Sentimiento, Elegancia & Maldad, Arcángel
Pina Records, Puerto Rico
by Carlos Reyes
As cleverly stated by reggaeton scholar Raquel Z. Rivera, “folks have been pronouncing reggaeton dead since before it was even called reggaeton.” I don’t know about you guys, but there’s not a day where I don’t encounter the beat, even in the most unexpected places. It’s far from dead, but the slightest immersion makes it hard to be optimistic about the genre’s possible pedigree, at least from an artistic viewpoint. Names like Daddy Yankee and Plan B have offered the genre enough powerful singles to maintain a degree of creative momentum, but the genre is undergoing a major depression when it comes to pouring self-sustaining full-length albums. As we’ve been predicting throughout the years, Arcángel (Austin Santos) is the one name capable of amending the future of reggaeton.
Arcángel is very well aware of where he’s standing. Arrogance and self-absorption often get the best of him (he self-proclaimed God way before Yeezus did), but I guess stubbornness is something you can afford after crafting the best reggaeton album of all time. La Maravilla (which remains commercially unreleased as a whole) was a one-of-a-kind event unlikely to be matched any time soon. His follow up (considered by the industry as his official debut), El Fenomeno, introduced him to the transnational leagues that unfortunately brought artistic confinement to his rising career. El Fenomeno was a tacky move from his label to recondition La Maravilla (at the hands of producers Luny Tunes) for mass consumption. And yet, the album was considered a commercial flop that made many wonder if Arcángel really was the individual dictating the genre.
Five years have passed and we find Arcángel more popular and consistent than probably any other name in Latin urban music. Well, that’s not necessarily true, but let me make my case. Calle 13’s political activism has nations sending delegates to the duo’s press conferences, and that’s something no one should overlook. But, while Calle 13 used the reggaeton beat as a platform (with glorious artistic and commercial results), they’ve now made every effort at their hands to disassociate from it by turning up the alternative, and subverting the urban. Arcángel on the other hand, remains loyal and affectionate to the genre. While Rene and Eduardo have turned their music into a social mission, Arcángel has kept his focus on transcending reggaeton beyond the beat. He refuses to reduce reggaeton to that essential beat, but rather presents it as set of conceptions (hooks, flow, tiraera, melodic bridges, etc.) that are tailored with a sensibility that is particular to reggaeton. In other words, what he’s bringing to the table is an assessment of the genre as something worthy of its own idiosyncratic narrative.
Three paragraphs in, and I have yet to bring up the reason behind the excitement. Arcángel just released the best reggaeton album since, well… La Maravilla. It’s nowhere near flawless, but it had been a while since an album of the eternally-controversial genre felt this complete. At 18 tracks long, Sentimiento, Elegancia & Maldad is not an easy album to dissect despite the fact that it holds some of the catchiest, funniest, and most hybridized songs released this year. I have single-handedly reviewed every release by Arcángel. It’s not that my fellow Fonograma writers neglect him (we placed “Chica Virtual” in the top 15 songs of the past decade), but I’ve used my editorial perks to become a sort of specialist/scholar on his profile. SE&M’s first single, “Hace Mucho Tiempo,” is better than 95% of the hits on FM airwaves, but in no way did it convey how good SE&M ended up being.
Immersing into SE&M is uncomfortable at first. In its mere aesthetic presentation, the album is problematic and off-putting. The album cover shows a topless model on top of the artist. She’s been branded with Arcángel's logo on her back. It’s a bit frustrating to see someone who is a bit of a genius not realize he’s taking part of what has wounded the reggaeton pedigree above anything else: its artistic prostitution. The cover isn’t as evil as R.Kelly’s latest one, but it sure is disappointing considering how progressive and androgynous most of the songs on the album are. Arcángel is more incongruent than a misogynist in that regard, but I’m sure deducting him points for not being able to filter the degrading parts of the genre he’s claiming to reform.
“Aún recuerdo mis tiempos de bandolero / cambie el flow / y sigo estando entre los primeros,” brags Arcángel in the M.I.A.-esque “Por la plata baila el mono,” just before humbly reminding us he is the King Kong of reggaeton. SE&M is not set up to revolutionize the genre in the way his debut endeavored. Arcángel instead, puts on a historian outfit and makes an index of sorts of when the genre started (the hypersexualized and bared-to-essentials “Que Le Den”), its absorption by the mainstream (“Sola” featuring ex-partner De La Ghetto), the moment it became a monopolized mafia (“Pacas de 100,” featuring Daddy Yankee), and its subsequent, sugar-coated dissolving with synth pop (“Tiene un piquete”). This historical reading of the album was most probably not intentional (the sequencing is nonlinear), but considering Arcángel's artistic escapades (highly celebrated by people like Tego Calderón and Rita Indiana), it’s consistent to conclude that Arcángel was conscious the genre needed this assessment more than another “Gasolina.”
But what makes SE&M so special is how Arcángel envisions the future of the genre: reggaeton transcending from a beat to an increasingly versatile genre. Perhaps it’s too much of an assumption, but it seems that Arcángel has bonded with his contemporaries. He encounters Drake in the dazzling “Me Myself & My Money,” swims around Frank Ocean in the melancholic “Cuando Tu No Estas,” gets as mucky and dope as Danny Brown in “Gucci Boys Club,” and croons over the R&B balladry of Miguel in “Lentamente.” While it seems like he’s borrowing, he approaches and executes each with the sensibility and idiosyncrasy of a reggaeton artist (while also holding up to the fact that he is also American). Arcángel proclaims leadership of a new line of artists he calls “La sangre nueva." If Sentimiento, Elegancia & Maldad is able to shift the gears of those subscribed to this new blood (Plan B, Ñengo Flow, among others), while also outlining the genre’s history and cultural impact for the sake of its pedigree, then we can officially consider this a triumph. And that to me is more of a revolution than trying to figure out what the hell “Multi_Viral” is really about.