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Residente’s ‘Las Letras Ya No Importan’ Is a Feast That Could Use More Focus

A couple of years ago, Residente engaged in a war of words with J Balvin. Admittedly, it wasn’t a fair fight, at least on those terms, with one of Spanish-language hip-hop’s most accomplished artists putting the popwise Colombian reggaetonero on the defensive. Lurking beneath this back-and-forth volley of since-deleted video rants and dueling hot dog memes lay a deep seated criticism of the industry in which both artists operate, one where a dispute over representation at the Latin Grammys could prompt legitimate, almost existential animus between them. And while it would be fallacious to credit the Puerto Rican rapper with his perceived foe’s current commercial drought, in certain authenticity-obsessed Latin music circles it represents a small victory for substance over mere content. 

In light of this well-publicized beef, it’s hard not to see the titles and cover art for Las Letras Ya No Importan (The Lyrics Don’t Matter) as an extension of the invective, with music biz cynicism and AI laziness put fully on blast. Of course, Residente’s fundamentally human craft compels him to channel his concerns and his passions into hip-hop, the artform where he made his name with the seminal Calle 13 and as a solo artist. A show-and-prove opportunity for a decorated veteran, the 23-track, 90-plus minute effort can feel exhaustive and, at times, exhausting. But when positioning yourself as the equivalent of a Michelin-starred chef in a field of fast food slingers, people should anticipate a feast.

Incidentally, it takes more than two minutes for Residente to arrive on his own album, the compounding intros centering the voices of his departed friend Valentina Gasparini and actress Penelope Cruz instead of himself. These are clear choices with obvious meaning, personal or otherwise, but once “313” gets going he is effusive and romantic with his poetry and his sentiments. “El Malestar En La Cultura” switches gears to pontificate knowingly on the intertwined roles of rap and culture, while the ferocious “Desde la Servilleta” defends the very ethos of his work with bars upon bars. 

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At this stage in his career, nobody expects Residente to be on the cutting edge of hip-hop production. In the seven years since his last album, 2017’s globe-trotting Residente, he hasn’t lost his desire to paint his canvases with a broad sonic palette. But amid the apparent false starts that surrounded this long-awaited follow-up, a little restraint would have helped make Las Letras… a cohesive work instead of an unintentional splattering that inadvertently highlights the disparate origins and ages of the material. Some of his instrumental selections here feel worse than regressive, the staid nature of “Jerga Platanera” and “Ron En El Piso” undercutting otherwise solid lyricism. Considering what fellow elder statesmen of rap like Jay-Z and Nas have done on late-period albums with No I.D. and Hit-Boy, Residente’s record assuredly would have benefitted from similar focus. Instead, we end up indulging such utterly regrettable novelties as the bluesy stomp n’ twang of “Problema Cabrón.” 

Still, when it works, it works quite well. “En Talla” harkens back to the days of Fania greatness, its methodically slow pace giving him ample space to engage in frank sociopolitical analysis without missing a beat. Previously released tracks like “This Is Not America” and the cathartic closer “René” reinforce his emcee bonafides, topically poignant and thematically fluid in ways that would escape most other rappers. It certainly doesn’t hurt when he brings on genre greats like Arcángel for the vibey “Que Fluya,” or the inspired pairing of Big Daddy Kane and Vico C on the bilingual “Estilo Libre.” Of course, Residente doesn’t need guests to demonstrate his own greatness, but Las Letras… desperately needed someone other than him to make that point clearer and more concise.

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