Oy, that beat. A couple of staggering, staggered snare patterns, paced to the rhythm of a hip, mid-grind. It’s called Dem Bow, reggaetón’s backbone, and after a while, it’s absolutely pummeling. All, not some, reggaetón songs originate from this point, which means that listening to reggaetón albums—or mixtapes, or radio—can sound like the world’s longest posse cut.
But oh, that beat. Gussied up right, it’s propulsive and frantic, and with its near constant dynamic shifts, it sounds like it’s constantly second-guessing itself. Thanks at least in part to producers the Luny Tunes, who do the most ornate gussying out there, reggaetón is reimagining itself as a pop genre, at the moment cycling through its third, maybe fourth wave of national hits. There’s Hector “El Bambino”‘s sublime bombast “Esta Noche de Travesura”; Alexis & Fido’s playful “Eso Ehh . . . !!”; Ivy Queen’s saucy “Te He Querido, Te He Llorado”; and “Mayor Que Yo,” which features six vocalists and begs for more.
And then there’s Wisin and Yandel’s “Rakata,” reggaetón’s second legit breakthrough (complete with Ja Rule remix), after Daddy Yankee’s numbingly ubiquitous “Gasolina.” Both were produced by Luny Tunes, who also executive produced Wisin and Yandel’s
Pa’ L Mundo, a middlebrow album from a duo who operate at reggaetón’s mean—mildly snappish rapping paired with mildly wistful singing. And their scores—namely “Fuero de Base,” which cops the nervous strings from Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy”—belong to the guys behind the boards.
By contrast, Zion & Lennox are reggaetón’s most intuitively connected duo (and there are many—more than in country music, even). Their Motivando a la Yal sounds utterly lived-in (perhaps not surprisingly, it is a beefed-up and, in parts, re-recorded version of their previous record). Zion does the dulcet hooks, Lennox the scratchy raps, and the beats, by comers DJ Urba y Monserrate, among others, are crisp and varied, with an emphasis on suave (“Doncella,” “Perdóname”) largely lacking in the oft brusque space.
Which is not to say rough doesn’t compel. Easily the most skittish of recent reggaetón albums, Los K-Becillas, by Master Joe & O.G. Black, announces itself with air horns, rat-tat-tat bleeps, and oodles of songs that sound like they took the theme music from Spy Hunter as inspiration—dank crawlers (“Los Bravos”) and riotous marches (“La Hija de Tuta”) alike. This is success by brute force. They don’t have much more going for them than, say, Wisin and Yandel—in fact, out of the Luny Tunes’ spotlight, they have less—but their relative obscurity leaves them no need to temper themselves, for the better. (Same goes for Angel y Khriz, youngsters who fully reveal themselves on their album Los MVP’s [MVP/Machete] only once Luny Tunes get their pair of beats out of the way.)
As the genre continues to organize itself around its more populist tendencies,
albums like these might become charming relics. Note the recent rash of me-too compilations by artists looking to firm up their legacies now that the cameras are truly on: Ivy Queen’s Flashback (La Calle/ Univision); seminal producer DJ Blass’s
Sandunguero Hits (Pina); Hector & Tito’s Season Finale 1998–2003 (Machete); and Don Chezina’s Mi Trayectoria (Pina), which includes a version of the bizarrely influential novelty “Tra, Tra.” They mostly pale, though, up against
The Beginning (Machete), an appealingly unpolished collection of early reggaetón songs that bear more resemblance to the “Spanish reggae” of El General than the hip-hop swagger of today’s stars.
For all the cross-pollination between hip-hop and reggaetón, the latter’s success hasn’t done much, strictly speaking, for oft marginalized Latin rap—who’s even noticed, for example, that the B teamers on N.O.R.E.’s 2004 crossover hit “Oye Mi Canto,” duo Gemstar-N-Bigmato, have since released two excellent mostly rap albums—
El Puré and Mas Pure? And though reggaetón has occasionally been hospitable to visiting performers from neighbor genres—bachata heartthrobs Aventura have a crossover hit, “Ella y Yo”—it is a hegemony in the making, threatening to render extinct other ideas about contemporary Latin pop.
Fact is, “Gasolina” ruined it for everyone—even Daddy Yankee, who’ll spend the remainder of his career attempting to top it. “Rompe,” his squelchy current hit-cum– album rerelease pretext, doesn’t come close. As cash-ins go, Barrio Fino en Directo is gratuitous and a snore. The truly visionary revision comes from Don Omar, the only major reggaetón star to succeed without help from Luny Tunes (their camps are in a long-running feud). Omar is the genre’s most vocally charismatic and versatile performer, alternately melodic and gruff. And on Da Hitman, an odds-and-ends collection, he milks reggaetón’s every evolving crevice. There’s a sterling Swizz Beatz remix of “Dale Don Dale,” featuring Fabolous, a roots duet with Tego Calderón, and a remix of the call-to-arms track “Reggaeton Latino” featuring N.O.R.E. and Fat Joe, who declaims in Spanish that he don’t speak Spanish too much, then proceeds to flip, in two languages, one of his best verses in years, while Dem Bow stumbles and reorganizes itself behind him. Fuck a Slim Shady. Hip-hop’s race war begins here.