28th February, 1998

And now, as if we were only waiting for Céline to put the capstone on the era, we are fully immersed in modern Latin Pop. Ricky Martin has been a professional singer and entertainer for more than a decade at this point, from his early days in the revolving-door Puerto Rican boy band Menudo to his increasing profile not just in Latin music but crossover dance as well, and he sounds like it, relaxed and professional, with a lively soul/rock delivery — everything Enrique Iglesias wants to be but isn't, not yet.

In fact we haven't heard anything this confident, or this indebted to Stateside R&B, in a long time; not since Selena, or even Jon Secada. Although this is R&B as filtered through Anglo-American pop/rock aesthetics, a loose soul vamp that sweeps up into a declamatory chorus, with broad key changes and plenty of room for a singer to show off, if that's the sort of thing he's inclined to do. Martin's not, for the most part, but that doesn't mean he hasn't got the tools to do it with.

The comparison that keeps urging itself to me is to George Michael, and while I don't want to make too much of it (gay dance-rock-soul men with brilliant smiles who came out later in their careers, after their hitmaking days were behind them), the ease and mastery with which Martin nagivates the funk-flecked power ballad form, swooping up into falsetto on the chorus and engaging gleefully with the gospel choir in the final third, is very Michaelian.

"Vuelve" ("return," both the noun and the imperative) was also the title of its parent album, Martin's fourth, on which he finally scaled the heights of the Latin chart. It was written by the Venezuelan Franco De Vita, who we last saw making a not-so-convincing effort at Anglo-American gospelly rock dynamics. Martin's boyband-bred sense of rhythm is one key improvement, but the big one is that "Vuelve" is not nearly so self-important a song as "No Basta" — while certainly pulling out a big gospel choir for the final chorus is a time-honored Seriousness Indicator, it's impossible to take the grinning sway of Martin's performance as seriously as the lyrics would like us to. Sure, he's begging for his lover's return — without him*, life has no meaning, even air has deserted his lungs — but Martin never sounds anything but totally confident that he* will return.

*I know it's not really kosher to make assumptions about the gender of non-gendered objects of song, especially since Martin was very much still in the closet in 1998, but I'm enough of an English traditionalist that I revolt at the prospect of "hir" or "s/he," and entirely feminine pronouns are equally problematic.

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