10th December, 2005
Are. You. Reeeaaadddy?
The reggaetón rhythm has appeared twice before on this travelogue: once as novelty and once as auteurist pop. But here, the final barrier falls, and its true, "género urbano," form shows through.
Ramón Luis Ayala Rodríguez, born in the dense urban jungle of San Juan and a participant in Puerto Rico's nascent hip-hop scene since his adolescence in the early 90s, adopted the nom de mic "Yankee" early on, a reference to the authoritativeness he sought to claim for his own as a young colonized subject. He was probably the first person to use the word "reggaetón" (a slang formation which just means "big reggae") while improvising on a 1994 mixtape. He was already a seasoned veteran of the streets, having seen his baseball coach shot in front of him at six years old, and having caught a stray bullet himself while taking a break from rapping for DJ Playero. That injury prevented him from pursuing his dream of baseball stardom, so he doubled down on music, soaking up influences from hip-hop to the north and dancehall to the south as well as the quick, violent vernacular of the mean streets of San Juan. His first solo record was released in 1995, when he was nineteen: he continued to churn out independent albums and mixtapes at a high rate, coalescing specifically around the reggaetón sound around the turn of the century.
His breakthrough was 2004's Barrio Fino -- signed to a major label, with distribution guaranteed beyond the Caribbean and Miami, he called in every favor, loading it with recognizable names from Puerto Rico's urban music scene and relying heavily on the thumping, inventive sonics of producers like Luny Tunes and Monserrate & DJ Urba. It worked. It became the first reggaetón record to hit #1 at the Latin Albums chart, and in fact it charted worldwide, making a dent even in Europe thanks to the undeniable urgency and fire of "Gasolina", a chest-thumping anthem big and bold enough to make a career; but despite having enough traction to break into the Top 40 on the Hot 100 and scoring #10 on Hot Rap Songs, it only went to #17 on the Hot Latin chart. Blame the inherent conservatism of the multiethnic, country-wide coalition represented by Latin radio play: although reggaetón was undeniably the sound of the young Caribbean, Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and the older, entrenched generation in the urban Northeast still regarded it with suspicion.
It would take two things for Daddy Yankee to make his bow here: first, the widely-admired and deeply-respected Shakira would have to bestow her imprimature on the reggaetón beat, making it a respectable music for romantic storytelling rather than a crude noise from the illiterate slums; and second, Yankee himself would have to go rather broader with his appeal. In practice, this meant first commissioning a colorful, cartoonish Monserrate & DJ Urba beat that seemed to take cues from the goofy, ear-sticking beats Dr. Dre had produced for Eminem's pop breakthroughs over the past half-decade. Then DY switches up his flow to incorporate not just chest-thumping boasts and horny chat-ups but nagging pop hooks and crowdpleasing pop-culture references, namechecking "My Boo," Scarface, and brand names from eBay to Frito-Lay to Listerine.
"Rompe" is probably nobody's favorite Daddy Yankee song: it's very 2005 in the way that means that nostalgia has not yet had quite enough time to reclaim it, and it works overtime to entertain and ingratiate in a way that keeps it at a distance where a more vulnerable or single-minded record could sink down deep into a listener's affections. But it is the song that marks reggaetón's first real appearance at #1, not as a novelty dance or as a pop accent but as the music that reggaetón actually was: a ground-up fusion of hip-hop aesthetics and urban Caribbean culture, compulsively danceable, hyperbolically aggro, and textually dense in a way that pop before or apart from hip-hop almost never is. The oversized jerseys and bling in the video -- I believe this is the first time living hip-hop culture has shown up in a #1 video -- makes it clear that a new generation is taking over Latin music, and that they're not interested in the continuity of musical or cultural traditions which have accompanied this travelogue over the the last nineteen years.
But it still sounds great turned up loud, and insofar as it represents the triumph of reggaetón in a chart dominated by ballads, midtempo rock, salsa, regional Mexican music, and dancepop, we are still living today in the world that it made.