Blog March 24, 2014
Drake, Romeo Santos, and the New Bachata
Sad to say, but we came very close to missing one of the most interesting musical stories of the year. Not because it was happening in a tiny studio in Angola or Cairo or Durban, but because it came from our own backyard.  And, well, because it featured Drake. That's not quite true, actually. The reason that we nearly missed "Odio" is because it was the lead single from Formula, Vol. 2, the latest album from Romeo Santos, the self- (and world-) proclaimed "King of Bachata." Drake probably doesn't need that much introduction. Santos, on the other hand, may have managed to fly under the radar. Romeo is a young legend, the former leader of the groundbreaking Dominican-American group Aventura who has since gone solo with equally phenomenal success. The Bronx-born Santos and the rest of the group found a way to modernize the older forms of bachata that they had all grown up with, adding a brash attitude, pop slickness and a willingness to connect with other styles sweeping through American music, including hip-hop and r&b. After overcoming the initial resistance of genre purists within the bachata scene, the group was soon able to reach far beyond it, going on to absolutely massive success within the Latin community while remaining in almost total obscurity outside of it. aventura-group-photo1 That, in and of itself, isn't necessarily unusual. The U.S. listening public is large enough to allow for intense segmentation, particularly when language is involved (although Santos, for whom English is a first language, has always included both English and Spanish in his music). What's far more interesting is the way that Santos has positioned himself within and against this cultural backdrop, creating a pop aesthetic that promises to transcend these divisions by ignoring them. The success of "Odio," which debuted at #45 on the Billboard charts, the highest ever for a Spanish-language song, demonstrates the real possibilities of this approach. (This is especially notable given the that it comes during a time when "tropical" music of all kinds has consistently lost ground to other forms of Latin pop). The great breakthrough of Aventura was not to make bachata more like pop music (although they certainly did that), but to play bachata like it was pop music already, and Romeo's solo career has only expanded on that template. While his two records are no stranger to superstar cameos (the last record featured Lil Wayne and Neo, the latest one includes Nicki Minaj, Drake and Santana), he has never really made a "crossover" song per se, one that would require him to transform the core of his style by bringing it closer to the American mainstream. Instead, he requires his collaborators to play on his turf, something that is borne out by even a cursory listen to "Odio." The song opens with a whispered introduction ( "Envy is a sign of admiration/Hate is the epitome of destruction") followed by a trademark tumble of drums and guitar, signaling the start of the song proper. Romeo takes a heartbroken first verse, his vocals sliding over guitar flourishes and skating perfectly into razor-sharp turn-arounds. Drake sings the second verse well (and in Spanish), copping part of the vocal melody from his own hit "Take Care" before dropping a short English-language rap that leads to a final, emotion-laden chorus from Romeo. And it really and truly works, managing to sound like both artists without sacrificing anything that makes either individually successful. Drake is charmingly specific, Romeo is suavely despondent, everyone goes home happy. Now, it wouldn't be too difficult to describe the collaboration as nothing more than mutually beneficial brand management. And to a certain extent that's true--the track probably turned some Drake fans on to Romeo, while Romeo offered Drake a near lock on a Latin pop hit. But that logic doesn't quite hit the core of what's going on here. This song feels like a true pop moment, one that reflects that kaleidoscopic mixture of present day, YouTube-eared listening. When bachata and rap and Carly Rae Jepson and Skrillex can all nestle happily together on a single iPod, the idea of a crossover, the idea of "pop" music in general, takes on a very different hue. Crossover to where? To what mainstream? "Odio" seems to argue--and in its evident success, to argue well--that in the current era, with a dominant mainstream sound almost entirely absent, all we have left is cult followings, albeit ones of intensely differing sizes. In this pop universe, there isn't any reason for Romeo to make moves towards the mainstream because there isn't a mainstream to move towards. Instead, collaborating with Drake on a track that preserves each musician's individual appeal makes perfect sense, both aesthetic and commercial. The idea that the once-monolithic pop universe (which, from an Afropop perspective, clearly never existed) has been shattered by the internet into increasingly isolated listening communities isn't new. In fact, it's been the nightmare of critics since at least the Napster-headed turn of the century, if not earlier. And it's also, as "Odio" makes clear, not what's happening. Tracks like this bring listeners together, connecting the disparate strands of a pop music that allows, maybe more than ever before, for a real sense of difference. Multicultural fusion based on a shared sense of swag alone? Overlapping diasporic communities reconnecting through pop intersection? The imagined paradise of New York, Miami, Toronto? All of that, carried on a heartsick guitar and the world's most despondent rapper.