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Brazilian singer Anitta has her sights set on global stardom

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

She may call herself just a girl from Rio, but she's making major inroads in the U.S. Anitta, the superstar singer from Brazil, dropped her trilingual album this year, and its hit song "Envolver" is breaking records. On top of that, she's just snagged a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it's the latest success for Anitta, who started out singing funk, the popular but criminalized music of her favela Rio roots.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: "Envolver" has taken Anitta from Brazilian star to global superstar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENVOLVER")

ANITTA: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: The album hit a billion plays on Spotify, and earlier this year the song topped the streaming music site's global chart, the first time for a solo Latin female artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENVOLVER")

ANITTA: (Singing in Spanish).

It's crazy. For me, it was amazing.

KAHN: At her home in one of West Rio's exclusive gated communities, Anitta tells me she doesn't get hung up on numbers. She's enjoying her success. She's worked hard to get it but realized she was limited singing in Portuguese. Few Brazilians have made the leap to an international stage, she says.

ANITTA: Because you need to give up all of the things that you have in Brazil. So you go to another market and learn Spanish, then learn English. I did also in Italian and French, so it's a completely different world.

KAHN: She's jumped worlds before. Anitta - her stage name - didn't grow up along Rio's iconic, tony beaches. Her neighborhood is much different, about an hour away in Honorio Gurgel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR RUMBLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Here, walls covered in graffiti tags line streets with large potholes. Barking dogs, salesmen hawking wares and men scouring for scrap metal provide a continuous open-air score.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Here where I am right now, she was known as Larissa de Macedo Machado. She sang in the church right next door. I was told I couldn't record at the church. And since she sang here as a child, they say, she's gone a different way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAVELA FUNK")

RYBO AND LUBELSKI: (Rapping in Portuguese).

KAHN: The way of funk, the pumping, piercing beats of the favelas, Rio's impoverished areas. Favela funk came to life in the late 1980s but was criminalized in Brazil. It was linked to drugs, crime and sexual immorality. There were multiple attempts to ban it even as late as 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

KAHN: It's 24-year-old David Nascimento's go-to music, he says as he washes cars on a street corner down the hill from where Anitta grew up.

DAVID NASCIMENTO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: He says funk these days is different, heavier than Anitta's softer touch. But he says the police are still breaking up parties and dances here. Anitta says for a teenager from the ghetto who liked to perform, funk was what was open to her. She resents its stigmatization.

ANITTA: People were just singing their reality. So for you to change whatever we were singing funk, you needed to change our reality first, you know? It's not about the rhythm. It's about what we are living there.

KAHN: She says she added pop to her funk not to water it down but to get it on the radio, to get recognition and respect, which she says she has brought to the genre and to other Brazilian artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: Brazilian producer and local artist Wallace Vianna agrees. He collaborates with her and says she always brings local beats in when she can, like this one he plays me at his modern studio. His new fame also helped him move out of Rio's tougher outskirts.

WALLACE VIANA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: But he admits she does love the bubblegum melodies, those hooks that you can't shake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOBBY")

ANITTA: (Singing) And so kiss me from the roof to the lobby. Your lips on my body - they work like a hobby. Want to see you kiss me from the roof to the lobby.

KAHN: That catchy chorus is from "Lobby" with rapper Missy Elliott on the new album. She's worked with everyone from Madonna to Snoop Dogg and J. Balvin and is donning cover of magazines from Vogue to the Wall Street Journal, which named her its music innovator of 2022. Anitta has the world listening and criticizing, but she shrugs off complaints of being too sexually exploitative, not feminist enough.

ANITTA: I use the stereotypes to call the attention, but then I just break it. You understand what I'm saying? So I really use them full. But then when I get the attention, I just break it completely. I like doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANITTA SONG, "GIRL FROM RIO")

KAHN: That's best seen in her take of the classic "Girl From Ipanema," where she shows off what she says are real girls from Rio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL FROM RIO")

ANITTA: (Singing) Hot girls where I'm from - we don't look like models - tan lines, big curves and the energy glows. You'll be falling in love with the girl from Rio. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let me tell you about a different Rio - yeah - the one I'm from but not the one that you know.

KAHN: While she celebrates all sizes, colors and sexual orientations - Anitta has come out as bisexual - she also touts her love of plastic surgery. The cover of her album "Versions Of Me" shows off a host of changing headshots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANITTA: (Singing in non-English language).

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: Fans like 20-year-old Gabriel da Costa, who caught her live this month in Rio, love those contradictions.

GABRIEL DA COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "She reinvents herself all the time," he says. "She came from nothing and has conquered the world." But earlier, she told me as she approaches 30, she's ready to slow down. Her new album, while mostly for an American audience with songs in Spanish, too, only has one in Portuguese. She's eager to put out more traditional work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FICA TUDO BEM")

ANITTA: (Singing in Portuguese).

Yeah. I have this dream about, like, when all this craziness is over - and I think it's pretty soon, pretty, pretty soon - I just want to sing songs like that and be chill.

KAHN: First, though, the ever-workaholic says she's got the Grammys and Brazil's Carnival in February and is also taking up acting. But like the lyrics of this bossa nova-inspired song she sings, it's all OK, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FICA TUDO BEM")

ANITTA AND SILVA: (Singing in Portuguese).

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FICA TUDO BEM")

SILVA: (Singing in Portuguese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.