The Dembow Den: The Hottest Reggaeton/Latin Urban Tracks of the Year (So Far)

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa's reggaeton column kicks off with the genre's hottest tracks from 2018.
By    May 16, 2018

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa discovered ABBA before Eurovision did.

I’ve been both a pop and rap obsessive all my life, and I’ve always been particularly interested in their role in the cultural landscapes of certain regions of the world, favoring the most thorough, globally-conscious, production-focused perspectives on the genres. I have a well documented love for K-Pop, one of the fastest-growing and most musically exciting scenes in the world, where rapping and other hip-hop signifiers play a huge part, but even that pales in comparison to the enormous amount of time I’ve devoted to the perceived “camp fest” that is the Eurovision Song Contest, getting riled up every May (sometimes as much for the geopolitics as for the music itself, and this year it was mainly for the visuals). And as a Latino, especially one that actually lived through its early stages, I’m a supporter of reggaetón to be more heavily included in the main hip-hop and pop conversations, especially now that it’s such a worldwide phenomenon that even the Russian Eurovision entry had a dembow beat.

You see, Reggaetón is, and should always be considered part of the general hip-hop culture. If movements like grime—centered in the UK—have a special place in the broader urban music universe, so should a scene that shares the urgency and the expression of the marginalized that spawned hip-hop in the first place—even geographically. Reggaetón owes most of its legacy to the Caribbean diaspora living in New York City, only this one has brought their Latino heritage and the Spanish language.

Yes, the global domination of “Despacito” in 2017, or even the previous success of the dembow-leaning Shakira smash “Hips Don’t Lie”, dramatically increased the visibility and furthered the appeal of reggaetón in the mainstream, but this has always been one of the world’s most exciting forms of club music; the perfect party-starter, way before white producers from all over the globe took its core elements and labeled it Tropical House to great acclaim from the dance music world. Yet both the mainstream and the reggaeton underground are true forces to be reckoned with, offering a consistent share of new artists, new styles, and hot tracks. There will be a monthly round-up coming soon, but these are my favorite Latin urban tracks of 2018 so far.

Daddy Yankee– “Dura”

The first pleasant surprise about “Dura” is the reggae cadence and the I-VI-IV-V chords; it’s always cute and comforting when reggaetón recognizes its Jamaican heritage, or at least, the legacy of early Panamanian dembow (it was originally billed as reggae en español, after all). The other even bigger surprise is the fact that Daddy Yankee is starting to take serious cues from his genre’s new guard—most importantly Ozuna and J. Balvin—when it comes to the overall sound and flow of his performance. He’s the King, and his 2016-2017 success has reassured his global dominance, but he’s not sleeping on his laurels. It seems like tenemos Cangri pa’ rato.

Nicky Jam x J Balvin– “X (Equis)”

J. Balvin is probably this new generation’s biggest reggaeton superstar. The Colombian powerhouse has continuously put out dance floor stompers that agitate the zeitgeist for the last few years—including “Mi Gente,” which has been graced with the rarest of blessings, a Beyoncé remix —and at the same time, he keeps exploring new sonic possibilities within the genre. On “X,” he is recruited by Boricua-gone-Colombian underground veteran Nicky Jam for a track that feels like a meeting of the minds in the dembow universe.

Yes, the whole track is a spiritual child of producers AFRO BROS’ previous smash “18 plus,” but that main synth line gives away another probable inspiration: Romanian manele musicthe sound of the modern Romani people in the Balkans. Manele has borrowed extensively from reggaeton in recent years, especially from J. Balvin himselfalthough Balvin’s “Tranquila” already sounds like a Mr. Juve productionso it’s really cool when it seems that he’s returning the favor, when two genres from such different regions and with no apparent relation (except perhaps the fact that both were created by historically marginalized communities) seem to be having a conversation. Either way, this track slaps, and by the way, you should definitely go listen to more manele.

Amara La Negra– “What A Bam Bam”

You may know this woman from her stint on reality show Love & Hip-Hop: Miami, but the Afro-Dominican bombshell has a long and distinguished music and TV trajectory. She’s no stranger to scrutiny, and even considering her new-found mainstream notoriety, the girl’s got the tunes to back it up. Her latest single, “What a Bam Bam,” is not only an anthem meant to empower single, black Latinas, but also an exercise in intertextuality: The track moves around the (obvious) Sister Nancy sample, but in her lyrics and flow she also echoes a long history of Panamanian dembow, ’90s Nuyorican underground and even the early Dominican scene. You can pretty much track twenty years of musical development in these three and a half minutes.

GioBulla– “Cuéntale”

From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania hails GioBulla, an artist whose trajectory has been oscillating between reggaeton, trap latino, and R&B for a while now. He’s the kind of performer that has a knack for sensuous, baby-making jams, and his latest single, “Cuéntale,” not only follows that rule, it even improves upon it by delivering a big dose of funk. GioBulla’s voice feels aroused, and that is what sells the raunchy dilemma in the lyrics. Clandestine love is a recurring topic in Latin music, so it’s always amazing when someone delivers a fresh perspective on the subject.

Chris Müller x Farruko x Jolgito– “Ella es así”

Urban music in Latin America has been immersed in a romance with trap music for a few years now, and producers keep finding ways to make both styles sound fresh when combined. Chris Muller’s “Ella es así” delivers a nocturnal atmosphere, a vibe for a party at the end of the world, but the biggest blessing in this ditty is Farruko’s intervention. His smooth, mid-range croon has been the driving force of countless dembow anthems, but most importantly, Farruko is a gifted melodist, with a rare talent for crafting iconic hooks.

Gian Varela & El Chombo– “El Gato Volador 2018”

El Chombo (Rodney Clark) is, without exaggeration, one of the two or three most important figures in the history of whatever we call reggaetón—or música urbana latina—today. His mixtapes, Cuentos de la Cripta, are as relevant to this genre as DJ Screw’s classic mixtapes were to the Chopped & Screwed scene, or even more, since Screw never enjoyed the kind of international commercial success that El Chombo did. He spearheaded the second wave of Reggae en español in Panama back in the mid-’90s, and singles like Wassabanga’s “Las chicas quieren chorizo” and Lorna’s “Papi Chulo” brought him to audiences in places as far as France. He was the first in the genre’s history to prove that there was a global appeal in this; there would be no “Gasolina,” no “Despacito,” and certainly no Major Lazer without him.

But his biggest hit, at least in Mexico and Central America, was 2000’s “El Gato Volador,” a tongue-in-cheek song about a flying cartoon cat (indeed inspired in Cow & Chicken’s “The Legend of Sailcat”), and this time, Gian Varela has rebooted the track for a new generation, incorporating elements of Moombahton—a style that owes its entire existence to the ciento diez variant or Panamanian dembow. We needed this new version, hell, we need anything that could signify a revival of El Chombo—something that could invite us reassess his enormous legacy in Latin American urban music, especially now that his 1998 track “Dame Tu Cosita” has gained new life due to the viral phenomenon it produced. We need to give this man the recognition he deserves.

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