Yes yes, Beyoncé is a marvel and we are fortunate to breathe her air. But in the not-so-distant future—when everyone’s running around in a Cloud Atlas dystopia, spotifying on their sonys while fomenting the clone revolution—tastemakers will review their 2013 best-of lists with chagrin, realizing they omitted not one but two deserving 14-song sony products that broke late in the year. The truth will dawn that Gerardo Ortiz was every inch the corporate musical deity, just like Peerless Leader Bey. (OK, he may be like an inch shorter.) Archivos de Mi Vida is the 24-year-old’s fourth hit album in four years, his third #1 on Billboard’s Top Latin chart, and that’s not even counting his three live albums. Three! Who else releases three live albums by age 24? Johnny Rivers, maybe. Jazz doesn’t count. Point is, Ortiz is huge—scoring Hot Latin hits of his own, writing hits for other people, racking up 31 million-and-counting views for his big brassy “Dámaso” video on YouTube. If you wanna know American pop music in all its multifaceted glory, you need to know Gerardo Ortiz.
He’s a hustler, baby, he just wants you to know. Ortiz’s previous albums have been onslaughts of acordeón and banda-led narcocorrido, Mexico’s century-old drug-slinging storytelling genre, which currently glorifies the Sinaloa cartel and others. Ni Hoy Ni Mañana, Ortiz’s 2010 debut, thugged out our hero with big old guns and ski masks for the band, the “O” in his surname replaced by a grenade. The bare bones CD booklet provided the phone number of someone named simply “Junior” but no information about who was playing all those hot acordeón licks. I have it on good authority that in concert, Ortiz spends less time playing his axe than he does pouring tequila shots for his band. At the time, Ortiz was loosely affiliated with El Movimiento Alterado, the bloodthirstiest association of corrido bands in the game. He’s lurched toward respectability ever since, thoughtfully giving the world a concept album, a Bob Marley cover, and a tribute to his slain cousin Ramiro Caro. (He’s also started naming musicians in his liner notes.) In classic tough guy fashion, the new Archivos de Mi Vida finds the artist wistful and woman-obsessed, like Sinatra singing “It Was a Very Good Year” while the casino bosses weep.
Despite the title, Archivos is not—ahem—a greatest hits album. Allmusic has been confused on this point. That said, this studio album has plenty in common with the previous three: a bunch of songs written by Ortiz, a smattering of tunes by other famous names, character studies about living large in Cartelworld, and many gratuitous shouts of “HAY no más!,” a catchphrase with its own Facebook fan page. It’s called “Por Los Que Amamos El ¡¡¡¡ Hay No mas !!!! de Gerardo Ortiz”—I’m so happy this exists. But in reality, hay mucho más. After two fast songs about the throngs who cheer him on in Culiacán—usually a giveaway that the narrator’s income is tax-free—Ortiz sings four straight tunes about las mujeres. Bandas románticas are the narco singer’s usual tickets to radio and fame; love songs skirt Mexico’s intermittent bans on narcocorridos, and they attract women to concerts. I know that sounds sexist but it is what it is. And anyway, individual fandom is always more nuanced than sales figures.
Cue “Mujer De Piedra”. A tuba blats fartily. The hit single is a stately song about a stony woman whose empty chest cavity renders her unsusceptible to Ortiz’s affections. My librarian Gloria likes it and so do I. The song’s slow horn counterpoint is rigid and formal, as though Ortiz and his mujer are engaging in some feisty tête-a-tête at the ball, or strolling through an ancient plaza trying not to break anything. Ortiz livens things up by snapping into each rhyme and then holding it out, like he’s displaying precious objects (“zapatoooooooooos”). He seems to find physical pleasure in the act of rhyming. The next song, “Como Hás Cambiado” (“How You’ve Changed”), lopes along on an adventurous electric bass line, drunk-shaming an ex-lover. To atone, Ortiz sings “Perdóname” by noted singer-songwriter América Sierra. It starts off boring but improves when Ortiz begins racing through nonstop triplet syllables, apparently inspired by last year’s smash hit for La Arrolladora, “Cabecita Dura”. Next up, the spritely cumbia “Y Me Besa” finds Ortiz’s girlfriend drunk again. This time it’s OK because she’s dancing and kissing him.
The cumbia aside, that’s three slow ones in a row, threatening to make this the least energetic Gerardo Ortiz album yet. Beware the nostalgia of 24-year-old tough guys. Except Gerardo Ortiz is really good! He’s a heck of a songwriter, for one thing. Archiving his life in the title track, Ortiz writes an exquisite melody of elegiac wistfulness. His lyrics, though, are tricky jumbles of internal rhyme, stringing long, hard-to-scan sentences across the musical phrases. The jubilant norteño quartet jumbles along. It’s the same band that played on Ortiz’s last two albums and on Especialista, by Ortiz’s cousin Regulo Caro. You know what that means—El Pulpo on batería! The horn arrangements, when there are horn arrangements, drive their songs with contrasting textures and cool crescendo effects. One gorgeous banda ballad, “Eres Una Niña”, features ringing bachata guitar. The two worst songs are really short. And I haven’t even mentioned the bonus mariachi remixes!
At its best, Archivos de Mi Vida provides one novelty after another, but familiar pleasures remain. Though Ortiz has expanded his palette and learned to equate squinting with thoughtfulness, he still plays at getting his hands dirty. In a sort-of sequel to “Dámaso”, the new “Archivaldo” chronicles the high life of Iván Archivaldo “El Chapito” Guzmán Salazar, son of the Sinaloa cartel and one of El Imparcial newspaper’s prestigious “Los Narcojuniors del 2013.” Lots of people sing songs about Archivaldo. “Archivaldo” and “Chapito” are corrido incantations. When you sing an Archivaldo song, you wear his power and largesse like a glammed out bulletproof vest, and Ortiz wears the vest more comfortably than most. Like Yoncé, the Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love, Gerardo Ortiz is staying true to his gente, even as he inhabits a realm most of them will never know.