After more than a decade of making music and 25 Grammys wins under his belt with his group Calle 13, Residente aka René Pérez Joglar was ready for a challenge. So when the conscious Puerto Rican hip hop duo decided to take a break to work on other projects, Pérez set off to visit the global sites of his genetic heritage, which he had recently discovered thanks to a DNA test.
His travels are the basis for his first solo project, a self titled work featuring a documentary film that debuted at SXSW, an interactive multimedia website, and an album that dropped March 31. The voluminous, enveloping nature of Residente underlines the rapper’s passion for his subject matter. At the heart is Residente’s belief that knowledge of our fellow global citizens is power.
He trekked to Burkina Faso, France, Beijing, and places in between. In each region, the emcee recorded local musicians. In China, he worked with an opera singer on a song about her country’s pollution issues. In Africa, tribal singers were incorporated into a track that Residente wrote for his son Milo. Album lyrics tackle climate change, the struggle for Puerto Rican independence, war and body positivity — a range that causes cognitive whiplash from time to time.
The website is similarly vast. There, write ups that would not be out of place in a Lonely Planet travel guide teach that China has an overpopulation problem, Puerto Rico is in debt crisis, Siberia is the world’s coldest home for humans, and that the Caucasus town of South Ossetia was all but destroyed by Georgian troops set on reannexing the territory after Ossetia’s citizens voted to join Russia.
“In music there is a lack of honesty and realness, and I wanted to be with the people,” explained the rapper to The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah the day before Residente dropped. “If I’m gonna talk about Africa, like Burkina Faso, I go there and I stay with the tribes and the people and I make music with them and it’s more real and honest.”
‘Residente’ is a gesture meant to be more universal than radicalizing.
But in some cases, the epic journey gave birth to musical arrangements that don’t exist in the real world. “I used kids from Ossetia, drums from Ossetia and then I used the panduri [string instrument] from Georgia,” he told Noah, referencing his trip to the conflict-ravaged Caucasus Mountains during which Residente recorded audio for “Guerra,” a sweeping story of war. “[The two places] were at war against each other. I did a song with them together.”
The Daily Show audience cheered the notion that music could fix the hurt caused by the Beslan school hostage crisis that left over 330 Ossetians dead, including 186 children.
Fans of indigenous traditions of sound will likely find much to love in Residente. The Chinese strings, Caucasus percussion, and African choruses that bolster Pérez’s earnest lyrics can be thrilling. But the tracks feel dispersed, with frequent layovers in divergent genres. Some songs particularly so; “Desencuentro,” a collaboration with French actress and singer Soko, is a saccharine pop ode to soulmates who will never meet. Residente‘s production values across the board are sky high and “Desencuentro”‘s sleek video, directed by Residente himself and starring the physically stunning Charlotte Le Bon and Edgar Ramírez, could just as easily be an outtake from Amelie or a Nescafé commercial.
Residente is studded with celeb cameos. Pérez has a power player’s Rolodex – past guest stars on Calle 13 projects have included Café Tacvba, Rubén Blades, Tego Calderon, and Julian Assange. On his solo album, the emcee brings in The Mars Volta’s guitarist Omar Rodríguez López, who shreds on multiple songs, and John Leguizamo, who contributed an interlude calling for “destupification” to Calle 13’s 2014 album Multi_Viral and who turns in a cameo on the NSFW video for Residente‘s “Somos Abnormales.” That song’s lyrics explore the beauty of imperfection, but its video reads as a stylized history of the world in brief, echoing Residente’s predilection for the Africa/mother archetype that also shows up on “Milo.”
The album’s intro is voiced by Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda, who opens with a tale that brings the project’s thesis into focus. The actor speaks about going to Puerto Rico to introduce Residente at a concert, where he had the opportunity to meet the rapper’s mother. She immediately recognized him. “Tu tienes que ser nieto de Wisin Miranda,” she said. And it was true. Miranda and Residente, it turns out, are cousins.
Sometimes you run into your famous rapper cousin in the street. pic.twitter.com/icve1VlzRJ
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) May 4, 2015
You never know who you are related to, suggests the track. “We are all equal,” Residente tells a folklore musician from Siberia in a video presented on Residente.com.
There is no doubt that there is real merit in artistic endeavors that underline the interconnectedness of the world, especially right now as our president looks to extricate the United States from global environmental coalitions. But for all of its good intentions, Residente’s barrage of people and places can come across a little “It’s a Small World After All,” evoking the too-easy multiculturalism of 1980s Bennetton ads and that Coca Cola commercial where everyone holds hands and erases the evils of modern society with a refreshing bottle of high fructose corn syrup. We’re not all equal — some of us are allowed to record, mix, and master tracks with collaborators who are physically unable to record in the same studio together.
The experience of being censored may have made Residente more selective when it comes to vitriol.
This at-times fuzzy idealism bears mentioning because Residente has never lacked for political bite. The son of a labor lawyer, he grew up on picket lines, and continues to stan for social struggle. He has made trips to visit protests against predatory debt restructuring in Puerto Rico, and used his recent Daily Show appearance to announce that he’d be spending the next day with the students who are striking at the University of Puerto Rico over $450 million of proposed budget cuts.
He has worked with Unicef and Amnesty International and in 2015, he became the first Latino to be honored by the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, a body that rewards culture and entertainment workers whose projects support human rights and peace.
Residente may be a sign of its creator’s maturation as an activist. After Pérez called out Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuño at the 2009 MTV Premios Latinoamérica, calling him an “hijo de la gran puta,” Calle 13 was effectively banned from performing in their home country. The duo returned to the PR stage in 2012 to perform for a crowd of over 25,000 people.
The experience of being censored may have made him more selective when it comes to vitriol. When Calle 13 put out 2014’s Multi_Viral, the emcee made mention in several interviews of wanting to soften, or widen his approach. “I thought, maybe I can do something bigger than politics,” he told the New York Times. “If I say one thing, it’s wrong,” he said to NPR. “If I say the other, it’s also wrong. It’s like this game of Tetris, like a puzzle that gets harder to solve every day.”
Seen in this light, it is easy to interpret Residente as an attempt by its creator to politely edge our political consciousness, a gesture meant to be more universal than radicalizing. And where is the lie? Given the snake pit that political discourse has become in 2017, an interlude of wistful mock equality, Hamilton stars, and non-partisan, international resilience makes for a nice moment of mental reset.
‘Residente’ is out now.