Reggaeton is dead in the same way hip-hop is dead -- the popular stuff no longer resembles the gritty, lo-fi ups and downs of the working class, from whose beaters and back-alleys both genres were born.
But a little spitshine isn't always a bad thing, especially on the big rubbery assbeat that defines reggaeton. (Dem Bow at its purest and most insatiable.) In 2005, after the brand-new genre was flown over from Puerto Rico, hip-hop heads fell prisoner to its crazy heat. "Oy, that beat," wrote a music critic turned rhythm victim for the Village Voice.
One UCLA professor even devoted an entire book, this year, to graphing reggaeton's infiltration of the Top 40. (Watch him explain the world's sexiest genre in a dork voice that could deflate the heartiest Afro-Latin buttcheek, here.)
Of course, weak-souled U.S. radio couldn't withstand the pummel forever. Within a year or two, the wave of pop-up "Hurban" stations either died out or diluted themselves with Usher, Akon and the rest. But as Pitbull and his contemporaries have slowly (and skillfully) watered down the Latino presence on U.S. airways to fit the electro revolution, reggaeton -- the stubborn bastard -- kept right on folding in on itself. Here, in handy YouTube playlist form, is everything you've been missing while it pummeled through half a decade of Latin American all-nighters without you.
We admit: Making a list of the "10 Best Reggaeton Songs" is like making a list of the "10 Best Rap Songs." No one will agree with each other, and no one will ever be right. So for our limited purposes -- a beginner's guide, not some hot new mixtape out the Dominican Republic underground -- we'll set some priorities. a) When the choice must be made between hard/grimy and catchy/danceable, we're going with the latter. Reggaeton is for dancers; socially conscious Spanish-language rappers (and fluttery Aventuras, for that matter) can get their own list. Also, the newer the better, because reggaeton's heydey did last pretty deep into 2006 and 2007. b) Repetitive, nasally, shouty shit will be kept to a minimum. A reggaetonera loves bathing in it like a Southern-rap enthusiast loves to be deep-fried in Lil Jon's vault of YAYUHs and OKAYs; however, it's not for everybody. c) Mix up the roster a bit -- not all Wisin y Yandel. Rough, but everyone deserves a chance. d) No Pitbull. But you already knew that, didn't you.
So this list is now amended to be "The 10 Most Danceable, Least Annoying Reggaeton Songs of the Last Half Decade (in No Particular Order)." Best enjoyed with a few cocktails and a dance floor, or whatever takes you to that "fuck guilty pleasures" state of mind.
10. "El Ritmo No Perdona (Prende)" -- Daddy Yankee
(Song doesn't begin until 00:38, FYI.) This may come as a surprise to some, but Daddy Yankee is not Pitbull. And saying they're the same person because they're both light-skinned Latin American dudes in sunglasses is like saying Kanye West is P. Diddy.
In fact, Daddy Yankee is the reigning king of reggaeton. Say what you will about his impish douche stance, bucket hat and Guido haircut -- dude started the revolution with "Gasolina" in early 2004, and on one solid album per year, he'll die trying to re-facilitate that first fix. Though it wasn't near as pretty/popular as she-catering hits "Que Tengo Que Hacer," "Oasis de Fantasia" and "Llamado de Emergencia" in 2008, the manic beat on "El Ritmo No Perdona (Prende)" one year later was the closest anyone has gotten to stretching the steadfast reggaeton bap into something even more danceable. And through it all, those old-school Latin instruments on backup, tooting and chortling to hold the thing down. When you love this game as much as Daddy Yankee does, an unforgiving rhythm is the only way to work.
9. "Tocarte Toa" -- Big Yamo (featuring Natya)
Big Yamo was a bit of a one-hit wonder, but he did more for dramatic nightclub atmospherics with "Tocarte Toa" than most strobe lights/fog machines do in a lifetime.
Violins that echo through marble drug mansions! Girls who rap in ponchos and bikinis! What more could one want from the second generation of reggaeton? Well, now that you mention it, how about a verse from the inimitable Residente (one half of Calle 13; see page four) to smarten things up? Done, and done. There's no dance-party-quality version of the track with Residente's contributions on YouTube, but if you like it well enough without him, the remix is a must. (Added bonus: realizing that objectively awesome people like Residente are also suckers for violins on a reggaeton beat, and thus feeling a little better about your own guilty pleasures.)
8. "Los Maté" -- Tego Calderón
Without Tego Calderón, reggaeton might never have been born, much less have reached North America. He was one of the first to lay late-'80s raps over his native rhythm -- a fateful blend that, whether he likes it or not, took a new genre from the streets to the New York studios. "In Puerto Rico there is a school of hip-hop, of purists that consider me a sellout because I'm commercial and I have success," he told the Voice in 2005. "But I used to be the same way, so I'm not trying to dis them. I used to hate reggaeton too."
