El Abismo, Puerto Rico
by Pierre Lestruhaut
Respect to whom respect is due. From 2005 to 2008, at which time Calle 13 produced a nearly impeccable run of three albums, there was no touching the MC/beatmaker pairing consisting of Residente and Visitante. Residente’s flow was singular and infectious, and his rhymes were sharp and versatile enough that he could go from hilarious to provocative to downright nasty. Visitante, on the other hand, was consistently delivering beats that stood at the intersection between club madness and visionary genre transcendence. Then, with their 2010 album Entren los que quieran, the building blocks of Calle 13 started to show some cracks. As Andrew Casillas noted, Residente had "lost his fastball" and started swerving towards “ignorantly polemic” territory. Having now heard the follow-up, whether Entren los que quieran was a slight misstep in an otherwise great discography, or the testimony of a great band taking a turn for the worse, Multi_Viral is unequivocally pointing toward the latter.
A band previously well known for their infectious and stinging hooks, Multi_Viral kicks off as mostly a collection of protester rallying cries (“A brindar por el aguante”) and self-help jingles (“Respira el momento”). For a rapper whose first hit was both brain stimulating and club banging, it’s a shame to see his political diatribes being reduced to the level of megaphone speaking street protester. Artistically, it’s as relevant and thought-provoking as any song from Spaniard anti-establishment group Ska-P. Residente is finally accomplishing what he said he could do in “Ven y Críticame”: “vender un millón de copias con una letra genérica.” And beat-wise, in their own quest to transcend reggaetón they’ve somehow lost track and found themselves as an unidentifiable, unfiltering entity of disparate influences, sloppily experimenting with world music, prog-rock solos, and cheesy Hollywood-esque orchestral soundscapes.
“El Aguante” uses celtic music as a representative backdrop for a song that talks about the injustices humanity has had and continues to endure (wars, dictators, Monsanto). On paper, it looks like it might actually work, but the result is a bleak and lifeless rant that could have been written by any social sciences first year student. First single “Multi_Viral,” works over Tom Morello’s agitating hard-rock riffs and goes on a long denunciation of government, corporate and media propaganda, and disinformation. The title suggests it could have been an interesting exploration of fame and politics in the digital era, instead all we have is an MC who’s completely mistaken artistry for activism. “Los Idiotas” hits rock bottom, though, as Residente spits universal truths about idiocy and intelligence and ends up sounding like that speech your 8th grade teacher gave when trying to motivate the class to participate a little more.
Calle 13’s album introductions have always been memorably satirical, but this time they’ve recruited Eduardo Galeano to read what is no doubt a heartwarming account of humanity’s need for connection and love. It’s nice, but it also feels like they chose to start the album with what they read on their aunt’s most liked Facebook post, and, for some reason, have it read by none other than one of Latin America’s most iconic literary figures. Speaking of Latin icons, Silvio Rodríguez appears here, too, not sounding like the heart wrenching and soothing troubadour that he is, but like a robotic, cash-grabbing, click-generating gimmick. Does this mean we should be anticipating that the next move is going to be a live set next to Victor Jara’s hologram? Cha-ching!
As you probably noticed by now, there’s a terribly annoying coincidence between the themes treated in the album and those that are most commonly present in social media posts. The obvious conclusion here? Anyone could have written these songs. And I don’t mean it as a sort of “Anyone can cook” Ratatouille-like motto about how anyone can create art. I actually mean that these songs were seemingly written by someone with absolutely no talent in songwriting whatsoever. However important the issues at hand may be, it’s as exhausted and hackneyed as those same click bait think pieces about self-help, politics, and injustice that get regurgitated day in and day out. As opposed to the Cristóbal Briceño school of political songwriting, Residente shows no depth, no shading, and no sharpness in his lyrics, only the summarized detritus of what anyone with access to the internet already knows.
There’s really not much to like in Multi_Viral, except for maybe a couple of songs. “Adentro” starts as an interesting diss of gangsta rap violent poserism and, although it starts veering toward emotional human inequalities exposure, its final verse sees Residente reflecting on his own past mistakes and present weaknesses (regretting buying a Maserati, being loud-mouthed, and the decline of his sexual performance). It’s a slick verse that’s classic Residente at his most introspective and vulnerable yet. And then there’s another brief moment of flair a few tracks later in “Fuera de la Atmósfera del Cráneo.” Visitante shines with a really cool guitar-driven beat and PG-13 also takes the spotlight with a beautifully sung hook. It’s a track that feels both deliciously funky and irresistibly catchy in what ends up being the album's only truly good beat.
As a critic, I have to ask, how does one not end up looking like an insensitive asshole when panning an album whose main purpose is inducing positive change for humanity? Perhaps that’s precisely the problem. In mistaking artistry for activism, Calle 13 have reduced their scope exclusively to what words can accomplish, thus neglecting how music functions as a coalescence of words, sounds, and melodies (“Digo más con mis palabras que con tu teoría y solfeo”). Residente’s sexual metaphors and Visitante’s club trashing beats, which made up most of their first records, still sound infinitely better than anything in Multi_Viral. I’ll take a good song about pussy poppin and poppin molly over anything on this record, so yeah, maybe I am an asshole. Residente used to be an asshole too, and we liked him way better back then. He was great at rapping about the simple pleasures of life, and his best songs sounded like the kind of simple pleasure that comes to define all great popular music. If anything, Multi_Viral is Calle 13's failure at transitioning from pop stars to larger-than-life politically engaged musicians.