Serious Time with René

By: Marcelo Báez

Remember when Calle 13 was fun to listen to? I know, it’s been a while, but, in case you’ve forgotten, their music used to be catchy (“Atrévete-te-te”), funny (“Tango del Pecado”) and irrelevant (“Fiesta de Locos”). Now, with the release of Multi_Viral, their fifth LP, it seems René Pérez has grown tired of being amusing, and he wants to be taken seriously. Thing is, he’s been reading a lot—politics, existentialism, spirituality (serious stuff, kids). But now René is finger-waving harder than my grandma after I ran over her flowers with my tricycle. 

If I could time travel back to 2004 to warn René that his future self was going to make serious music with Irish-sounding fiddles (“El Aguante”) and indigenous chants (“Un Buen Día Para Morir”), I’m 100% positive he would have laughed me out of the room. In that same situation, had I told him that he was going to became Puerto Rico’s best-known populist rapper—it’s all about “el pueblo” and “la gente” with him these days—surely he’d have choked me with an XLR cable.

René’s descent into Che-dom and social righteousness has been gradual. It began with “Pa’l Norte,” a song off Calle’s second record, and his politicking grew with “Calma Pueblo,” “Baile de los Pobres” and “Latinoamérica,” all songs off Entren Los Que Quieran, their last record.

We can’t blame “Residente” for wanting to evolve past being a genre’s clown, but there’s a problem: his inner Silvio Rodríguez—who, unsurprisingly, is a guest on the record—is preachy, self-centered and condescending. Hilariously, René seems to be aware of his shortcomings. On “Adentro,” Multi_Viral’s most telling and melodramatic song, he is at his most self-aware (“Before understanding the inequality among people, I bought a used Maserati”), but also at his most self-congratulatory (“To be honest, I’m still the best at this”).

Achieving the kind of fame most amateur bands can only dream of allows René to meet people like Julian Assange, a person many high-profile politicians wish they could at least Snapchat with. But while claiming humility (“I’ll take you to Syria so you can feel a bombing, see how children are left without limbs”), René’s personal problems appear to be those of a privileged, angry man (“My credit is messed up”). Makes one wonder if Fidel Castro ever woke up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, yelling at the ceiling: “My mortgage!”

Truth be told, Calle 13 has done an excellent job at honing their sound. As previously noted, they’re hardly a party band anymore, but everything from reggae (“Perseguido”), rock (“Multi_Viral”), weird glitch pop (“Cuando los Pies Besan el Piso”), funk (“Gato Que Avanza, Perro Que Ladra”) and string-and-horn embellished tunes (“Me Vieron Cruzar”) has a turn on Multi_Viral. Eduardo Cabra, aka “Visitante,” and the rest of the band put on one hell of a show.

Indeed, long are the days when René’s teenage horndog persona would write clever innuendos and witty observations. Or when Cabra was still producing club-thumping tracks. People change, kids. Four years ago, Residente recorded “Gordita” with none other than Shakira, Latin America’s biggest sellout. But now, if you wanna roll with Calle 13, René expects to see Noam Chomsky’s entire repertoire on your bookshelf, and WikiLeaks bookmarked on your browser.  

Multi_Viral by Calle 13, available now

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.