He obviously got over that. "Los Maté," released in summer 2006, is as hip-hop as reggaeton will ever get (there's a dis, and a soul sample of sorts), and so ahead of its time: Tego dressed his girls in tutus long before Kanye recruited the freshman class of the Royal Ballet for "Runaway." This is the godfather right here, and he hasn't missed a step since reggaeton fell from its Top 40 pillar. Is there any other rapper in the world whose lisp -- heavily utilized in the S-heavy hook on "Los Maté" -- could make him sound harder? And his gap tooth makes Samuel L. Jackson's look like the negative space in a fine-toothed comb. Bringing us to Tego's (somewhat obscure) duet with newbie Ñejo, whose growl makes Pitbull's sexy voice sound like a kindergartner playing Ken:
7. "No Quiere Novio" -- Ñejo (featuring Tego Calderon)
A controversial choice, we know. This track went almost nowhere, compared to some of the stuff Ñejo has done with his main man Dalmata. (Such as the barebones "No Necesito" and "Algo Musical." And the excellent, but sadly not reggaeton and therefore non-listworthy, "Por Allá Por Donde Vivo." Solo, Dalmata peaked on his Wild West-meets-'90s strip club video for "Pasarela.") But they're new to the scene, and have yet to score the hit they're capable of.
That doesn't change our feelings about Ñejo. (His verse starts at 1:30 above. If you want to hear him take over the whole track himself, here's the original Tego-free version.) He's got the fullest, most musical flow in Spanish-language rap, hands down, and it fits like the most enjoyable of ball gags into reggaeton's ready DSLs. Not the quickest bastard on the block (again, see page four), but no one captures the essence of a pair of hotpants like this chubby little fucker at 1:35.
6. Perdóname -- Eddy Lover (featuring La Factoria)
Eddy Lover represents reggaeton going soft, yes, but it's hard to care when he makes soft so attractive -- a velvet rope, a champagne bubble, a puppy from the ghetto. We've got a feeling even an OG like Tego would have few regrets spooning with his down comforter to that voice. Thank you, Eddy, from all the strippers of the Southern hemisphere, who can now pretend they're angels doing God's work while pole-ing to your dolled-up reggaeton.
5. "Ella Me Levantó" -- Daddy Yankee
Doesn't get more solid than this 2007 banger of a ballad -- an expressway to slutty mistakes in Vegas lounge areas, if memory serves. The competition for this spot on the list included newer, sweeter gems like "Mi Cama Huele a Ti" by Tito El Bambino -- so we could argue the genre was on the ups, or whatever -- but in the end, we always crawl back to "Ella Me Levantó." Damn you, Daddy Yankee!
4. "Atrevate Te Te" -- Calle 13
You may know Calle 13 (or, more specifically, frontman Residente) as the jerk who took home every single Latin Grammy this year. Though Residente, the lyrical half, mostly sticks to straight, sarcastic battle raps -- between, uh, him and the world -- and spastic ADD trips to the "Fiesta de Locos," he's never been one to deny his deep fondness of down-home reggaeton.
In fact, he's managed to weasel his way onto our list here by way of a single piece of fanboy imagery in "Atrevate Te Te": Residente watches as his regular target, the gringa wannabe, is hypnotized off her "pop-rock Latino" pedestal by a Dem Bow beat that travels up her skirt and through her intestines like a submarine (roughly translated). Yep. Sounds about right.
3. "Ayer La Vi" -- Don Omar
Don Omar, otherwise known as "El Rey," experienced somewhat of a fall from grace after being catapulted to stardom at the climax of the U.S. love affair with reggaeton -- including a desperate song about MySpace. (Hey, it happens to the best of us.) "Ayer La Vi" is the stuff of comebacks. Most attempts at slowing down the quick reggaeton clip come off as cheap, tinny and loveless. But Don Omar labors us through a thick gravel of blood and beat, forcing us to grind even harder than before. For the (almost as excellent) lighthearted version, see Don Omar's "Salió el Sol," a particular favorite of the study-abroad crowd. And watch him go even slower/harder, with Tego of course, on "Bandolero."
2. "Cinco Letras" -- Alexis y Fido
This duo was cut from the same cloth as the legendary Wisin y Yandel (don't worry, they're just around the corner), but never found the same success. That's probably because Alexis y Fido aren't as great; few are. Still, with the unexpected release of one frighteningly catchy "Cinco Letras" in late 2009, these understudies slid in for the save -- breaking a funky spell of bad reggaeton that was starting to jinx the era. Maybe now we can begin to forgive them for 2006's "Agarralé el Pantalon." (We'd link, but you're definitely better off in the dark.)
1. "Nadie Como Tu" -- Wisin y Yandel
Even more than Daddy Yankee, these prolific smooth-then-smack-talkers are leading reggaeton into the 2010s with subtle, effortless shifts in gate and aggression. Not sure how it's possible, but the drop on "Nadie Como Tu" seems to fall faster and deeper than any Dem Bow before or since; it might even bottom out at one point. They're romantic as hell (the finest chicks on Earth are flies to that greasy soul-patch look; it's inexplicable), and by some miracle, they can actually rap -- even if they do so only to tell inane stories about the V.I.P. booth and convince their prey to drop panty back at the suite.
You know "Give Me Everything," the ridiculously popular Pitbull song in which he hypnotizes half a clubful of bitches into going home with the nasty, cologney, entirely unloveable club rats who've been stuck to their rears all night? He learned that trick from Wisin y Yandel, original wingmen. Only with them, we wake up still believing the lies -- from dudes as sleazy as Enrique Iglesias -- all through the walk of shame and the hangover.
Watch and learn in "Ahora Es," our bonus-round finale.
Honorable mentions, after the jump.
"Cuando Cuando Es" -- J King y Maximan
"Dime Si Te Vas Con El" -- Nigga Flex
"Si No Le Contesto" -- Plan B (featuring Tony Dize and Zion y Lennox)
"La Vida Es Asi" -- Ivy Queen
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"El Telefono" -- Wisin y Yandel (featuring Hector "El Father")