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Arcángel - Ares Music Album Reviews

The reggaeton stalwart and Latin trap pioneer embraces contemporary pop and hip-hop sounds on an uneven album that is at its most interesting when it verges into soul, salsa, and other novel styles.

Of all the artists making trap en español today, Arcángel is arguably the best suited to trace its evolution. 2007’s “El Pistolón,” a product of his partnership with De La Ghetto that features the reggaeton duo Yaga y Mackie, is widely considered to be the first Latin trap track. He’s also got a verse on “La Ocasión,” from 2016, the instant-classic posse cut with Ozuna, Anuel AA, and De La Ghetto that took the sound worldwide. In between, he cut a bunch of reggaeton records, making a name for himself in Puerto Rico, the island that birthed the genre.

Trap en español may be rooted in mimicry, borrowing from the 21st century’s most commercially viable form of urban music, but in its early days as a movement in New York City clubs—which predate “La Ocasión”—that mimicry was merely a key to pass through the gates into the highest echelon of pop. The first DJs and producers knew their crowds loved rap and trap, even if they didn’t understand any of the lyrics, so early remixes brought Latin audiences into the sounds of the moment. Up-and-coming artists shifted their aesthetics to ride the wave, but the ones who stood out always brought their own flavor—the Dominicans in New York, with their ever-shifting Spanglish slang that defies reproduction; the Puerto Rican romanticos on the island, teaching Drake what it really means to be a sensitive thug.

Arcángel is no different. While his early career is rooted firmly in reggaeton, it was his collaborative Latin trap bangers that raised his profile and kept him at the crest of the wave. Now that he’s got your attention, he’s ready for you to hear exactly the music he’s always wanted to make. With his latest LP, Ares, he mostly abandons reggaeton and the dembow riddim in favor of sludgy trap beats and contemporary pop. He was truthful when he told Apple Music, “If you listen to the lyrics on this album, it’s totally different… I’m saying stuff that I’ve never said before.” It’s just that this development isn’t as positive as he may believe.

Ares has its share of cringey moments: “Los 3,” with its incantation, “I know you wanna suck this dick,” might sound bad until you try to parse the inexplicable juxtaposition on “En Su Boca” (In Your Mouth). On the latter track, Arcángel brags about the money he spent on his daughter’s birthday in the same breath that he tells anyone who steps to him to—once again—suck his dick: “Gasté doce en mi sortija (bling, bling)/Y veinticuatro en el cumple 'e mi hija (oh, yeah)/To' el que me tire me chupa la pija ('pérate).”

They’re not the only inclusions that feel superfluous. At 18 tracks and 64 minutes, Ares is a bit bloated, and would have likely benefited from more judicious sequencing. Much of the production is rooted in the standard trap palate of rolling bass, tinny 808 hi-hats, and Auto-Tuned croon; this is a departure from Arcángel’s previous, reggaeton-centric albums, sure, but a muscle already well toned through countless singles and guest features. Yet Ares is most interesting when it steps outside the trap—even when it ultimately misses the mark.

Arcángel has always excelled at adapting his style to fit his collaborators, and on Ares they’re few in number but carefully selected. Bad Bunny (“Original”) and J Balvin (“Corte, Porte, y Elegancia”) are two of the biggest names in Latin pop’s mainstream; Canadian rap&B artist Tory Lanez (“Victoria”), who has embraced urbano artists, has a forthcoming Spanish-language LP with features from the likes of Ozuna. “Original” is a highlight, all pulsing bass, snare claps, and Bad Bunny’s sexy soul-robot vocals—to the extent that the track feels like it should be credited to Bad Bunny featuring Arcángel. This ability to shift styles is Arcángel’s strength, and has made for some memorable posse cuts in recent years.

“Corte, Porte, y Elegancia,” unfortunately, is not one of them. It finds Arcángel attempting a mind meld with Colombian chameleon J Balvin, the reggaetonero turned full-on pop star who flexed his range on his latest LP, Vibras. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, especially amid a tracklist jam-packed with slow-burn trap; when the bouncy disco-funk guitar slides in on “Corte,” the album’s sixth track, the hard left turn is disorienting.

But this experimentation does bear some fruit. The record’s strongest track is “Un Vacilon (Young Maleo),” a tribute to Puerto Rican salsa legend Ismael Rivera, a.k.a. “Maleo.” It samples arguably his most iconic composition, “El Nazareno,” an ode to black Jesus that tells the tale of a man who has a vision of Christ while getting down at a party. The sample is transcendent, and it gets to the heart of why dance music like reggaeton can feel so powerful. When you can bridge the gap between the ancestors and their descendants, you can find God, even in the club.

At its best, Ares achieves this magnificence; at its worst, the album is undeniably cringe-worthy. But it’s the closest we’ve come so far to hearing what Arcángel really sounds like—and when he pushes the envelope, the results are anything but boring.

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