Andrew Khan 

Pop musik: the sound of the charts in … Puerto Rico

Andrew Khan: Continuing our new series looking at pop charts across the globe, we head to Puerto Rico to see how reggaeton has taken the Americas by storm
  
  

From Brazilian funk carioca to Angolan kuduro, Britain's various flirtations with foreign-language street sounds have tended to be short lived. In the months following Daddy Yankee's fearsome 2005 single Gasolina, reggaeton, Puerto Rico's electric fusion of dancehall beats and Latin rap, was being hailed as a major new force in international pop. Interest on this side of the Atlantic may have waned as rapidly as it developed but the hit factories of San Juan have long dominated the Americas and made a spectacular impact on the global charts last year.

A common complaint that arose from reggaeton's first brush with an English-language audience was that all the songs sound the same. It's true, the loping "Dem Bow riddim" continues to underpin a significant proportion of new releases, but reggaeton has always been more diverse than critics are prepared to accept, and the current crop of hits is no exception. Encompassing everyone from hard-edged rappers to polished boy-band heartbreakers, it's questionable whether the Puerto Rican pop phenomenon can really be seen as a cohesive genre at all.

Leading the charge is veteran singer Don Omar whose Danza Kuduro has been ubiqutous across Europe over the last 12 months. Ten weeks at No 1 in Italy and 400m YouTube hits may make the song's top-20 status in the UK look a relatively modest achievement but any success in this stubbornly monolingual market has to be recognised as impressive. Follow-up Taboo, a fairly straight reinterpretation of the lambada, exploits a similar sun-kissed summer holiday theme. Stripped of the swaggering macho bluster associated with artists such as Kendo Kaponi or De La Ghetto, this is pop aimed squarely at commercial radio and a younger, wider fanbase.

Few explore the softer side of reggaeton as well as duo RKM & Ken-Y. Last year's Mi Corazon Esta Muerto, a bouncy combination of radio-friendly rap and emotive pop balladry, is typical of the sound that has helped turn a new generation of Puerto Rican stars into idols throughout the wider region. 

Inevitably for an island so closely tied to the US, the swapping of musical DNA with its imposing neighbour is an ongoing process. Just as San Juan's pop-rap has influenced wildly successful American stars such as Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez, the incorporation of slick R'n'B and the club music of Miami into reggaeton has been a feature of many recent smashes.

Still one of the biggest names in the scene, Daddy Yankee's Ven Conmigo exemplifies this trend. Replace the vocals and the single could have come straight off the most recent J.Lo album. Yankee also turns up on Farruko's infectious Pa Romper la Discoteca, its wheedling, Auto-Tuned vocal line reminiscent of any number of hits on US top-40 radio. What sets both apart, though, is an irrepressible energy that frequently makes their counterparts to the north look flat in comparison.

Following in their footsteps, with much smaller shoes, is 11-year-old Xavi the Destroyer, whose flow on Move Your Body comes as close to justifying the outlandish name as can be expected of someone still 18 months away from being able to legitimately register for a Facebook account. 

Perhaps the most exciting act Puerto Rico has to offer, however, is Calle 13 – whose members view themselves as being only tangentially related to reggaeton's stalwarts despite being responsible, in Atrevete-te-te, for one of the movement's most enduring classics. With provocative videos and lyrics throwing their weight behind the effort to rid the territory of its "colonial master", the US, radical politics are at the heart of their work but the songs are never allowed to become overly didactic. The recent single Latinoamerica gracefully sets out their vision of a transnational cultural identity, drawing on everything from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Maradona sticking two past England in 1986. 

Puerto Rico's complex set of relationships with its neighbours may be at the root of political tensions but it has also given the territory an incredibly rich musical heritage to draw from. Now, more than ever, that unique combination is helping to define what the rest of the world is listening to.

 

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