Review: Rapper Olmeca’s New Album ‘DEFINE’ Is Infused With Afro-Caribbean Rhythms, Trap Beats & a Political Message

Photo courtesy of the artist

Olmeca’s decade-plus-long career is the sound of the bicultural phenomenon. Raised between the barrios in Los Angeles and Mexico, he can effortlessly jump from trap to cumbia; he switches from English to Spanish in his raps in a heartbeat, and he always uses his music as a platform to unite his people and celebrate their differences. Following up his 2013 full-length Brown Is Beautiful, Olmeca now released DEFINE, an album informed by an era where divisive rhetoric is omnipresent. Here, the rapper’s out-loud reflection on his experience as Latinx in the US becomes a call to action for all of us to resist.

The title track opens DEFINE, and it does so with a bang. Here, Olmeca gives us a five-part trip through ambient poetry, boom-bap, huapango huasteco, Afro-Caribbean rhythms like bomba and trap – all in under five minutes. He also manages to highlight what he does best: spit rhymes in an impressive and controlled way. It also establishes the concept behind the album and its name – which can be read in both English and Spanish – and represents his way of letting his art define who he is, instead of the narrative spread by officials in political office and their followers.

Photo by Luis Alba Sanchez
Read more

In its 12 songs, DEFINE mainly revolves around hip-hop, both old-school and recent, but he also finds inspiration in some of the music he was exposed to when he was growing up. This includes music from the likes of Los Solitarios, whose vintage sounds permeate half of the album tracks. A direct reference is the song “El Solitario,” as it features among its instrumentation the dusty organ sounds that gave the Tijuana band its signature sound, instantly screaming “nostalgia.” Alex Chávez, from Chicago-based quintet Dos Santos, sings here and throughout the entirety of DEFINE, as he worked together with Olmeca to produce the album. His band members also guest on the album, providing live instrumentation to most of the tracks.

“Who will survive in America? / What is America?”, the rapper asks on “The Hope” backed by Afro-Indigenous instruments played by L.A. ensemble Buyepongo, before dropping into a massive trap beat calling for the end of borders. “La Balacera” tackles gun violence, pointing out that the issue won’t be solved until the government doesn’t change its discourse. And “The Message” is directed for people, who like him, dispel the concept of “ni de aquí ni de allá,” telling them that, no matter what people tell them, they do belong. Each song feels like a political statement, but the idea of freedom runs through all of them.

With DEFINE, Olmeca shines as an outstandingly skilled rapper, but also as an artist who is sensitive to his and his people’s reality and refuses to look the other way. The album celebrates Latinxs’ resilience and uniqueness in these dark times.