Daddy Yankee, reggaeton’s first world star, steps aside
Delve into the niches of YouTube and you will find a video of Daddy Yankee performing live in his late teens wearing a silver zipped windbreaker and a crawling caterpillar moustache. It was 1996, and the future global ambassador of reggaeton freestyled a cappella in front of a crowd of hundreds. He flaunted a breathless flow with a touch of patois intonation, a hallmark of the time when the underground genre – a precursor to reggaeton – was flourishing. The DJ dropped a beat, chopped up drum breaks and syncopated dembow riddims. Yankee kept up with ease, brandishing the hyper-speed raps that would make him a superstar in the next decade.
Daddy Yankee, about 19, with angel cheeks, grew into a reggaeton kingpin, a pop star and a tycoon, helping transform a street sound into an industry cash cow. In 2004, he announced his move into the mainstream with a strategic and simple opening statement: “Who is this? Papa Yan-kee!” Just over a decade later, he rode the acoustic guitar thumps and liquified popeton beat of “Despacito” into an unnerving, international ubiquity.
But after a 32-year career, is it time for Yankee to rest on his laurels? In a sentimental video released March 20, the big boss announced his retirement from the music industry. One round of victories still to come: one last tour and one impeccably titled album Legendaddy.
Retirement albums can be difficult. Some artists mistakenly use recent trends to reproduce the aesthetics of a younger generation; others repeat the tricks that originally made them famous; The most successful dare to bare their souls and create new intimacy with the listeners.
Yankee, 45, has never been someone known for deep personal vulnerabilities. However, he has always been honest about his youth in the Villa Kennedy Caseríos, or housing projects, in San Juan, where he and DJ Playero, another reggaeton pioneer, tinkered with reggae en español and freestyling, and circulated their experiments on mixtapes on the internet at the beginning of the 90s When Yankee was 16, a bullet lodged in his right leg, a memento of a crossfire outside Playero’s studio one afternoon. It forced him to over a year of recovery, shutting down his Major League Baseball ambitions and refocusing his energies on music.
As underground and later reggaeton spread, Yankee honed the art of fusing sex and bombast into songs. He used street swagger and dirty talk, turning his breakneck rap flows into carnal dancefloor anthems like 2002’s “Latigazo” or his 2004 hit “Gasolina.” These became the songs that taught an entire diaspora about sex and the ecstasy of a perreo sucio, the kind of grind that involves swapping denim color and sweat with a dance partner.
There were sporadic moments of social commentary in Yankee’s music, as on the blockbuster cinema album Barrio Fino. But after “Gasolina” engulfed the Anglo mainstream, his fame grew and he traded his lecherous playboy image for that of a wealthy mogul: in 2005 alone, he branded with Reebok to design sneakers, apparel and accessories; agreed to model for Sean Jean’s spring collection; landed an endorsement deal with Pepsi; and signed a $20 million five-album deal with Interscope Records.
While Yankee settled into his role as a reggaeton capitalist, his success in the mid-’00s also felt like a validation for a generation of youth in the Caribbean diaspora. Reggaeton was the first music that was all ours – fresh, raw, heady, sensual. It brought us closer to the islands that gave birth to us and moved us to a longing dream of wholeness rather than constant loss.
In the early and mid-2010s, Yankee released a spate of albums, but many of them lacked dimension and panache, relying on unimaginative commercial tropes. Around 2016 he began exploring two emerging sounds: the first comb of EDM reggaeton fusions and the emerging genre of Latin trap, where he became a featured guest. Both allowed him to stay in the limelight, embrace his image as an elder statesman, and avoid competing with a new wave of artists who infused the movement with sentimentality and determination.
For Legendaddy, his first solo album in a decade, El Cangri has inventoried the sounds and styles that have shaped his career: rap, perreo, EDM and self-mythologizing popeton. The most dynamic moments come when Yankee reaches for the magic of the past – whether indulging in boastful hubris or summoning listeners into dancefloor reverie. “Uno Quitao y Otro Puesto” is a devastatingly effective explosion of late-career posturing, complete with “Sácala-esque” sizzling accents. On “Enchuletiao,” Yankee doesn’t rap, he barks a barrage of bars about his unrivaled eminence in the genre, delivered through clenched teeth. “¿Qué tú me va’ a enseñar, si yo he esta’o en to’a las era’?” he says. “What are you going to teach me once I’ve been in all the eras?” It’s a reminder of his technical prowess — he hasn’t sounded so electric, so deliciously aggressive in years.
With their stadium-sized trumpets and lively piano lines, “Rumbatón” and “El Abusador del Abusador” are exciting, nostalgic callbacks to the salsa-reggaeton fusions of the mid-’00s (fittingly, Luny of the duo Luny Tunes produced “Rumbatón”). “Remix” and “Bloke” are classic reggaeton quiffs that tap into the kind of sexual fantasies and lewd exchanges that once made the sound so compelling; the first even contains a reference to the 2007 Big Boss track “Impacto”.
But a good portion of the songs follow sober, predictable pop formats: “Para Siempre” weaves acoustic guitar textures into a bland, mid-paced popeton ballad, while “La Ola” and “Zona del Perreo” almost sound like they were constructed Spotify’s “Viva Latino” playlist. “Pasatiempo” with Myke Towers lands largely because of its interpolation of Robyn S’ “Show Me Love”. Sampling everyone’s favorite crackers is a technique Yankee wasn’t afraid of in the past (e.g. “Con Calma”), and it works here once again.
“Legendaddy” also has some egregious missteps: two EDM fusions, the globally popular style that recently topped the Latin charts. “Bombón,” starring Lil Jon and Dembow visionary El Alfa, is virtually inaudible — college spring break music, complete with “Yeah!” ad-libs from a bygone era. Dominated by its pit bull feature, “Hot” is essentially a caricature of Miami nightclub fare.
Yankee leaves room for a refreshing moment of adventure with “Agua”. The track, a collaboration with Nile Rodgers and reggaeton star Rauw Alejandro, is sparkling disco-pop sheen complete with groovy guitar riffs from the chic legend.
A farewell album, Legendaddy honors all the styles of Yankee’s career and highlights the superpower that has allowed him to survive as a high-ranking figure in a young artist’s game: flexibility. And in this way, the album also reflects the history of reggaeton itself: a sound unrecognizable from its grassroots political beginnings and whose history implies constant transformation.
There’s always a chance Yankee will return on some kind of comeback tour like many hip-hop giants have done since they left. Yankee got his flowers while he was still around, and his indelible impact cannot be underestimated. But “Legendaddy” also speaks volumes about what reggaeton needs more of right now: fresh blood, unorthodox aesthetics, and narrative world-builders trying to bring the euphoria, fireworks, and narrative depth to the genre that the movement has promised since its inception Has.