo, your boy ain't s***."

But those words hit different coming from the 25-year-old Puerto Rican rapper, whose girly, Y2K aesthetic and low, throaty bars have upended norms in Latin pop. On Att. — the abbreviation for the formal letter sign-off, atentamente — Young Miko's gaze is fully formed, subverting the macho bravado that often dominates reggaeton and Latin trap into a weed-fueled celebration of lesbian love and sex.

"Most of the time, if I'm being honest, we were just having fun. We didn't even know there was a message in it," she tells NPR in between rehearsals for Coachella, where she'll officially perform for the first time next week. "The music we were making came from such a genuine and innocent place. I wasn't like, 'Oh my god! We're making history! Oh my god, no girl's doing this!' It was just me having fun."

Young Miko's ascension through the ranks of Latin pop in a matter of three years marks a fundamental change in the industry. She first splashed onto the scene with "105 Freestyle" in 2021, where her almost cartoonish rhymes immediately set her voice apart amongst the heavy trap beats that had been dominating the Puerto Rican soundscape for years. With her long, brown hair and fresh-faced look, she stood out as she declared "To' los hombres a mi vida pegao' / Mala mía no tiro pa' ese lao'," or "All the men stuck to my life / My bad, I don't swing to that side," on the moody power flex "Vendetta" with rising rap princess Villano Antillano. In 2022, she released her concept EP, Trap Kitty, which chronicled a day in the life of a pole dancer, and was invited onstage by Bad Bunny during his Un Verano Sin Ti tour to sing the EP's breakout hit, "Riri," which sampled Cali Swag District's "Teach Me How to Dougie."

Att. comes on the heels of an especially whirlwind year for Vicky, as her team and friends call her. Last summer, Young Miko landed her first Billboard Hot 100 entry alongside Colombian singer Feid on the song "Classy 101." She opened several dates of Karol G's stadium tour, singing their collaboration "Dispo" and dancing together so closely at one show, it led Karol to bashfully joke, "Now I'm the one getting nervous." In October, Miko was the only woman featured on Bad Bunny's Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar Mañana, a collaboration that evoked the past, present and future of reggaeton as she and Benito shouted out sexually liberated women over a sample of Tego Calderón's "Pa' Que Retozen."

Now making a solo statement, Att. spans 16 tracks, including three previously released singles, and finds Miko, real name María Victoria Ramírez de Arellano, honing in on the laid-back Spanglish delivery that's been a staple of her sound since "105 Freestyle." But the difference in her voice now is palpable, showing just how much more comfortable she is stepping into deeper registers and drawn-out accents in just a couple years. There are new dimensions of Miko in action here, too; emotionally vulnerable lyricism and playful vocalization she hasn't quite shown before, perfectly matched by more experimental production across old-school hip-hop, electro-trap and pop-punk crafted by her childhood friend and close collaborator Mauro.

"At a certain point, it did feel like I was letting people read my diary. I know this is going to sound funny, but this is my first time being famous," she giggles. "This is my first time being a public figure. Hay muchas cosas que voy aprendiendo." There's a lot, she says, she's still learning.

Perhaps one of the biggest moments of Young Miko's rising star, so far, came just last month, when she received the Impact Award at Billboard's Women in Music ceremony. "I'm a firm believer you don't need an award as a stamp of approval," she says. "But this one goes beyond music. It's more as a person, a public speaker, a voice that people are actually listening to."

Latin audiences have been attuned to Miko's sound for a few years now, since she was hustling as a tattoo artist in Puerto Rico, saving up for studio time and building a following on SoundCloud as she bragged about how easily she could pull girls over heavy trap beats. On, Trap Kitty, she put it simply: "Y e' que to'as quieren ser bi / Desde que sali," or "They all wanna be bi / Since I came out."

