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POP ALBUM REVIEWS

Daddy Yankee knows this best

The rapper, once expected to be a crossover star, mostly stays true to his reggaeton roots.

June 05, 2007|Agustin Gurza; Steve Appleford

Daddy Yankee

"El Cartel: The Big Boss" (El Cartel/Interscope)

* * *

It's been three years since Daddy Yankee's turbo-charged "Gasolina" roared to the top of the charts and signaled the mainstream arrival of reggaeton, the down-and-dirty Latino rap style cultivated in the urban barrios of Puerto Rico. The revved-up single triggered predictions of a hip-hop crossover and a new Latin music craze.

But the craze never came and the race for a crossover has since been canceled.

Now, Yankee returns with his first full studio album (in stores today) since the charismatic and disciplined rapper was crowned most likely to lead that elusive crossover bid. The Big Boss has thrust his engines in reverse and signaled the genre's new direction: A reggaeton retrenchment.

But not a retreat.

Like a good politician in shaky times, Yankee is playing to his base with 21 tracks that mostly stick to reggaeton's irresistibly bouncy rhythms and chest-thumping themes: sex, partying, nationalism, barrio loyalty and, as the title suggests, brash bragging about who's the best.

The new work gains a little hip-hop/R&B luster with the help of non-reggaeton collaborators such as will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas, Nicole Scherzinger from the Pussycat Dolls and Fergie, who's featured on the first single, "Impacto," produced by Canadian hitmeister Scott Storch.

Yet with the exception of a duet with Akon on the taut, politically defiant "Bring It On," the star power doesn't provide the best moments on a CD that could have been trimmed by a third.

Daddy Yankee (born Ramon Ayala) leaves no doubt that he still has the skill and style that made him stand out from reggaeton's crowded rank-and-file. He wrote or co-wrote every tune, delivering lines with a rat-a-tat torrent of syllables and Caribbean street cadence that makes his Spanish almost unrecognizable at times.

Yankee's torrid rap camouflages weaknesses in his lyrics, which lack the wicked wit and schooled artfulness of, say, the young duo Calle 13. But while newer acts test the limits of decency with depravity and foul language, Yankee stakes out high moral ground with unabashed thanks to God for his survival and his success. That spirituality coexists with his barrio bravado in autobiographical tunes such as "Soy Lo Que Soy" and "Coraza Divina."

In the end, Yankee takes on critics and gossipy reporters in the sarcastic, Fresh Prince-styled "Todos Quieren A Raymond" (Everybody Loves Raymond). The title is a play on his real name, which he uses to sign off: "Tell me what the devil I can do if there are bad people/ Just go on being me, Ramon Ayala." (Dime que rayos puedo hacer yo si hay gente mala/ Solamente seguir siendo yo, Ramon Ayala.)

That phrase reinforces the new CD's well-grounded foundation: Daddy Yankee's immutable sense of identity.

-- Agustin Gurza

There's not much need to shout

Chris Cornell

"Carry On" (Interscope)

* * 1/2

Context does make the rock star. In Soundgarden, Chris Cornell was a '90s rock god of wailing, grungy heaviosity, equal parts punk and Zeppelin. With Audioslave, he led the remnants of Rage Against the Machine for three albums marked more by dependable hard-rock craftsmanship than real inspiration. All by himself, and on his second solo album (in stores today), Cornell is neither, turning down the volume just enough to find a comfort zone of melody and bristling emotion.

More crooner than shouter now, Cornell can still uncork a raging vocal when the mood is right, but that isn't often. He sets a high standard with the album's opening track, "No Such Thing," erupting with furious electric guitar before slipping into a solemn, romantic vocal melody that is blatantly McCartney-esque and a long, long way from "Black Hole Sun." Later, "Safe and Sound" is the kind of manly, soulful ballad Clapton traded in during the mid-'70s, a sound hinting of romantic loss and desperation. There's also a bit of James Bond melodrama on "You Know My Name," recorded originally for the soundtrack of "Casino Royale" with film composer David Arnold.

Not everything here is so fully formed or satisfying. "Poison Eye" begins with a nice Stonesy riff and then goes nowhere. But a grim, spooky take on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" is amusing enough, even if it sounds a lot more like Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters." Jacko's mega hit survives the stunt translation. So does Cornell, his days as a righteous hard-rocker may be behind him now, but he remains a singer searing and distinctive, once more feeling his way into a new sound and setting.

-- Steve Appleford

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.

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