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On his latest album, Emboscada (Ambush), Puerto Rico rapper Vico C brags that he is still respected by fans even though critics have branded him a has-been. "How to go back to [being] number one?" the 31-year-old asks. "Easy," he answers, "being faithful, working hard, and playing a few tricks."
Yes, tricks, he insists, like Picasso pulled off.
"Picasso said that he learned his work went unnoticed when he painted the eyes where they were supposed to be, but that everybody had a reaction if he put them in unconventional places," the rapper explains. "That's what I try to do with my music."
To make his point, he removes a shoe.
"If I take off my left shoe and you only see a regular sock, you won't make much comment," he argues.
Then he lets the second shoe drop, showing off a hole in his right sock.
"But if I show you this, you could say, 'He's a pig,' or 'He's not making any money!' or 'Here's a humble guy.' The whole thing is about getting people to react."
The Latin Grammy-nominated Vico C has been getting a rise out of Puerto Rican fans since 1989, when he hit big with the song "La Recta Final" ("Final Sprint"). Born in Brooklyn but relocated to San Juan at age five, Luis Armando Lozada Cruz became the first rap star in Puerto Rico -- only rappers Ruben DJ and Glenn Monroig had scored airplay there before him. His debut album sold an impressive 30,000 copies. All he remembers now, however, is being ignored. "Rap didn't exist yet," he says. "I underestimated myself. I didn't feel part of the music society; I felt like a pet. The balladeers, the salsa or merengue musicians were considered artists. I -- I was in a corner, doing something else -- rap."
But that was about to change. "We were selling more albums than any of them," Vico C recalls. A combination of merengue and rap became widely popular, and Vico C's name blew up as big as the Panamanian El General, selling albums all over the Americas using a light formula of a strong merengue beat, a chorus, and lots of beefcake closeups. Over the course of eleven albums and compilations, Vico C developed a more urban rap that distinguished him from his peers. His 1994 single "El Filósofo" earned him a reputation as rap's philosopher.
Throughout the early Nineties, Vico C paid some bills working as a multigenre producer and even writing some of his clients' ballads, salsa, and merengue tunes. His more successful productions set the tone of the era: Lisa M. sang "El Pum Pum" and Francheska voiced "Menealo" ("Swing It!").
Despite his success, a motorcycle accident in 1990 changed the rapper's course. He couldn't walk normally and suffered through a grueling rehabilitation. It was, for him, the beginning of another story, where his music reflected the wild side of the streets and a confrontation with his own demons.
"I was in the hospital such a long time that I got addicted to Demerol and morphine," he reveals. "When I got out I needed controlled prescriptions to sleep. After trying marijuana I got involved with cocaine. Everything was easier to get than controlled prescriptions, especially heroin -- the number one antidepressant. That's how I got hooked. When I was hooked on heroin, around 1995 and 1996, my morale was so low I felt insecure about myself, and about my talent."
Whenever an artist reveals such hard-core anecdotes, the behavior is always part of the past. Sure enough Vico C found the road to salvation -- albeit a rocky one. He went to church and to rehab, and after a while he went back to the recording studio to complete the 1996 Con Poder (With Power), but the lack of promotion and support for the album depressed him again and reheated his personal inferno.
The title of his 1998 comeback tells the story best: Aquel Que Había Muerto (The One Who Was Dead). By that time he had moved back to the mainland, this time to Orlando, to concentrate on his family and attend services at the Christian Family Center church. His fans responded to the resurrection, snapping up more than a quarter-million copies of the disc in the United States and the island.
Not that he doesn't continue to struggle. His songs of redemption made Vico C the face of an anti-drug campaign in Puerto Rico, but he was caught last year on the island carrying two heroin dose packs. The rapper's official statement claims that he was looking for the medical substitute for heroin, methadone, when he "made the mistake" of buying the illegal substance found in his pockets when police stopped his friend's car. A few months later he was exonerated by a jury due to an improper police procedure.
Vico C shares with Eminem a compulsion to tell all, rapping long paragraphs filled with personal references. As hard-core in the Christ-saves-all message of Emboscada as he was in his drug use, the rapper defines himself as an artist in constant development. Emboscada finds God as busy as -- ooops! -- hell, going back and forth in stories filled with police corruption, drugs, prostitutes, abortions, and parents doing drugs or going to jail, or both. He refuses to repeat the party formula that first made him famous.