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Although he's in the middle of an 11-city national arena tour, platinum-selling reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee has still felt the heat of the growing anti-immigration sentiment spreading throughout the United States. "Let's be honest — there are some politicians right now working against Latinos," the 30-year-old says via cell phone from his native Puerto Rico. "Discrimination — it's a big problem, and we face a lot of it [in the States]. But there's also a great deal of desperation in our home countries.... If things weren't so bad back home, Latinos wouldn't be risking their lives coming here and struggling so much just to get by and get [residency] papers."
For his part, Yankee (born Ramon Ayala) tackles the matter facing many of his listeners on the new record, El Cartel: The Big Boss, specifically with the song "Me Quedaría" ("I Would Stay"). Over an old-school hip-hop breakbeat, he raps, "But how do we treat the immigrants in our own [Latin American] countries? We should ask ourselves that question because we are all part of the same chain."
Displays of Hispanic unity run through Daddy Yankee's live performances, where it is common for fans to wave their nations' flags as a sign of solidarity. "I love seeing all of those Mexican, Dominican, and Cuban flags," says Yankee. "We all come to the U.S. from different countries, but for at least one night, we are all united under one sound."
That sound he refers to is, of course, reggaeton, and by all accounts, he's the top dog of the genre. His rise to international superstardom began in mid-2004, when the ultrapropulsive club banger "Gasolina" broke out of the corner bodegas and into the higher reaches of the Billboard charts. The accompanying album, Barrio Fino, sold more than two million copies stateside, becoming a sizable hit on both the Latin and mainstream U.S. charts. Critically the album was generally received as a breath of fresh air. Even bastions of highbrow culture such as the New York Times took notice, short-listing Barrio Fino as one of the best hip-hop albums of 2004. Even the BBC declared "Gasolina" among the best singles of the year.
Yankee then proved to be more than a one-hit wonder by following his "Gasolina" success with a string of club hits such as the MTV TRL favorite "Rompe," the Snoop Dogg collaboration "Gangsta Zone," and the NYC salsa-meets-reggaeton of "Lo Que Pasó, Pasó" ("Whatever Happened, Happened"). Along the way, major multinational labels came knocking, and he struck a $20 million distribution deal with Interscope Records.
His success as an urban act also attracted the attention of Reebok execs, who offered Yankee that most coveted hip-hop commodity: his own line of sneakers. "It's a very special symbol of pride," Yankee says of the deal. "The Anglo kids have people like Russell Simmons and Puff Daddy touting their own brands. Why not us? We [Latinos] have our own icons, and we should have products that represent our culture." The Yankee sneakers have since become a hot item in states such as Texas, California, and Florida.
But his main commodity remains his music, and this summer he finally released his long-awaited follow-up album, El Cartel: The Big Boss. The record debuted at number one on the Latin Billboard charts and at number nine on the Billboard 200 — an impressive feat for a Latin record. Still, The Big Boss has yet to produce a single equaling the runaway successes of "Gasolina." The new album finds Yankee trying his hand at a new variety of styles, like on the Scott Storch-produced "Impacto Remix," featuring a sexy Fergie, which became a Top 20 hit and a TRL staple.
"This music is really for everyone, you feel me?" Yankee says, explaining his attempts to gain crossover appeal. "I wanted to work alongside Latin and Anglo artists; I will not put any barriers on myself or my music. That's why I do dancehall, hip-hop, and anything that's tropical. I consider myself a solid urban artist. I touch all the bases." Even so, the biggest hit from the new album is not a reggaeton song or, for that matter, one of the by-the-numbers crossover hip-hop collaborations, like the Akon-assisted "Plane to PR."
The cut getting the most airplay is, of all things, a merengue song called "Ella Me Levantó" ("She Lifted Me Up"). The track features a live Latin band with Yankee rapping and then singing through the chorus. Of all of his new material, it feels like the most relaxed and fun song he has done in years.
While the North American leg of his tour ends October 7 in Los Angeles, and will be followed by a South American outing, Yankee already has his sights set on markets even farther afield. "I'm moving a lot of records in India right now," he says, sounding surprised. "So I'm planning on doing a tour of India in the future, and I want to hit Europe as well. People are listening to my music in all of these places!"
In the more immediate future, Daddy Yankee will keep busy with the October premiere of his directorial film debut, Talento del Barrio (Talent from the Hood). The Spanish-language film tells the story of a young hustler with musical talent, following the tradition of works like Jimmy Cliff's Jamaican reggae tale The Harder They Come and Eminem's 8 Mile.