A Tale of Two Records

By: Marcelo Báez

Many moons ago, Los Rakas were pitched to me as “two Panamanian rappers based out of Oakland, California.” I’m a huge fan of both El General and El Chombo, and I used to live in California, so my imagination ran wild. “If these dudes are fusing old-school Panamanian dance music with Bay Area hip-hop, they’ll be UNSTOPPABLE,” I thought to myself. After listening to their 2011 EP Chancletas y Camisetas Bordada, I was surprised to find out it was more straight hip-hop than a fusion with other styles.

This week, El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo, Los Rakas’ major-label debut landed on my virtual desk and I was curious to hear their progress. According to the press release, cousins Raka Dun (“El Negrito Dun Dun”) and Raka Rich (“Ricardo”), were planning to release solo records separately, but opted to do it together, like what OutKast did with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

First we hear Raka Dun’s offerings. The bare-bones and minimalist “No Tan Listo” opens the record, and Dun’s signature ragga-style is in full effect. Next comes “Demencia y Locura,” a downtempo beat with jazzy Rhodes keys and sampled vintage strings. In case there is room for doubt: Dun is trying to get laid here, people, which is even more evident when “Así Me Gusta,” a slow groove with creamy synth pads and suggestive choruses (“Baby, dale así,” he croons) comes along. The record picks up the tempo on “Africana” (featuring Raka Rich), a feel-good, pro-woman-of-color song that feels a little misplaced right after a tune about kinky sex.

And next on the list of inevitable Latino themes (love, sex, ethnic pride: check, check, check) comes immigration, in the form of “Sueño Americano.” It’s supposed to be a song about being the victim of a broken system, but it comes off as the self-centered rant of a teenager (“These dudes don’t know anything about me / Or what I’ve done to get by”). Thankfully, Dun’s foray into serious political issues is brief. “Hot,” his last song, turns out to be his best: the buzzy synth and percussion work great with each other, and the track makes for a good crossover to Raka Rich’s dancier grooves.

While Dun went home to make love after clubbing, Rich found an after-party, took over the sound system, and brought a fog machine, lasers and party favors. Songs like “Pegaíto” (featuring Raka Dun) sound like something Justin Timberlake could have put out during his FutureSex/LoveSounds era. The funky vocal house tracks are vocoder-heavy, catchy and well-done, but the lyrics are horrendously ordinary—which, to be fair, is a dance-music-wide problem, so we wouldn’t hold it against Rich.

On “Hasta el Piso (Acuéstate)” Rich slows down, but the hard auto-tune vocal effect begins to take its toll. And on the last track, “X-tacy” (featuring Raka Walter & Alka), he turns up the tired and ubiquitous effect while a gated synth pulsates throughout the song.

El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo is clearly two different records. Dun sticks to his tried-and-true formula (dance hall, reggae, hip-hop), but the progression of his slow jams lags until it’s too late. Rich’s lyrics occasionally veer towards cheesy dance music à la Enrique Iglesias, but plays a much stronger hand by experimenting with different genres. Oddly, other than singing in Spanish, neither performer does much with the typical “Latino” sound (reggaeton, salsa, cumbia, etc.), but that’s not detrimental. What doesn’t work is the fact that the record sounds like an awkward hodgepodge of ideas instead of a cohesive collaboration.

Friends (or relatives, as it is the case here) don’t always have to do everything together. Sadly, this is one of those times.

El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo by Los Rakas, 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.