Ileana Cabra has never been shy about her voice. As a teenager, she first showcased her powerhouse pipes alongside her ultra-famous brothers, René Pérez Joglar (Residente) and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (Visitante) of Puerto Rico’s beloved and irreverent export Calle 13. Play their albums and you’ll recognize Cabra’s distinctive wail, which adds dimension to several of the band’s biggest hits. At concerts, the plucky singer performed under the stage name PG-13, taking turns bouncing between her brothers like a volleyball and enhancing their live set with back-up harmonies and the occasional well-pitched roar.
Now at 27, Cabra is putting her own stake in the ground with her first solo album ILevitable, proving that there is intense depth to the vocalist known for crooning on “Hormiga Brava.” The release completely circumvents the kabooming reggaeton beats that launched her brothers to fame. Instead, Cabra opts for the nostalgia and grace of old school boleros — making ILevitable something that sounds like it should be crackling from a victrola instead of looping on Spotify.
Cabra could have easily recorded songs to gyrate to in the Calle 13 vein. But by looking back at classic genres, she separates herself both from her PG-13 days and from the contemporary pop artist pack. In interviews, the singer comes off thoughtful and introspective — even solemn at times — and the album was carefully crafted in her image. Cabra’s poise infuses ILevitable’s vintage spirit, which positions the release to feel wiser and perhaps more memorable than if she’d chosen to create a collection of modern dance tunes.
The whole debut is family business that would make the von Trapps proud. At a time when Calle 13 is on an indefinite hiatus, Visitante contributed keyboards and musical arrangements. Residente has gushed in support of the project, noting his sister’s maturity and knack for captivating people with her voice. Cabra’s father even sings on a few tracks, and Ile co-produced the record with Calle 13 drummer Ismael Cancel.
Drawing on classic singers and composers from Puerto Rico, ILevitable starts its slow waltz down memory lane with the mournful ballad “Quién Eres Tú.” A few opening chords from a wavering organ clear the way for Cabra, who dives into a soaring verse, setting the tone for the album’s rush of vocal power. Cabra follows the track with the equally strong “Caníbal,” flirting with hints of a doo-wop melody and tinkling keyboards to emphasize her deep and seasoned tone.
It’s during “Triángulo” that Cabra’s passion for bygone eras shines brightest. Yes, she has the prowess to imitate the Gloria Mirabals of the past, but more impressively, she knows how to emote the pain and yearning of forgotten balladeers. Throughout the chorus, Cabra shakily excuses herself — “perdón” — before heaving into a sob-soaked final verse. She is convincing as she plays the role of a weathered soul prone to heartbreak. In a short documentary about the making of the album, one of her sound engineers puts it best: “She’s an old lady trapped in a girl’s body.”
And while the subject matter on ILevitable mostly jostles between obvious themes of love and loss, there are occasionally flashes of Cabra’s darker, more abstract tendencies. She hinted at this aesthetic in both the album’s David Lynchian cover art — a slit wrist gushing streams of golden honey — and in the video for “Caníbal,” which sees her tearing apart a baroque feast. Cabra weaves an equally surreal dream in the lyrics for “Extraña de Querer,” nodding to the German language’s famed writer and king of existentialism as she sings, “Y me convierte en insect/Como Kafka, frenesí.” When she uses the haunting, spectral qualities of her voice to examine deep-seated worries and angst, the album feels like a genuine piece of artistry. This side of Cabra —strange and progressive — is often more interesting than when she’s just interpreting.
She plays with other ways to shape and mold her voice. She can screech out, scorned and anguished, when she needs to, but she can bring things down to a gentle whisper, like on the fragile “Que Mal Estoy.” The album’s sole English-language experiment, “Out of Place,” is just as delicate and velvety, punctuated with a bluesy twang. And at one point — during the short little ditty “Aurora y José” — Cabra doesn’t even bother to sing. She merrily guides the track along with a symphony of hums and whistles.
ILevitable is at its weakest when inspiration starts to feel too much like derivation. Cabra’s quirk is lost when she gets uptempo in “Te Quiero Con Bugalú,” one of the album’s most ambitious orchestral pieces that is also among its most forgettable. Similarly, “Danza Para No Llorar” is beautifully crafted, yet it lacks Cabra’s distinct presence — she’s inscrutable here, hiding behind impersonation.
But even her album’s flat notes serve as affirmation that listeners are drawn to Cabra’s idiosyncrasies. She’s at her most exciting when she lets her fans peek through her anachronistic veneer and see the real artist — fears, insecurities, anxieties, and all.
ILevitable is available now on Sony Music Latin.
Update, 06/6/2016, 11:54 a.m.: A previous version of this article implied that Franz Kafka was born in Germany. Kafka was born in Prague, but wrote exclusively in German.