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First Listen: Calle 13, 'Multi_Viral'

Calle 13 singer René Pérez Joglar.
Calle 13 singer René Pérez Joglar.

Puerto Rican rap duo Calle 13 is both famous and infamous throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Its members went from making hilariously raunchy club hits early in the previous decade to becoming two of the most visible and socially conscious Latin musicians today. Their unabashed support of the independence movement in Puerto Rico and their sympathy for leftist causes has earned them both rabid fans and furious detractors. Up until not so long ago, it also made it impossible for them to perform in their hometown of San Juan and parts of Colombia.

Clear the thicket of controversy, and you'll find that Calle 13 remains an excellent band. Lyrically, few Spanish-language rappers can even come close to frontman René Pérez Joglar's flow. Musically, thanks to his brother Eduardo Cabra (the other half of Calle 13), they concoct a rare combination of songs that are rich in content, musically appealing and sometimes even danceable. Take "Latinoamerica" from their last record, Entren Los Que Quieran; while they could have easily veered into cheesy "save the world" territory, they managed the exact opposite. That album received a record 10 Latin Grammy nominations.

Toward the beginning of Calle 13's newest album, Multi_Viral, there's a duet with one of the most iconic political troubadours of Latin America, Cuba's Silvio Rodriguez. A torch is clearly being passed here, but that type of success, especially in an increasingly divided Latin America, comes at a price. "The ultra left hates me, so does the far right," Pérez sings. In Multi_Viral, the band examines the price of its fame. It's Calle 13's most introspective work to date.

The album has inside jokes and comments for the fans, and there are moments of navel-gazing and defensiveness that feel awkward for such a forward-looking band. It's an uneven album, but one peppered with gems.

"Adentro" is gorgeous, and one of Calle 13's most revealing songs. Pérez talks frankly about receiving death threats, his feeling of impotence against the entertainment industry ("you brutes, rapping about blowing people's brains out in a country where you get killed for stealing a dollar") and sometimes regretting being so vocal. (He confesses that he feels bad about insulting former Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuño after thousands of Puerto Ricans were laid off from their jobs.) "Adentro" is as sprawling and cinematic as the album that surrounds it. And, for those who yearn for a good old Calle 13 party song, "Cuando Los Pies Tocan La Tierra" is a fun, danceable ditty with tinges of Middle Eastern music.

Fans and detractors alike will surely take note of the collaboration with Julian Assange (in the song "Multi_Viral," he has a spoken-word bit) and an introduction by writer Eduardo Galeano. Yet in this album, the duo shines brightest when Joglar and Cabra appear alone with their vulnerabilities.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.