30th January, 1999

I've had occasion to lament before that I wasn't listening to Latin radio at the time, which means I'm working at a disadvantage in regard to ambient information and cultural awareness. There are two versions of "Ese" on Puerto Rican singer Jerry Rivera's 1998 album De Otra Manera, one which remains a ballad throughout and one which switches to uptempo salsa about a minute in. Sony released a music video for the ballad version, so that's the one I've linked to and will be talking about, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if airplay being counted for both across radio formats was a factor in driving the song to number one. (The salsa version is here, for comparison.)

Jerry Rivera was an enormous deal in salsa before he reached #1 here. He had been a youthful prodigy in the late 80s, and his 1992 album Cuenta Conmigo broke sales records and remains the highest-selling salsa album of all time. The success of "Ese" on the heels of such a blockbuster might be attributed to what Chris Molanphy calls the AC/DC Rule, if Rivera hadn't released six albums in between. The real difference, from what I can see, is that the top of the Hot Latin chart has been newly open to salsa since Marc Anthony stormed it in 1997. And, of course, the ballad version of "Ese" is by no stretch pure, uncut salsa.

The only reminder of any Cuban/Borinquen influence is in the slow-paced congas and timbales that underlay the glossy synths, nylon-stringed guitar, and Rivera's smooth singing: otherwise, it's simply a romantic ballad that could belong to any Western musical tradition. Even so, the chorus switches to an ordinary drumkit to pound out the rhythm rather than keep up the tropical accents. The result is a big, maudlin love song: the title, roughly translated as "that guy," is invoked over and over again to describe the the big passionate, mercurial, and hopelessly devoted lover of the song's "you." And then, in the very last line of the song, TWIST! "Ese soy yo" — that guy is me. Shock, swoon, clinch, fadeout.

The problem, of course, is that it is practically on the fadeout. The natural peaks of the song, the big swells at the ends of verses and choruses, are romantic declaration enough; no one who's listened to pop before needs to have the lover's identity uncovered, so it's inevitably an anticlimax. Rivera delivers it as slickly as he can, which is considerably, but I can't help feeling as though he'd rather be singing something with more bite and snap; something more, well, salsa. At press time, we're only going to hear from him once more; we'll see in a couple of years whether he — and we — get to pick it up.

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