MIAMI—Success seems to be working a reverse aging process on Daddy Yankee. He looks younger than he did two years ago, when his song “Gasolina” was igniting pop music and he was poised on the edge of a musical explosion.
Gone are the sunglasses, the nervous energy, the wary, too-cool-to-react slump. Now his face gleams enough to light up the darkness of downtown Miami’s Pawnshop Lounge on a recent weekday afternoon. His broadened shoulders—courtesy of work with a massive personal trainer/security guard who trails him—bulk up a positively preppy, bright white polo shirt.
The only hip-hop ornaments are the diamonds `round his neck and in his ears. “No, I don’t use sunglasses anymore, man,” he says. “Because people need to see my attitude, that I’m relaxed and confident in everything that I’m doing.”
Tuesday saw the release of “The Cartel: The Big Boss,” the follow-up to Yankee’s 2004 star-making CD “Barrio Fino.” Expectations are high in the Latin music industry, the reggaeton scene, the hip-hop world, the press. Can he match “Gasolina’s” success? Top it? Cross over? Or will he repeat himself? Was he a one-hit wonder? Is reggaeton over? Can he light it up again? Move it forward?
If he’s feeling the heat, Yankee doesn’t show it.
Success may have made him more confident, but as he learned coming up in Villa Kennedy, a poor housing project of San Juan, Puerto Rico—where he started as a teenager selling his own tapes on the street and got a bullet in his leg that still makes him limp—you don’t ever let the stress show.
“I’m very excited every time I’m on a magazine cover, launching a new album,” says the 30-year old rapper, laying back on a couch. “It’s like a rebirth for me. I have new strength, new vibe, new attitude. But I’ve always been like that, because in the barrio you learn to be like that. Because it’s your life. You got to be calm like a dove, smart like a snake.”
And you have got to have a good time when you can.
Daddy Yankee, real name Ramon Ayala, is exulting in the creative freedom that his status has given him. On “The Cartel: The Big Boss,” he delves into salsa, R&B, dancehall, electronica, soul, Afro-Cuban rhythms—as well as straight-up reggaeton.
The first single, “Impacto,” an invigorating electro-urban track produced by mega producer Scott Storch, boasts a gyrating guest turn from Fergie, the sexy female star of Black Eyed Peas. Rappers Akon and the Peas’ Will.i.am step in to produce and celebrate hot mamas and rhyming prowess (and cultural unity). But there’s also a heavily Afro-Cuban influenced song about his relationship with God, and a salsa hip-hop track about immigration.
Yankee rattles on easily in recently learned English during this interview, unabashedly checking his pronunciation or sometimes asking for translation help.
“You don’t feel pressure when you’re enjoying yourself,” Yankee says. “I was having fun in the studio. When it comes to music you can’t put pressure on yourself or the inspiration won’t come. Simple as that.
“People are gonna see a new Daddy Yankee in terms of singing. I got hip-hop, dancehall, conscious music, R&B in Spanish. I moved in every direction in this album, not only straight reggaeton.”
Musical experimentation and mainstream guest stars are in part a shrewd commercial calculation. With interest in reggaeton leveling off and the genre being criticized as repetitious, the man who exploded the music onto the pop culture scene needs to expand his audience and his sound.
“The Cartel: The Big Boss” is getting an intensive bicultural push from El Cartel Records, Yankee’s own company, and Interscope, the American hip-hop powerhouse, including major promotion at Wal-Mart and a Pepsi ad campaign in Latin America.
“There is anticipation because of the success he had on his last record, breaking down so many barriers and taking this urban Latino flag into the Anglo world on so many levels,” says Jose Tillan, senior vice president of music programming and talent strategy for MTV Tr3s, the network’s U.S. Hispanic channel, which made Yankee its artist of the month in May.
“People are waiting to see what’s gonna happen, what he’s gonna do different to make himself stand out from the crowd again.”
But Tillan says Yankee’s curiosity and enthusiasm are genuine.
“He’s very inquisitive,” says Tillan. “If he’s interested, he starts going deeper because he really wants to understand new things. I don’t think he’s doing “Gasolina Part 2.” I think it’s someone experimenting, trying new stuff and incorporating it into the genre that made him big.”
When Yankee taped a concert for MTV 2’s high profile “Two Dollar Bill” series in New York last summer, he performed with Miami Latin-funk jam band Spam All-Stars, a world away from reggaeton musically and stylistically. He spent a week rehearsing with them, and even jumped in to perform at one of the group’s weekly shows at Hoy Como Ayer, a tiny Little Havana club.
Leader Andrew Yeomanson—DJ Le Spam—says Yankee got right into the group’s loose, multi-rhythmic groove.
“There was a lot of jamming, a lot of freeform stuff, and he’d really enjoy that,” Yeomanson says. `He’d tell us, `This is great—we’re having fun.’ You could tell they were enjoying the grooves and being creative.”
With musical confidence has come business confidence.
Yankee started with reggaeton in his teens, when it was a purely underground scene derided by authorities and media in Puerto Rico, and ignored by the Latin music industry. He created his own label because no one else would put out his music, and reaped the benefits with the best-selling “Barrio Fino.”
Now he has 30 people working for him, including his brother and his wife, Mirredys Gonzalez. (They’ve been together for 14 years, and have two girls, 11 and 10, and an 8-year-old boy.) Instead of being signed as an artist to Interscope, home to Eminem and Gwen Stefani, he negotiated a partnership with El Cartel and the American company.
The sense of street competition of his youth is now at a global, cross-cultural level.
“The reason I’m targeting the North American market is I wanted to challenge myself for this album,” he says. “I want to prove to the world that we got the skills to beat any artist in the world, and even though we’re speaking Spanish, do not underestimate what we’re about.”
His ambition stretches beyond music.
Last year, Yankee partnered with the Puerto Rican government in a campaign to benefit schools on the island. He has bought land to build an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and has launched a charitable organization, Fundacion Corazon Guerrero (Warrior Heart Foundation), a job training and rehabilitation program for ex-convicts.
“We’re gonna help the people that no one wants to help,” Yankee says. “I grew up in the barrio and it was a vicious cycle. They were coming out of jail and in two months they were going back. They had the best attitude—but no one wanted to hire them because of their records. So that’s what my foundation is about, to give them an opportunity.”
Just as success has given him the confidence to stop hiding behind gangsta shades and to expand into new kinds of music, it’s also making him feel that he can do more about the hard life he came from than criticize it, glorify it, or boast about rising above it.
`It’s not only making music. When you’re in the barrio everybody says this: `If I had a million dollars I would help everybody.’ And all the people once they have millions of dollars they don’t do (anything).
“I got plenty right now, and I can spend a couple million to help my people and I’m still good.”
More than good. “At the end of the day, when you help people you help yourself. You help yourself because it keeps you grounded. It gives you a satisfaction like nothing in the world can give you.”