In a brisk ten years or so, the Puerto Rican band, Calle 13, became one of the most successful musical acts in recent Latin American history. Stepbrothers René Pérez Joglar, aka Residente, and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez, aka Visitante, have created a unique sound that brings together Hip Hop with musical styles from around the world, churning out an ever-expanding list of international hits, collaborating with some of the biggest names in music, earning more Grammy awards than any reasonable person could find shelf space for.
In 2015 the band went on hiatus as Residente began working on a very personal project: a globe-spanning journey of self-discovery. The resulting self-titled album is often impressive, often infuriating, a labor of love but also self-indulgence, and probably the most significant work released by a Latin American musician this year.
Calle 13’s massive popularity is multifaceted, based partly on Visitante’s ear for rhythms and melodies that will capture the public’s imagination, partly on Residente’s extraordinary lyrics, at once erudite, profane, and hilarious, partly on the band’s very visible political activity, but also on their ability to balance their controversial profile with the requirements of commercial success. Their party songs, such as “Vamo’a Portarnos Mal” (“Let’s Misbehave”) and “Fiesta de Locos” (“Crazies’ Party”), can whip audiences numbering hundreds of thousands into delirious ecstasy, while their earnest anthem “Latinoamérica” has been embraced by social justice activists and indigenous movements across the continent.
They are as beloved by drug-addled teens as by aging leftist intellectuals. “It used to be”, as the music writer Gerardo Saravia put it, “that music could be compartmentalized. There was commercial music, protest music, intellectual music […] But that was before. Then came Calle 13 and changed everything”.
There could be little doubt that Residente, the face, heart, and soul of Calle 13, would bring many of the same qualities to his first solo effort. Not surprisingly, given Visitante’s absence, “Residente” will not deliver many chart-topping hits. Only the romantic ballad “Desencuentro” (“Non-Encounter”), which Residente recorded in collaboration with the French pop singer SoKo, has earned regular play on commercial radio. This, it seems, is just fine with Residente, who has deliberately toned down the party vibe and sexual energy of much of Calle 13’s music for this album. Instead he has let his voracious curiosity about the world, always informed by his personal and social and political concerns, shape the work.
The hook of “Residente” is that it emerged out of the singer’s reaction to a DNA test. He is not, according to the lab results, who he thought he is. As it turns out he is part African, part Native American, part Caucasian (as in, from the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe), even part Chinese. Always interested in the diversity of the world, Residente took up the search for his roots. As evidenced by the resulting album, it seems he simply found the same old Residente: articulate, introspective, pessimistic, irreverent, empathetic. He saw, he dreamt, and then he wrote about it. The songs are not about how China, or Russia, or Ghana shaped his life or his original self, but about how they shape him now. It’s not exactly what we’re promised at the start, but there’s much to recommend it nevertheless.
“Residente” begins with a prologue by Lin Manuel Miranda, creator of “Hamilton” and, like Residente, a darling of the liberal intelligentsia. Miranda and Residente have found they are related, both descendants of Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, the political activist and founder of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. The two artists take this last tidbit as a badge of honor, as both have been outspoken boosters of Puerto Rican autonomy from the United States (even as they have both made their homes in New York City). Miranda raps the brief “Intro AND/DNA” mostly in English, his rapid-fire delivery in sharp contrast to Residente’s measured, conversational style. The lyrics, about how genetics is not destiny, about how “you find what you planned isn’t quite what you get”, about the need to embrace the new about yourself, are nice enough, but not much related to the concerns of the rest of the album.
Musically “Residente” is very good, but not great. It certainly benefits from the contributions of top-notch performers, some well known, some not at all, in the different countries Residente visited in his quest to find himself. “Somos Anormales” (“We Are Abnormal”) was recorded in the Republic of Tyva, a Russian protectorate in Siberia. It features traditional throat singing alongside dynamic strings and drums working in the service of Residente’s angrier-than-usual vocals. It’s not for everyone, but the result is interesting in the best Calle 13 tradition. The somber “Guerra” (“War”) is also steeped in the history of Russia and the many nations it has loomed over for centuries. The songs recorded in Africa make wonderful use of the various musical genres from that part of the world. “La Sombra” (“The Shadow”) bundles together rocking guitars with traditional chanting and ululating that testify to the enduring influence of Islam in African music. The lovely “Milo” relies on Western strings and brass but retains a subtle African feel. The Caribbean-inspired “Hijos del Cañaveral” (“Sons of the Sugar Cane Field”) shows a deep love of island music, focusing on its plaintive, mournful side.
