[22 July 2007]
Naysayers who doubted the lasting power of reggaetón were half right. Like any musical genre, if the artists don’t push the music forward the music gets boring and predictable. Some of this applies to the music of Raymond Ayala’s (aka Daddy Yankee) third major release, El Cartel: The Big Boss. But, on the other hand, those who saw the revolutionary potential in reggaetón’s hybrid rhythms were banking on reggaetón artists’ ability to grow reggaetón—like one of its main ingredients, hip hop—into a rhythmic force to be reckoned with. With El Cartel: The Big Boss, Ayala does push reggaeton forward but he also exposes his Achilles heel, which results in a mythological linguistic labyrinth enhanced by a varied team of producers, dramatized cartel drug lord mystique, and the proverbial boss vs. boss turf-feuding.
Via a radio-style public address to the reggaetón world, the first track, “Jefe”, is a four-minute furious invasion, creating the feeling of a massive world takeover complete with progressive drum corp backdrops, big bombing bass, and helicopter sound effects that double as sonic theatre pieces and tempo sub-slicers. While it doesn’t have the trademark reggaetón rhythm, it works in creating a mood that duplicates the style used to intro 2004’s breakthrough Barrio Fino.
Following Barrio Fino‘s success and still maintaining co-ownership of El Cartel Records, Ayala signed to Interscope to reportedly aid U.S. distribution. With a growing Latino listening audience, Daddy Yankee also brought an alleged feud with Don Omar, reggaetón’s other ambassador. Ayala says that El Cartel is supposed to settle the issue once and for all on who rules reggaetón. Omar’s next record is set to drop later this year, so El Cartel should be an entertaining appetizer and beefy treasure hunt for fans (and Omar) who, for starters, might want to start their digging with the subversive “Fuera de Control” and the aggressive “Tension”.
In 2004, the U.S. chart burner “Gasolina” introduced the Latin Grammy winner Daddy Yankee to a larger U. S. audience who were largely unaware of Ayala’s already established stardom in Puerto Rico. Much like the smash hit Barrio Fino and 2005’s Barrio Fino En Directo CD/DVD compilation—that visually documents his world takeover—everything about El Cartel is epic and massive in scope. From the dramatic newspaper layout liner notes to the flash bulbs popping on the album’s front and back, it all implies that Daddy Yankee is the only story worth listening to in reggaetón.
With El Cartel, there’s more hip hop and the production is more intricate while the propulsive rhythms of reggaetón still carry the album. But it’s the deeper diversions into salsa, meringue, and the collaborations with established stars which push this album a bit further stylistically, working the same formula as Barrio Fino En Directo, which included a collaboration with gangsta rap kingpin Snoop Dogg on “Gangsta Zone”.
Featuring Nicole of the Pussycat Dolls (“Papi Lover”), and will.i.am (“Plane to PR,”) and Fergie (“Impacto Remix”) of the Black Eyed Peas, on the album is not so much an artistic move as much as it is a publicity move. It’s nice to have these artists featured if only to promote Daddy Yankee, but not much happens beyond that, besides the tasty beats from will.i.am and a long list of producers.
Ayala’s lyrical talents have matured and his songwriting abilities developed but El Cartel suffers from cargo overload. Barrio Fino’s biggest but forgivable sin was gluttony and again the absence of girth returns on this 21-track state-of-reggaetón press conference.
What also holds this record back from really taking off is the unavoidable and complex issue of language. Both an inherent flaw and the album’s secret strength, Ayala’s liquid lightning rapping is exhilarating and to be admired, but even though the smooth fluidity of the mostly Spanish lyrics is ear candy, much of the album’s power goes unrealized for the non-Spanish speaker because you can’t make the full translation as his rhythm blazes by in a foreign tongue. For this reason—and while listening to all Daddy Yankee’s albums it’s clear his main focus is on the Latino listening audience—it’s a sad fact that many who might enjoy the pleasure hearing (and understanding) a deft lyricist like Ayala, who can really flow, will miss out on his lyrical creativity due to the language barrier. Ayala is completely aware of this because he addresses the flaw and fires back a solution with Akon during “Bring It On”, openly admitting his English language shortcomings with an appeal to the “universal language” of music.
A hard fact for purists to swallow is that music is a product that generates gobs of money. And since reggaetón is a hot and lucrative brand, Daddy Yankee, much like many of his Interscope labelmates and U.S rappers, is a multi-dimensional businessman who has his own syndicated On Fuego radio show on ABC radio, his own clothing line, a Reebok shoe line, a record company, and a charity called the Guerro Heart Foundation that aids young Puerto Rican ex-convicts.
For some of the aforementioned reasons, Time Magazine named Daddy Yankee one of ts 100 most influential people and El Cartel asserts this, confirming Ayala’s belief that reggaeton is not just a trend but a “movement.” I’ll give him that, as he certainly has moved reggaeton forward since its late ‘80s Central American beginnings but, of course, only history can truly call the music a “movement.”