The Dembow Den: The Hottest Reggaeton/Latin Urban Tracks of May, 2018

The Dembow Den returns with words on Cardi B, Tomasa del Real, and more.
By    June 11, 2018

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa is practicing his Cardi B bird calls.

May was a very rich month for Latin urban music, but more in terms of quality than quantity. The album rollouts of the great Cardi B (Invasion of Privacy) and superstar J. Balvin (Vibras) were the subject of particular frenzy, but the bigger story, at least for the amount of media coverage it received in Latin America, was the anti-reggaeton meltdown—and subsequent confrontation—by Mexican pop star Aleks Syntek.

Syntek is known in Mexico for his 30-year long career of soft, synth pop hits, and for his somewhat conservative points of view (he’s also kind of a tool of the State). He started this beef via an Instagram publication complaining about hearing J. Balvin’s track “Bonita” in the airport, and launched the tired “don’t let the children get exposed to this filth” argument we’ve always associated with right-wing moral panic freaks. However, the responses from both sides of the argument were very strong.

Reggaeton is still a very maligned genre in some segments of Latin American society, and some of the older, more privileged media types showed some support for Syntek’s side. This prompted quick and smart responses from some of the big names in el género—old and young—who exposed Syntek’s entire tirade for the ridiculous bullshit it was. This video by El Chombo is by far the best summary to this beef.

But the most interesting fact about this month’s music—and the part that should have been more widely covered—was that May was almost entirely dominated by women, and most importantly, women from all across the geographical, stylistic, and lyrical spectrum. From rising stars spewing radical, deeply confrontational messages of feminine empowerment to some fresh-faced voices coming from the pop/R&B world, to exponents of Latin music’s old guard reclaiming their place. From Mexico to Chile, from the Bronx to the Barrio, women reigned.

Cardi B– “I Like That (Feat. Bad Bunny & J. Balvin)”

Cardi B’s “I Like It” is the single of the month, not only on the grounds of being a banger, but on how important it is. It’s important in the sense that Ms. Belcalis Almanzar is taking over American pop culture and claiming her Dominican heritage while trojan-horsing Latin trap and reggaeton into the hip-hop consciousness. This tune samples Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo classic, “I Like It Like That,” one of the very first examples of Latin music sneaking its way into mainstream America. Cardi’s boss mannerisms and sheer charisma could easily sell the whole track, but both Boricua trapster Bad Bunny and Colombian don J. Balvin get equal space to shine, the former even referencing the legendary sample source’s bassline (Bobby Valentín really was the absolute chingón). This is really one for the culture.

Tomasa del Real– “Barre con el Pelo”

From Iquique, Chile hails Tomasa del Real, the self-proclaimed queen of “neo-perreo.” It’s a term that implies the need to reform the dance aspect as a signifier of reggaeton culture, the sexually explicit nature of its expression, and, above all, where the power actually resides in this dynamic. Tomasa is spearheading a movement that puts women front-and-center, an alternative to the urban music that only considers the male gaze; but she’s also honoring the rhythmic traditions of the genre, and in “Barre con el Pelo” she recruits the veteran DJ Blass on production duties, a figure who’s been a part of this since the underground days. The result is a fascinating mix of old and new, unmistakably rump-shaking dembow, but with its eyes in the future.

Karol G– “Mi Cama”

Women looking to assert complete control of their identity, sexuality, and sensuality in the reggaeton world is something that’s no longer exclusive to the underground; there’s a new guard of major-label-backed, fresh performers getting themselves heard on the big platforms and starting ambitious tours. Karol G’s “Mi Cama” is a deft kiss-off to a cheating ex-lover, but the message has an extra bite: She will still make love, her bed will still be squeaking at night, only this time it will be a new man in there with her. And the production, from that frolicking synth to the beat’s ricochet, enhances these lyrics perfectly.

Jennifer Lopez– “Dinero (Feat. DJ Khaled & Cardi B)”

J. Lo is trying her hand at trap with the ultimate boss move: recruiting fellow Bronx success story Cardi B for a trans-generational crossover; getting the DJ Khaled ad-libs because of course that’s what you do when your song is about money; and actually naming the song “Dinero,” a three-syllable word that is perfect for the now-customary triplet flow. And yet, the main attraction is the song’s beat. The way the merengue de guitarra rhythm of the Eladio Romero sample melds with the 808 is just astonishing. There’s more Latin music in these three-and-a-half minutes than in most of the “Latin trap” scene.

Rosa Pistola– “La línea del Sexxx (Feat. El Habano & King Doudou)”

Mexico still has kind of a complicated relationship with reggaetón. While other countries have recently embraced the genre’s rise to international notoriety—particularly the lands that were most involved in its early developments (Panama, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia). In Mexico, there is resistance from the mainstream—there’s a class, and even a racial element to this. Historically, Mexico is one of the Latin American countries with the least amount of African influence, and reggaetón in general is still considered música negra and associated with the poor, the marginalized, the undesirable, at least according to a society fragmented and seduced by neoliberalism.

Fortunately, there are some heroes making huge efforts to try and change this panorama. The most notable of them is Rosa Pistola, a character that has understood the need to move past the discrimination, and has preached the gospel of perreo in the last few years, attempting to establish the legitimacy of reggaetón as one of the many cultural manifestations of Mexico City. “La línea del Sexxx” is the title-track and lead single to their new mixtape, and it includes the smashing flow of seasoned rapper El Habano and the slick production of Hugo Douster (King Doudou), two figures that have joined Rosa in her crusade to challenge the genre’s limitations in such a hostile environment. They keep fighting the good fight.

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