For people who've grown up listening to reggaeton and Latin trap that is often heteronormative, the unapologetic nature of Miko's identity in her music is a total game-changer. "Queer people historically didn't have a space in reggaeton," says Natalia Merced, one of the leaders of Hasta 'Bajo Project, an organization that archives the culture and legacy of reggaeton as it pertains to Puerto Rican history. "Young Miko really has created a shift in the genre because, as a queer person, when I'm with my lesbian friends, Young Miko is that icon. It's really powerful."

That success hasn't occurred in a vacuum. Miko is part of a rising wave of women and LGBTQ+ artists in the Caribbean taking the music industry by storm; others include the alt-pop experimentalist RaiNao, the Dominican provocateur Tokischa, and Miko's frequent partner in perreo, Villano Antillano, who appears on Att.'s housey, runway-ready pride anthem, "Madre." Merced says that whereas women have often been relegated to uncredited background vocalists and video vixens in reggaeton's earlier days, they're now the most exciting voices in the game.

She credits this moment in reggaeton's history to a couple of things. First, the path paved by artists like Ivy Queen, who's been making decidedly feminist club bangers for decades and has remained a staunch ally to queer communities throughout her career. Plus, she says, the younger generations born into the booming genre are more open-minded and vocal about their sexuality, which has called in artists who reflect that reality.

"We have queer reggaeton that is more, like, with a political intent," says Merced. "But Young Miko — it feels very organic. 'This is what I know about, this is my life.' And there's a value in that, because as women and queer people, we have the right to just enjoy life for the sake of joy."

For what it's worth, Miko says, she didn't really feel that weight until she started seeing what it meant to her fans. On TikTok, they call themselves "mikosexuals" and post videos dancing along to songs like the 2023 viral hit "Lisa," uplifting relationships rarely centered in Latin pop in the past. Now, she says, it's given her a much higher purpose. And with more than 28 million monthly listeners on Spotify, it's clear Miko's music is not just resonating with a niche audience; it's become ingrained in the Latin mainstream. Producer Mauro, who's part of the audiovisual collective 1k along with Miko and several others in her team, says he knew they were taking a risk — socially and creatively — from day one, and it's been paying off ever since.

"It's really important for an artist to be honest in the studio, to not be surrounded by 'yes men', " he explains. "To be surrounded by people who trust you enough to be real with you, and beyond that, who ride for you enough to tell you what's good and what can be better."

In that sense, Att. feels like a careful compilation of Miko's jet-setting adventures since Trap Kitty's release. She's shooting her shot between flights, clubs and boat parties on the vibrant melodies of "Arcoíris," then admitting the depths of a toxic relationship on "No Quiero Pelear," where singer-songwriter Elena Rose's sugary vocals effortlessly melt into Miko's darker tone. In the album standout "Tamagotchi," a video game-like jingle collapses into punky guitars Mauro pulled from TikTok before dropping unexpectedly into a reggaeton beat.

"Then, at the end, we give the listener what they're looking for — those Blink-182 drums we were teasing at the very beginning," Mauro says.

All of these newer sounds aren't actually novel to Young Miko, who admits she dabbled in a bunch of different genres before affixing herself to trap and reggaeton. But a lot of the visual inspiration behind her music has stayed the same. Akin to "Tamagotchi," the irresistibly upbeat "Princess Peach" once again grounds Miko in the Japanese arcade game and anime motifs that populate her discography and general aesthetic; she often resembles the only female character in an early 2000s skateboarding video game — rocking low-rise baggy pants, small crop tops, baby braids and pink bucket hats.

"I think I never stopped feeding that childish imagination and that kid on the inside," she says. "Me siento ... I don't know, like a superhero sometimes. Siento que no tengo límites."

Right now, Young Miko feels like there are no limits to what she can do. She'll be taking the stage at Coachella in just a few days, where she knows a lot of people will learn who she is for the first time.

"We come back to that idea of making an impact," she says. "I don't care if you don't know who I am, but I want to leave my mark on that stage. I want people to walk away saying, 'Who the f*** was that girl with the white hair and a bunch of tattoos?' "

The Latin music industry already knows — but soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.