Other tracks are less successful. In “El Futuro es Nuestro” (“The Future Is Ours”) the lyrics completely overwhelm the music, possibly a sign that Visitante helps tame Residente’s more loquacious instincts in the Calle 13 albums. Some of the songs, like the feel-good “Dagombas en Tamale” (“Dagombas in Tamale”) and “Una Leyenda China” (“A Chinese Legend”), take the world-music sound too far and end up sounding a bit too much like rehashes of Deep Forest. Residente has always been an advocate of syncretism, the merging of different traditions, in music. He despises “purity” and, as he says in the album’s web page, believes that “art should constantly reinvent itself”. But the sheer number of places he visited and musical styles he tried to incorporate into the album inevitably resulted in some compositions sounding less authentic, and more exploitative, than others. The same can be said for the lyrics, which are Residente’s main form of artistic expression.
Before taking apart the words of the newest songs, it’s important to keep in mind the magnitude of Residente’s talents as a lyricist. Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel-Prize-winning Peruvian novelist, likes to heap praise on one of his most important predecessors, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The Spanish language, according to Vargas Llosa, is best suited to florid extravagance, and less to conceptual precision. Spanish lags behind English in its ability to express specific ideas and therefore repeatedly resorts to the same sentiments and forms of speech. Not so Borges, who could use the language, in Vargas Llosa’s words, with “concision, economy, and precision”. Residente is no Borges, of course, nobody is, but his mastery over the language borders on the supernatural. He is erudite and funny at one and the same time, effortlessly peppering his songs with historical and pop-culture references, Spanglish and Puerto Rican slang. And he does it all in rhyme! Consider one of a hundred possible examples, the refrain of Calle 13’s popular hit “Los Idiotas” (“The Idiots”):
Un idiota es aquel An idiot is one
que no aprende del pasado who doesn’t learn from the past
un desinformado an uniformed
que no escucha al informado who doesn’t listen to the informed
Un idiota por debajo del nivel An idiot is below level
Un idiota es el que cree An idiot is one who believes
que todos son idiotas menos él that everyone’s an idiot but him
There is so much in these deceptively simple lyrics, so much insight, so much humor in the choice of words but also in the choice of sounds. I can think of only one other living songwriter working in Spanish who could write something of comparable quality: Joaquín Sabina, the gravely voiced rocker from Spain, now in his late sixties. Like Borges, Residente and Sabina manipulate language in unique and unexpected ways, flattering their audience by referencing the things and people they recognize, making them laugh knowingly and, for good measure, encouraging them to think. Residente’s writing has earned him millions of fans and spawned scores of academic essays. In 2006, the New York Times christened him “the first intellectual-styled Reggaeton star” (he has long resisted being typecast as a Reggaeton musician, and for good reason, since he isn’t one).
Thematically, his interests are clear. At first, as Calle 13’s frontman, he readily embraced some of the more problematic aspects of Hip Hop, including its obsession with sex and demeaning representations of women, as well as the self-aggrandizing lyrics that boast of one’s accomplishments while challenging or belittling one’s musical competitors. Over time, though, the band became more politically conscious, criticizing the FBI, supporting Puerto Rican independence, associating with the Castro regime in Cuba and the Bolivarian government of Venezuela and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, testifying loudly about the plight of the poor and the downtrodden around the world. Like many left-leaning artists and intellectuals, Residente identifies two countries as culprits of much of the world’s evils: the United States and Israel, returning again and again to the former’s political and economic imperialism over Latin America and the latter’s mistreatment of the Palestinians.
