This debut album by 19-year-old Dominican-American singer Kat De Luna is not supposed to be any kind of big critical favorite. She’s not trying to impress us with her depth, her indie cred, or her awesome record collection. In fact, it actually seems like she and producer RedOne are only interested in turning good hooks and memorable choruses into pop songs for teenagers and other people who like their music to be “fun”.
Well, count me in. I love hooks, I love fun pop songs, and I love this record a whole freakin’ lot.
Unless you are an indie saddo, you’ve heard the lead single from this record everywhere this summer. “Whine Up” has been all over the radio and the television and booming out of cars for the last few months, its boisterous minimalist beat making all kinds of sense in hot weather. RedOne’s precise drum track goes beyond reggaetón into a kind of Bollywood merengue thing, not your usual kind of urban dance track by any means. And De Luna completely delivers the goods with a great Latin pop vocal, flirtatious and assertive at the same time. You’d think the overcaffeinated Elephant Man cameo would be the crux of the track, but here he’s only the icing on a really tasty fast-food cake.
But there’s a lot more to this than meets the ear. The little vocoder stutter is a great touch, because it signifies artificiality and silliness in a song that is actually kind of deep in its own way. De Luna is proud that she writes her own lyrics, and she manages to refer to several of the greatest songs of the last two decades, including Lisa Lisa’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home” and Ricky Martin’s “La Copa de la Vida”. There are plenty of naughty little implications here: “Boy I wonder what would happen / If I trip and let you in” seems to refer to “my heart, but it doesn’t, not really. And the song is as self-reflexive as any of those old lauded LL Cool J jamz from 1986—she’s telling the boy in the song that she is pretty hot for him but that he should chill out and just dance with her, but she’s also telling the listener to chill out and just dance with her as well. Best advice of the summer.
But the genius of this record is that it just keeps going after the big single. The followup, “Am I Dreaming”, is the first great bachata love ballad, a loping stunner with many layered Kats singing to each other about a particularly dreamy boy. (Look out for bachata, it’s the new reggaetón. Mark my words.) “Love Me, Leave Me” is a heavy-pop piano-driven kiss-off plea to another dreamy boy who is particularly bad for her: “If you love me, leave me alone.” And “In the End” is a nice mid-tempo club banger with a chorus that somehow, impossibly, models itself on New Order’s “Subculture”. (No, I’m not kidding.)
There is a lot to suggest that Kat De Luna has all the potential in the world. She could, if she wanted, just get by on her vocal chops—she has studied opera for several years, and done time in Coquette, an obscure teen-girl vocal group—but she wants more. This is very encouraging, and suggests that she wants to go beyond Britney-isms, past the more interesting and rarified air of Christina Aguilera and Amerie, maybe even into the area of Shakira and/or Madonna….
But wow, listen to me getting carried away with myself and my own expectations. Forget I said anything like that. Much more important to just chill out and dance, like girlfriend says in the song. More important to let her develop in her own way, in her own time. More important to just crank this album up as you drive around with the windows down.
// Notes from the Road
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