Return of the King

Atlantic Records had big plans for Tego Calderón. Upon signing a contract with the popular reggaetonero, the record company hoped its new star would collaborate with well-established American hip-hop celebrities. The idea was to produce a crossover album that would resonate with the English-speaking public.

Unfortunately for Atlantic, Calderón had no intention of following through with that particular agenda. "I honestly don't care about having a crossover record," Calderón admits from his suite at South Beach's Hotel Victor. "If the record company wants to have a crossover hit, that's fine by me, but I have no intentions of selling out. Besides, if you think about it, Daddy Yankee had his crossover because of [the all-Spanish] 'Gasolina' and not because he collaborated with someone like Puff Daddy."

After the debut of the groundbreaking album El Abayarde, fans and critics proclaimed the Puerto Rican-born Calderón the leading star of the rising reggaeton movement. His innovative collage of Afro-Caribbean beats and unique sociopolitical lyrical content led some critics to compare him with past Caribbean musical idols like Bob Marley and Ismael Rivera. The hype was definitely on, and Calderón was set to be the rapper who would take reggaeton to the mainstream.

But the media buildup and the pressures of following up a hit record directed Calderón to drastically rethink his approach to making music. Gone now are the diamond-encrusted gold chains and collaborations with 50 Cent. Instead The Underdog, his eagerly awaited sophomore offering, finds Calderón focusing on personal issues and delving deeper into the Caribbean rhythms that initially inspired his art.

"I wanted to remain true to myself," he explains. "Many of my colleagues are running around, fighting each other to be genre's king rapper, but I'm not like that. The new album's name is meant to be ironic, because I don't need to claim to be the top dog. I know who I am and that's why I won't go around pretending to be a millionaire. I just want to come across as a human being."

Calderón's awakening began when a trip to Sierra Leone put him face to face with the poor working conditions local diamond miners experience. That encounter prompted him to give up the bling that was part of his trademark look.

"I went to Africa, and after what I saw, I decided to give up the diamonds. I won't promote their use anymore. Wearing jewelry is the equivalent of me trying to straighten my Afro. I feel free without having to put on the diamonds," says Calderón, whose music has always been deeply rooted in the struggles faced by Afro-Caribbean communities.

Calderón also wanted to try out a different lyrical approach. His new songs strive to avoid the overt preachiness and anger that were present throughout his debut. This time around, he leaves it up to the listener to figure out the meaning behind the lyrics. Songs like the old-school salsa "Chango Blanco" apply the use of metaphors to convey a message of racial equality. "The way I see it, I'm following in the footsteps of other artists like Ismael Rivera, KRS One, and Public Enemy," continues Calderón. "Ever since I started making music, I have been on a mission to educate, but now I want to do it differently, with more subtleness."

In order to get his message across, Calderón asked Mayra Santos Febres to write liner notes for each of the songs on The Underdog. "Mayra is a really important Puerto Rican writer," explains Calderón. "We share the same values. She internalized my themes and described them in a way that I could not do."

Raquel Z. Rivera, a research fellow at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York City who is teaching a course at Columbia University called From Hip-Hop to Reggaeton, believes Calderón's new outlook places him in a unique position for a Latino artist. "He's not doing things only to sell records; the marketing strategy is not first in his mind," Rivera says from her New York office. "Tego is not using typical Caribbean influences, like bachata or merengue; his sound is drawing from other parts of the Caribbean that don't get much play. Basically he's incorporating the music from the African diaspora, not highlighting the Latino unity but re-emphasizing the Afro-Caribbean experience."

Conceivably it could have been much easier, and more profitable, for Calderón to make an album full of straight reggaeton tracks. But the ubiquitous production duo Luny Tunes is noticeably absent here; taking its place are underground producers DJ Nelson and Ecko, who expand the reggaeton formula with styles ranging from New Orleans-style guitar licks to funk and old-school salsa.

As for the much-anticipated collaborations, Calderón has stuck with those who know him best. Fellow reggaetoneros Don Omar and Julio Voltio, as well as Jamaican dancehall icon Buju Banton and Venezuelan salsa crooner Oscar D'León, lend their voices to the album.

Some critics might interpret Calderón's conscious decision to remain true to his musical vision as a deliberate attempt to curb his popularity, but his particular choices are proving to be a hit with the reggaeton-loving crowd.

"People identify with his life and personality," says rapper and longtime collaborator Julio Voltio. "His new songs are what's hot right now; they are all that I hear coming out from people's car stereos. In Puerto Rico the new record is already a big hit. People here wanted to hear something new, and Tego delivered."

At the free NFL Opening Kickoff concert held in Miami Beach this past September 7, a large contingent of Calderón faithful bumped and sang along to his music. "You got to love his style," fan Noel Puj declared while bouncing shirtless. "Tego is different from all these other guys; he represents Caribbean unity and comes across as real. You can tell that he means what he says. He's one of us."

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José Dávila