22nd July, 2006
No sooner has reggaetón been grudgingly accepted within the exclusive club of the Hot Latin #1s than it turns maudlin and literary. Don Omar was Daddy Yankee's principal challenger to the title of supremacy within reggaetón's first explosion in popularity; his 2006 album King of Kings was the first reggaetón album to debut at #1 on the Latin Albums chart, but "Angelito" was only at the top for a week compared to "Rompe"'s three-month reign. Don Omar's true imperial era is yet to come; in the meantime, there's this.
I don't know enough about the history of reggaetón to say for certain whether this was notable as being an early ballad in the style, but it's certainly true that it was the first balladic reggaetón to achieve such widespread success, crossing over to listeners who weren't invested in reggaetón but knew a good weepie when they heard it. In that way it's comparable to something like 2Pac's "Dear Mama," a moment of vulnerability all the more notable for the self-aggrandizing celebrations of violence and excess that surround it.
But Omar's not giving away anything about himself: the voice in which he speaks for most of the song is that of AIDS, the death sentence of a woman who loved a stranger incautiously one night and whose soul is the "angelito, vuela" (little angel, fly away) of the chorus. Pop-song PSAs have rarely been more lavish: the funereal opening and sawing strings before the the dembow riddim finally kicks in on the second chorus are time-tested signifiers of Gravitas, while the spoken-word outro, which in a club-aimed track would be reserved for the shoutouts to producer and label (DJ Eliel does get namechecked in the intro) is a lapel-shaking DO YOU SEE giving the song an Aesopian moral: "Vive la vida minuto a minuto y encontrarás en cada uno de ellos un motivo por el cual conducirte en la forma correcta. Te lo aseguro." (Live your life from moment to moment and you will find in each of them a reason to conduct yourself in the proper manner. I promise.)
But while it can be inferred that Don Omar is advocating safe sex, he's cagey enough to allow the moralist-friendly interpretation that he's advocating abstinence. The background to all of this was government repression and censorship, as the rich white upperclass of Puerto Rico used morality laws to raid nightclubs and record stores where reggaetón, born of the largely Black underclass in San Juan, was being disseminated (many thanks to Eduardo Cepeda's hugely informative column on the history of reggaetón), and Omar, an international star working with a major budget (the video, shot on location in Rome, was not cheap) and already dealing with charges of drug and arms possession, was smart enough to walk the line that would keep his work free from the censor's marker.
Ultimately I find "Angelito" more interesting than gripping: the discourse on safe sex has moved so far past its banal sentimentalities that it's more of a period piece than many of its contemporaries. But Eliel's widescreen production is still pretty great, even in the HD era.