top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

On Residente’s new album, a troublemaker reveals his heart

Residente, the Puerto Rican rapper, writer and producer, shows off his machete pendant in Manhattan, Aug. 18, 2019. Words still matter to Residente, and they pour out of him on his second solo album. (José Alvarado Jr./The New York Times)

By Jon Pareles

Residente — the Puerto Rican songwriter René Pérez Joglar — is lying, or at least misdirecting, with the title of his second solo album, “Las Letras Ya No Importan” (“The Lyrics Don’t Matter Anymore”). Words still matter to Residente, and they pour out of him. As always, he’s a blunt, far-reaching, fast-talking rapper who’s determined to engage on multiple fronts: political, cultural, mythmaking, cybernetic, sardonic and — now more than ever — personal.

Residente arrived in the early 2000s as the frontman of Calle 13, his duo with his half brother Eduardo Cabra (aka Visitante). With Residente rapping and Visitante overseeing the musical backdrops, Calle 13 conquered the Americas with rebellious, hard-hitting and sonically omnivorous songs. Residente’s virtuosic raps in Spanish flaunted impeccable diction and a compulsion to push boundaries. He was often crudely raunchy, science-minded and ideologically sophisticated in the same song. As Calle 13’s popularity and ambitions grew, the group formed international musical and activist alliances with songs like the Pan-American manifesto “Latinoamérica” in 2011. The duo went separate ways in 2015.

For his first solo album, “Residente” in 2017, Pérez took a DNA test and followed the results to his ancestral homelands, drawing on local musical traditions and, in some places, visiting conflict zones. The new album isn’t so tidily conceptual.

With 20 songs that Residente has amassed over the past seven years, “Las Letras Ya No Importan” (5020 Records) is a huge harvest of assorted ideas, from minimalistic to lavish, from cocky to righteous to humble to unexpectedly romantic.

The album is packed with collaborators including rappers Busta Rhymes, Big Daddy Kane and Vico C (a Puerto Rican reggaeton pioneer) and singers Rauw Alejandro and Christian Nodal, among many others. It dips into rock, old-school hip-hop, flamenco, Cuban son, Palestinian music, electro and — with tongue in cheek — pop. (“Quiero Ser Baladista” — “I Want to Be a Ballad Singer” — suddenly switches from a belligerent rap over electric-guitar chords to an ardent love-song chorus from none other than Ricky Martin.)

The set reclaims Residente singles like the fiercely percussive “This Is Not America” from 2022, which insists “America isn’t only the USA,” and “Problema Cabrón,” a blues-rock rap that revels in being a troublemaker. The album concludes with Residente’s 2020 single “René,” a gut-spilling seven-minute confessional that sets his fears and self-doubts to somber, sustained chamber-music strings — until Rubén Blades shows up for a conga-driven coda.

“René” apparently opened up Residente’s introspective side. The single he released this week, “313,” brings back the orchestral strings — along with a choir, a poetic spoken-word intro from actress Penélope Cruz and a flamenco-tinged guest vocal from Spanish singer Silvia Pérez Cruz — as Residente sings, more than raps, about love, time and eternity. (A version of the song’s backing track without Residente, which has the choir reciting numbers over an orchestra, hinting at Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” reappears as the album’s title cut.)

“313” is as tender as Residente has ever allowed himself to sound — until, near the end of the album, he joins Jessie Reyez in “El Encuentro” (“The Encounter”), an unabashed ballad about lingering love. Residente stays reflective in “Ron en el Piso” (“Rum on the Floor”). It’s an elegy for a cousin, Julián, that turns to thoughts about growing older and having evolved from a rebel sensation to “a legend”; Residente turns 46 this week. Rapping over piano-ballad chords, he muses, “I know I’m not so relevant anymore.”

But while he has now mastered slow tempos, Residente isn’t growing complacent, much less mellowing. He supports resistance movements in “Bajo los Escombros” (“Under the Debris”), a song about Palestinian children with Amal Markus, and in “En Talla” (“In Stature”), which features Cuban rapper Al2 El Aldeano; the song finds parallels between Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory and Cuba’s repression, denouncing government corruption. For all his options as a “legend” — lush production, famous collaborators — Residente is still contentious, still thinking about higher purposes and artistic aspirations, still determined to live up to hip-hop’s promise that the voiceless can make themselves heard.

Residente pays tribute to vintage hip-hop, reviving 1980s samples in “Estilo Libre” (“Freestyle,” featuring Big Daddy Kane and Vico C), and sparking a breakneck rap — over a grindingly slow beat — from Busta Rhymes in “Cerebro” (“Brain”). But he’s not promoting nostalgia. In “El Malestar en la Cultura” (“Cultural Malaise”), Residente insists on looking ahead and stirring things up, even as his chosen backup is measured piano chords, cello and choir. “Culture doesn’t stay the same. It adapts, it changes, it mixes, it merges,” he raps. Then he sets out a crisp, rhythmic, decisive statement of purpose: “I structure everything by breaking the structures.”

15 views0 comments


bottom of page