Tego Calderón’s debut album, 2003’s El abayarde (White Lion/BMG), caught the ears of both the reggaetón street and the critical elite. Its diverse stylistic palette, politically charged rhymes, and easy swagger offered an alternative to the assembly-line, in-your-face reggaetón flooding the market. It also set the bar high. On Tego’s new The Underdog/El subestimado (Jiggiri/Atlantic), the Afro-sporting, gap-toothed grinning rapero returns with another genre-busting effort, and this time he’s got Atlantic records, the label that gave Sean Paul the right push, to help him project his distinctive, deserving voice.
¿COMPRENDE?: With his smoky baritone, Tego is more indebted to Tupac Shakur than Shabba Ranks.
Those who find reggaetón grooves monotonous would have a hard time lodging that complaint with Tego. Despite all the dem bows — reggaetón’s prevailing rhythm — he offers a greater variety of styles than do most of his contemporaries, and not just his fellow reggaetoneros. Although it’s commonplace to describe reggaetón as a mix of hip-hop, reggae, salsa, and even such traditional Afro–Puerto Rican genres as bomba and plena, few reggaetón productions live up to this motley model. Tego is the exception: though it incorporates these influences, The Underdog breaks new ground.
Warning his challengers that he will return to “kill” them again and again, the lead single, “Los maté,” gestures to contemporary hip-hop and farther across the Latin musical spectrum by giving a classic Mexican ballad, “El preso número 9,” the chipmunk soul treatment. The track resolves its far-flung connotations with a solid reggaetón groove, layering chopped and filtered loops from dem bow and bam-bam riddims and adding subtle synths to fill out the texture. A fitting opening shot on his first album in three years, “Los maté” returns Tego to the vanguard of the genre, with an expansive, diasporic vision and a musical talent unconstrained by genre.
In contrast to his peers, many of them participants in the dancehall-heavy pre-reggaetón underground or dem bow scene during the 1990s, Tego cut his teeth on hip-hop, in part while living in Miami as a teenager, and his flows and beats bear witness to an æsthetic steeped in that ol’ boom-bap. Whereas Daddy Yankee and similar vocalists spit double-time rhymes and strain their voices (purposely, mind you) to propel high-pitched melodies cribbed from dancehall reggae, Tego keeps it nonchalant in his smoky baritone, more indebted to Tupac Shakur than to Shabba Ranks. He’s more likely to cite Bob Marley as an influence than any dancehall DJ, and he’ll add the names of such seminal MCs as Rakim and such skillful soneros as Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, who gets a number of shout-outs on The Underdog. The album employs hip-hop beats alongside reggaetón pistas (accompanying tracks) and reggae riddims (of both dancehall and roots varieties), often infusing them with additional polyrhythmic percussion, evoking the traditional Afro–Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean styles Tego has been known to embrace and bringing hip-hop’s Afro-Latin roots back into the foreground by recalling the Latin-tinged funk breaks that provided a rhythmic foundation for the genre. Two acoustic interludes, “Son dos alas” and “Por qué,” make audible connections between Afro–Puerto Rican styles and the island’s most contemporary expressions.
Tego has long distinguished himself through his poetic politics, but he balances the preaching with cutting humor, a sense of fun, and a wide range of topics and concerns. Here there’s the poignant plea of a father estranged from his child and restrained by a biased legal system (“Oh Dios”) as well as a touching tribute to Tego’s late father (“A mi papá”) supported by a sweet, nostalgic beat provided by Miami-based producers Major League. Produced by Salaam Remi and featuring Puerto Rican hip-hop veteran Eddie Dee and up-and-coming label mate Voltio, the necksnappin’ “Payaso” reanimates a well-worn Herbie Hancock sample (from the Headhunters’ “Watermelon Man”) in order to assail wanna-be gangster reggaetoneros as “clowns”; it calls for fewer street stereotypes and more range and substance. Non-Spanish speakers shouldn’t worry too much about missing every detail, since even native Puerto Ricans have trouble keeping up with Tego’s wide-ranging slang, which includes obscure regional references and terms from his grandparents’ generation. As he says in a rare English phrase on the album, “You might not understand, but it’s hot.”
He’s also happy to balance his more thoughtful turns with tracks telling the girls to “move it.” So for listeners looking for some plucky, in-the-genre bangers, there’s the boom-ch-boom-chick of “Pon la cara,” “Comprenderás,” and the sole Luny Tunes production on the album, “Cuando baila reggaetón” (featuring Yandel). Even his synth romps stand up to, if they don’t trounce, the competition, and the regular stylistic shifts prevent the dem bow fatigue that sets in all too often in reggaetón albums.
The occasional misstep is the price of experimentation. “Mardi Gras,” a bluesy reggaetón grind, is too full of aimless guitar noodling to redeem its bold attempt at another fusion — though Tego’s cartoonish, gravelly chorus almost redeems the track’s Southern kitsch. “Bad Man,” a dancehall tune featuring Buju Banton, feels uninspired and gratuitous in its tough-guy posturing and by-the-numbers gun lyrics. The quasi-live funk of “Bureo bureo” probably should have been saved for a misguided unplugged album, and though “Chillin’ ” (with Don Omar) has staunch vocals, the producers’ chock-a-block attempt at roots reggae is square. Tego turns in solid performances throughout, but he shines brightest when he goes out on a limb.