29th July, 2006

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Another minor first: the first reggaetón song to replace a reggaetón song at the top of the chart. Industry observers were quick to note all the signposts of a craze, which sounds comic from the vantage point of 2019, but it was not obvious at the time (especially if you were older than thirty and not attuned to Caribbean culture) that reggaetón would transform the pop landscape rather than burning bright before fading away like, say, Selena-era tejano.

But what Rakim (who would soon start spelling his name R.K.M. to avoid tripping over the legendary Long Island MC's trademark) and Ken-Y have introduced to reggaetón's quickly-growing multiplicity at the top of the chart is a pop element. We've seen pop reggaetón before, of course: but where Shakira and Alejandro Sanz were international pop stars borrowing the dembow riddim for some dancehall authenticity, Rakim and Ken-Y were a Puerto Rican reggaetón duo who aimed for uncomplicated pop sheen from the beginning, an unthreatening hearththrob version of Wisin and Yandel. (Four months ago, I contrasted Wisin & Yandel against Andy & Lucas; Rakim & Ken-Y split the difference.)

Rakim raps rather anonymously, Ken-Y croons in a falsetto-free Timberlake imitation, and they shift between Spanish and English so fluidly that it's hard to believe crossover appeal wasn't uppermost in their mind. The production by Mambo Kingz is similarly straightforward and frictionless, and the lyrics are so uncomplicatedly plaintive a recitation of romantic heartbreak (and so entirely free from the sexuality and violence which the moral guardians of Puerto Rican culture used to justify anti-reggaetón legislation) that these two perhaps better merit the comparison (which I levied against Shakira and Sanz) to the role Pat Boone played in rock 'n' roll history.

Which isn't entirely as a villain, but also as a prophet, hailing the domestication, prettification, and (yes) whitening of a once-dangerous music. For Rakim & Ken-Y, although they'll not trouble us again, set a template which pop-reggaetón crossover acts continue to follow to the present day. Late-2010s reggaetón, with its universalizing romanticism, sounds much less like mid-2000s Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, or Wisin & Yandel and much more like Rakim & Ken-Y. For what that's worth.

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