The growing trend for reggaeton artists to deliver their lyrics in a melodic and emotional style is far from new. Although the genre developed a reputation for its aggressive tone and lyrics, this more vulnerable style first appeared during the genre’s main commercial explosion in the mid-2000s. like Dalex, Sech and Rauw Alejandro brings out an element of nostalgia and longing that is built into the standard rhythm of reggaeton.
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall traces both the rhythmic and lyrical evolution of reggaeton in his essay “From Musica Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization,” published in the 2009 collection titled Reggaeton. The genre, he explains, is situated in an ongoing tension between the influences of dancehall reggae and rap.
Percussion patterns borrow heavily from Jamaican dancehall riddims (instrumental tracks often repurposed by multiple artists), while also incorporating rhythmic and aesthetic elements from hip-hop, salsa, son and bomba and plena. As the genre gained commercial viability, producers like the hit duo Luny Tunes began to incorporate even more hip-hop influences into their drumming patterns.
Lyrical content varied from the 1990s, focusing on partying, dancing and celebrating Latino and pan-Caribbean identity, through the early 2000s, which played themes of sexual inhibition, machismo and sometimes violence or drugs.
The evolution of lyrical delivery has a trajectory similar to that of rhythmic patterns. Marshall cites the example of Daddy Yankee, who debuted on the famous “Playero 37” mixtape in 1994. In the early 90s, Yankee’s singing style and aesthetic borrowed more from dancehall reggae (Marshall cites his “double-beat deliveries and sing-song melodies”) as well as “nasal projections of salsa soneros … [and] bomb singers. Daddy Yankee’s 2004 mainstream hit “Gasolina” relied instead on “the more complex rhyme schemes and speech-like flows of hip hop MCs,” Marshall writes.
Delivery styles that mimic those of US-based rappers bring out the toughness and sexual aggression built into the dembow percussive pattern. But alongside artists like Daddy Yankee and Wisin & Yandel, there were others whose delivery style recalls dembow’s most heartfelt elements.
Drawing inspiration from the singing styles of R&B and Latin pop artists, artists like RKM & Ken-Y, Zion & Lennox, Angel & Khriz, and Alexis & Fido, among others, have incorporated melodic styles, sometimes bordering on whining , often paired. with lyrics that explored themes of heartbreak and romantic longing.
Take Zion & Lennox songs like “Bandida” or “Alocate,” which run syllables melismatically, giving them a tinge of pain and despair. Or “Hay Algo en Ti”, whose lyrics paint a picture of the singers’ desire: “There’s something about you, baby, that drives me crazy/I can’t believe that our [relationship] was just an adventure/because I started missing you, I need you, I’m looking for you everywhere.” Or take Tito El Bambino’s song “Mi Cama Huele a Ti” featuring Zion & Lennox, in which the chorus screams using imagery: “My bed smells like you/like your honey scent/I close my eyes and think of you.”
The duo RKM & Ken-Y followed a similar style, going so far as to introduce themselves as “the romantic duo. “Their melismatic melodies and nostalgic lyrics are remarkably vulnerable compared to those of most other reggaetoneros.”
In “Un Sueño”, they fully release their longing for a lost lover, holding nothing back: “Hours pass and I’m still here, missing and wanting you/And when night falls/I imagine I’m still with you you/because I can’t live if I don’t have you.” They also languish longingly in the intro to “Tu No Estas”: “Why is it so hard for me to accept that you’re not here anymore / ’cause now I’m drowning everyday in my loneliness / and I pretend you’ll be back someday/But you’re not here anymore.”
This style made further inroads when artists like J Balvin and Ozuna became popular. Their image contrasted sharply with the previous mainstream reggaetoneros, dropping themes of sex and machismo entirely (Ozuna has publicly pledged to avoid objectifying women in his lyrics). Lyrically, their songs not only cover themes of romantic longing and heartbreak, but also more introspective and personal themes about their own identities and spirituality.
Younger reggaetoneros like Dalex, Rauw Alejandro and Sech borrow more from contemporary alternative or “emo” R&B (think The Weeknd, Brent Faiyaz), incorporating a vulnerable, melodic singing style paired with more varied lyrics, ranging from sexual adventure to desire romantic. Although similar to some of their predecessors, these artists seem to more intentionally embody an “emo” aesthetic. They have multi-colored hair, painted nails and tattoos galore, possibly mimicking the styles of Lil Pump and other “SoundCloud rappers”.
Some of their songs juxtapose sexually aggressive lyrics with melodic delivery. In “2/Catorce,” Rauw proclaims to his lover in a soft, plaintive croon using swear words that he’s going to have sex with her, thus imbuing the otherwise raunchy, feminist lyrics with a layer of vulnerability and nostalgia. “You will always love me, and I own your whole body.” Maybe not exactly the most romantic way to express sentiment. But when delivered in this vocal style, it reveals his desperate need for some kind of love that goes beyond the moment, and the fear that his lover won’t stay with him for long.
Dalex, on the other hand, calls himself a Latin R&B singer and credits his “sensual” singing style with inspiring artists like Chris Brown and Usher. That being said, many of his tracks are sung to a traditional dembow beat. His lyrics are often sexually explicit, as he sings songs to “excite the girls”. In songs like “Hola” and “Cuaderno,” he delivers sexualized lyrics in his R&B-style vocals over a dembow beat. ” Climb on me, Bellaquita [sexy girl]/don’t silence what you feel, shout/let the neighbors hear you,” he sings with a melodic, bouncy delivery.
This style of singing highlights the air of longing and longing rooted deep within dembow. As I said before, the powerful spiritual significance of reggaeton is due to the percussive pattern of the dembow rhythm, which is full of paradox and existential tension. It seems to build up to a climax without reaching a clear resolution. There is also something to be said for the tension between sexuality and spiritual desire in the tribal drumming patterns of West African fertility cults, from which much of the dembow rhythm is derived.
In a 2017 interview in America magazine, Dominican author Junot Díaz highlights the historical roots of this tension, saying that “the Caribbean…is a site of empire and a site of the starting point of New World slavery and all the inhumanities and survival responses it produced.” Diaz recalled a family member who was believed to be a medium who “whenever she heard certain types of music or certain types of drums, she became possessed”.
Díaz further comments on how the New World cosmology of the Dominicans attributed mystical significance to the body and sexuality. This meaning was in some way an attempt to liberate slavery from slavery and colonialism, as well as from the oppressive political regimes of the 20th century.
“We had, for centuries, no right to our bodies, and all traditional pleasures and all traditional freedoms of human action were denied to those of us of African descent in the New World,” said Diaz. “For people from the African Diaspora in the New World, simply falling in love, when you have historically been denied love, the right to simply connect to the body you have chosen and who has chosen you, means that An act of love is not only revolutionary, it is not only transcendent, but it is the divine. It is divine. It is a taste of the omnipotent.
So, while it may seem contradictory, sexually aggressive and romantic/vulnerable singing styles and lyrical themes can comfortably exist in tension with each other in dembow rhythm. Both are expressions of the spiritual tensions that constitute human desire – which the dembow rhythm embodies so well.