Mike Pont/WireImage
Nolan Feeney
February 21, 2017 at 10:28 AM EST

When Remy Ma took the stage at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena last May, she didn’t understand why everyone was cheering. The rapper was making a brief appearance during DJ Khaled’s opening set on Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour, so when she saw the crowd reaction, she assumed Jay Z, who was hanging out backstage, had joined her. When Remy turned around, she realized all that noise was for her. “This is a disrespectful comment, but they were screaming like Tupac was alive,” says her mentor and collaborator Fat Joe. “To this day, Jay Z texts me, ‘Does she know that never happens?!’ He was concerned with [whether] she appreciated the moment.”

She certainly did—for lots of reasons. In 2004, as members of the rap group Terror Squad, Remy Ma and Fat Joe were at the top of their game with their No. 1 smash “Lean Back,” and superstardom seemed within reach. But then Remy’s career was interrupted by a six-year prison sentence stemming from a 2007 nightclub altercation in which Remy (real name: Reminisce Mackie) non-fatally shot an acquaintance she suspected of stealing money from her purse. (In court, Remy’s attorney said the shooting was an accident.) After her 2014 release, she got right back to work with the mixtape I’m Around, but it wasn’t until she reunited with Joe for 2016’s surprise Grammy-nominated hit “All the Way Up” that she returned to the charts. Their new joint album, Plata o Plomo, out now, marks her first official studio release in more than a decade. So while adoring crowds may have once seemed like an inevitability, the screams filling the Rose Bowl floored Remy that day. “I don’t want anyone to think I would ever take that for granted,” she says.

Prison isn’t the only factor that made “All the Way Up,” Plata o Plomo’s first single, an unlikely comeback. In an era of hip-hop where the trap sounds of Atlanta are the dominant style, the track’s ‘90s New York feel was an anomaly on radio. At 36 and 46, respectively, Remy and Joe are also veterans in an industry that favors youth and viral potential. “YouTube sensations have these huge records out of the clear blue sky, and we pull off two Grammy nominations independently,” Remy says. “We didn’t do that when we were signed to majors!”

Still, the biggest obstacle they faced was their own history. The two artists had a falling out after Remy’s 2006 solo debut, There’s Something About Remy: Based on a True Story, disappointed commercially. Remy says she’s still very proud of the record but admits the rollout and promotional plan were plagued by logistical problems. Yet when the LP debuted at No. 33 on the Billboard 200, she blamed Joe instead of the label. “I was angry like a kid who was promised a car for graduation,” Remy says. “You’re like, ‘Why the f— am I still taking the bus?!’” Joe, who says that he had been fighting for her behind the scenes, didn’t take the hostility well, once telling XXL that he would “never forgive Remy” for what transpired. “She really did hurt me bad,” Joe says. “It went real toxic.”

It was during her time in prison that a friend of Remy’s suggested she reach out and reconcile with Joe. The first phone call was initially awkward, but Joe says it took about “two minutes” before they were gabbing like old friends. Upon her release, Remy even canceled her honeymoon with her husband, the rapper Papoose, to start recording with Joe. In the studio, they acted as each others’ editors, suggesting lyric changes and coaching the best performances out of one another. (The way Remy draws out the word “Uber” on her “All the Way Up” verse? That was Joe’s idea.) “Anytime we attempted to not record together, somehow we end up doing it over when we got together,” Remy says. “‘Oh, so you trying to one-up me? Load me back in!’ That’s why our chemistry is so crazy.”

Joe was impressed by his partner’s newfound focus. “I know the old Remy,” he says. “I thought she was pretending to act rehabilitated.” And Remy says he had cause to be suspicious: “I didn’t take it seriously [before]. It was a joke. I was having one big party.” But during her time away, Remy says she studied for a comeback, subscribing to “every magazine known to mankind” to keep up with the rapidly changing music industry. (When she began her sentence, Twitter was just getting off the ground and Instagram didn’t exist.) Papoose would also send her cassettes and play her new music and Vine clips over the phone so she could stay up to date on what was happening in the culture. “I had to use every piece of momentum and gear it toward building back up to where I wanted to be,” Remy says.

Where she wants to be now goes well beyond music. In addition to working on an upcoming solo album, titled Seven Winters and Six Summers, she’s also writing a book with her husband about their marriage and stars on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop docu-series. “It’s the craziest sh— ever that I’m on a reality TV show because I’d never seen reality TV in my life [when I went away],” Remy says. Upon her release, however, Remy struggled with the stigma of prison: She couldn’t get invites to fashion shows and events when “All the Way Up” was at its peak, and Joe says promoters would try and keep her off the bills of shows. So Remy joined the cast of Love & Hip Hop in an effort to showcase her family life and distinguish between the aggressive Remy character of her music and Remy, the wife and mother. “You brought credibility to the show,” Joe tells her. “It was showing nothing but negativity—who could be the biggest train wreck? Now even the people that used to be crazy try to calm down on the show.”

Joe, who says he’s working on developing two TV shows for VH1 and TBS, including one about teaching hip-hop history to new generations, envisions Remy “being a Will Smith” with producing and acting projects. Remy is eager to diversify too. “I’m not going to be a rapper forever,” she says. “I want something I can pass on to my children. This is my empire that I started.” Even when you’re “All the Way Up,” Remy says with a laugh, “there’s always another level of up.” Adds Joe: “We lookin’ for space suits right now.”

A version of this story appears in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now. Buy it here now — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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