This has earned him no small amount of criticism, which quite clearly did not hurt record sales. Some have suggested that Residente tries to have it both ways, projecting a devil-may-care, party-animal image alongside that of the committed political activist. He gleefully responds that he is both, though obviously takes care to appease the different subsets of his audience. “I know my lyrics are obscene”, he admits in “Fiesta de Locos”, “but they’re how I pay the bills”. On the other hand, he told Fox News in 2014 that he is not really a political artist, just one interested in “social causes”. The problem with this statement is that it’s totally disingenuous (obviously social causes are political), which Residente is more than smart enough to realize.
He likes to depict himself as a flaunter of rules, a provocateur, who sees in chaos the wellspring of both life and creativity. “We love disorder”, he boasts in “Vamo’a Portarnos Mal”, “we break the rules, we are undisciplined”. But this is not really what he is about. At his core Residente is a seeker, an experimenter, a collector of experience. The new album offers ample evidence of this. It’s an expansive, multi-headed beast.
It’s also, in some ways, a departure from Calle 13’s output. There is virtually none of the sex and profanity that have been so integral to the band’s success. It’s true that the video for “Somos Anormales” features Residente and several others sticking their heads out of a gargantuan human vagina, but that is really the only concession to the gross-out humor some of Calle 13’s fans expect. The lone love song, “Desencuentro”, is wistful rather than racy, steeped in some very French existential questioning. “You are here”, Residente and SoKo whisper to each other, “and I am there”. “Milo”, a serenade Residente composed for his son, is full of uncharacteristically florid prose but also delightfully specific details about the child: “You love for the wind to touch your face/ to eat with your hands without a spoon/ to touch the flowers that bloom in April/ to speak to the railroad cars”.
When it comes to political themes, the album is darker than one is used to hearing from Calle 13. A common trope in Residente’s songs is the celebration of the poor for their resourcefulness and courage, and this comes through most clearly in “Dagombas en Tamale”: “We are the owners of nothing/ the ones who don’t appear in fairytales/ we build our dream castle with mud/ we have nothing yet we have everything”. Otherwise, the imagery is pretty bleak. “Somos Anormales” preaches a love of difference – “what I like about you is that you’re abnormal” – but it leans too heavily towards the grotesque, blunting the message of tolerance. “Apocalíptico” (“Apocalyptic”) paints a truly disturbing picture of China’s hyper-polluted cities. Its tone is gothic, melodramatic, bordering on panic. Worse still is “El Futuro Es Nuestro”: “In the future we’ll eat cockroaches like in China/ because they take up little space and have lots of protein”. Only “Guerra”, about the tragic wars fought in Chechnya and South Ossetia, truly captures the suffering, the despair of the victims. It ends on a hopeful note: “War loses all its battles/ when enemies hear each other/ war is weaker than strong/ it can’t stand life so it hides in death”. It earns its pathos.
Residente’s virtuosic talent is on full display in this new batch of songs. You like impudent provocation? Look no further than “El Futuro Es Nuestro”: “In the future they discover semen in the official gospels”, he confides, “and they confirm the Bible was written by homosexuals with mental disorders”. You like breathy sweet nothings? There’s always “Desencuentro”: “we are two different skies on the same map”. You prefer the more depressing stuff? How about this pileup of metaphors from “Apocalíptico”?: “when the climate loses control/ and the skin of the Sun is burned away/ when the sand is left alone/ and the ocean drowns on its own waves”. The biggest letdown is “Una Leyenda China”, which is not much more than a collection of stereotypes Residente didn’t need to travel across the world to collect: “a paper umbrella”, “green tea”, “chirping crickets”, and so on. He could have watched Disney’s “Mulan” and ended up with the same lyrics. There’s even a reference to the 1970s television show “Kung Fu” (remember the “little grasshopper”?), which demonstrates that cultural appropriation is not something Residente concerns himself about.
Do we learn anything from the journey? Not much, in truth. Yes, we are all different. Yes, we all come from everywhere. Beyond that, mostly we get from “Residente” a series of diary entries from a first-rate artist on an around-the-world tour. That’s still quite a bit, to be sure, for wherever Residente goes he goes with open eyes, and an open mind, and an open heart.