Reggaeton vocalist Don Omar is in retreat, and it’s kind of a bummer. Last year, he put out an album I liked a lot. iDon was a weird sci-fi concept record that I talked about a little bit in the Village Voice back in May, as part of a discussion of reggaeton’s overall turn toward Euro-futuristic, synth-drenched dance tracks, as exemplified by the work of Wisin y Yandel and Daddy Yankee. In that piece, I described iDon as “awesomely bizarre,” citing “the self-proclaimed King of Kings rapp[ing] about zero gravity on Kraftwerk-meets-Daft Punk tracks like ‘Sexy Robotica,’ ‘Galactic Blues,’ and ‘Virtual Diva.'” It’s a really good record, combining reggaeton, swing, trance and much more. Yes, there are spoken interludes intended to convey a plot, something about Omar becoming a cybernetic superman. But they don’t really matter, and are easily ignored.
At the time, Omar pushed iDon as hard as his two previous studio discs, 2003’s The Last Don and 2006’s King of Kings (each of which, by the way, was followed by a forgettable live album sharing its title). The press release, quoted on the album’s Amazon page, calls the album “an epic musical event that represents the new chapter in the Don Omar saga. The album details the transformation of the visionary recording artist into IDON, a half man-half machine cybernetic creation.” But apparently, the broad reggaeton public wasn’t quite ready to follow him into cyberspace—the album got middling reviews, and I’m inclined to believe it didn’t sell as well as its predecessors. So now, with the release of his new album (and note that it’s coming only a year after iDon, where previously Omar’s allowed three years to pass between studio CDs), the label’s PR department, via Amazon, says Meet the Orphans “can basically be seen as [the] true follow-up to his King of Kings project, more so than the iDon project which was experimental in his sound and nature.”
But is Meet the Orphans actually good, or is it just pandering to the reggaeton hardcore who bridled at the weirdness of the last album? Honestly, it’s pretty good. It’s simultaneously a new Don Omar release, and a showcase for the other artists signed to his Orfanato Music Group. The rapper Kendo Kaponi appears on six tracks, while Syko, another rapper, shows up on only two songs. There are also guest appearances by two other prominent reggaeton duos, Plan B and Zion y Lennox, and the first single, “Danza Kuduro,” features French/Portuguese singer Lucenzo. The cybernetic sci-fi club beats of iDon are gone, replaced by reggaeton and hip-hop beats that are nice, but more standard, which is a little disappointing. I’ve only been listening to reggaeton for about five years, but I know what I like and I’m aware of the genre’s limitations, especially when it’s left in the hands of unimaginative producers and performers unwilling to challenge their listeners. The real stars, like Tego Calderón and Calle 13 (who aren’t even really a reggaeton act—they’re an arty hip-hop group who occasionally employ reggaeton beats), stretch and drag the music in unexpected directions. Even Daddy Yankee gets weird from time to time. But there are a lot of boring duo acts (rapper + crooner) cluttering the scene and the charts. It would be a shame to see Don Omar become as artistically conservative as his nominal competition.
Fortunately, even if Meet the Orphans isn’t as weird as iDon, there’s still plenty of quality material that’ll reward a listener’s attention. “Taboo” features a thunderous percussion section and pumping accordion; “Sr. Destino” is a midtempo sung number driven by horns that I think might even be real. The disc front-loads a bunch of its most aggressive, street-friendly cuts, which makes the second half a little slow between “Viviendo Con El Enemigo” and “Huerfano de Amor.” But it picks up again, and there are a number of hard-hitting tracks as the disc winds down (and the second CD, included with the deluxe edition, is basically a strong five-song EP). Ultimately, I wish he’d stayed weird, so this isn’t my favorite Don Omar album, and it’s unlikely to replace King of Kings in even his most devoted fans’ hearts, but it’s absolutely a solid disc, and I’d be willing to listen to a whole CD by Kendo Kaponi, so the showcasing aspect worked out, too.