Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and the Perils of Latin Novelty
"I Like It" is an inarguable hit, but its sample invokes a history of the industry exoticizing songs sung in Spanish. Burger King is involved somehow.
Cardi B photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images / Bad Bunny photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
Trap music dominates in rap right now, regardless of language, and each month Cultura explores the Latin side of hip-hop's hottest sound.
For the first time ever on this scale, a Latina runs American music. As of this writing, ascendant Bronx rapper Cardi B’s “I Like It” holds the No. 9 position on the Billboard Hot 100—still the industry’s best barometer for an individual song’s success—above another dozen cuts off her debut album. A bilingual banger buoyed by Bad Bunny and J Balvin features, her track’s welcome arrival in the upper reaches of the all-genre singles charts has everything to do with the nature of digital consumption, the momentous result of pop, rap, and Latin music listenerships glomming onto one another to form a sort of boogie-down rat king. At Spotify, domestic consumption of “I Like It” approached 20 million plays in just two weeks, held back in the latest qualifying frame by rap’s male majordomo Drake.
Though constantly challenged in the male-dominated hip-hop scene, particularly on social media, Cardi’s ubiquitous superstardom in rap is irrefutable. Haters seek to belittle her accomplishments or to manufacture a myopic kayfabe rivalry with Nicki Minaj rather than acknowledge her role in her boro’s musical legacy—one that proudly boasts Big Pun and and the Latinx-centered Terror Squad--as well as its present. Her “I Like It” is, to put it mildly, a beast, a trappy toothsome display of bars held at bay only by its infectious interpolation of boogaloo notable Pete Rodriguez’s fifty-plus-year-old hit. Written by Tony Pabon and Manny Rodriguez, his take on “I Like It Like That” and the Blackout All-Stars’ 1994 cover version has turned it into the most recognizable boogaloo song of all time. And therein lies a problem.
Those of us who grew up Latinx in the U.S. know the novelty songs all too well. At opposite ends of the 1990s, we experienced Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin' la Vida Loca,” each laden with their own inherent biases and catering, inadvertently or otherwise, to macho male stereotypes. There were the looks we got at bar mitzvahs and weddings when the DJ dropped “Macarena,” ironically a song performed by Spaniards, and then later the looks we didn’t get when it became completely absorbed into the whitewashed American cultural tapestry. (Weird Al Yankovic, that beloved bastion of pre-sophomoric song parodies, could barely hide his prejudice and shiftlessness in cheaply converting “Rico Suave,” which sampled Venezuelan group Daiquiri’s “Chamo Candela,” into something called “Taco Grande.”)
Playground taunts aside, so many of the popular so-called crossover songs of, say, the last forty years have never sat well with me. In retrospect, it’s hard not to cynically see the runaway success of “Despacito” as a modern manifestation of the same cultural curiosity and convenience that made hits of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” or, Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.” As a booster for Latin trap, I’ve been particularly wary of this history privately even as I celebrate its wins publicly.
Setting aside gaudy appropriators like Lou Bega, the opportunistic German who turned Cuban Pérez Prado’s “Mambo No. 5” into dick-swinging mush, the American successes of Latinx artists often seem to come with caveats, asterisks, and time limits. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira were the pop stars we deserved, yet were never fully appreciated. Every fist-pumping Jersey Shore scumbag recognizes “Danza Kuduro” but none could tell you who the hell sings it or what it’s even about. Even now, living guitar legend Carlos Santana is reduced to winking memes and crude samples. When he dies, the media will pay him lip service for his accomplishments, though the preceding dearth of literature on his decades of work will echo with embarrassing scarcity.
Am I wrong for harboring a lifelong grudge against white listeners who, at least on a superficial level, have engaged fleetingly and unseriously with Latin-derived music? Hardly. I simply want good music to be appreciated on its own terms and, specifically in the case of Latin trap, as part and parcel of the genres these artists are operating in, regardless of language or ethnicity, which brings us back to Pete Rodriguez.
“I Like It Like That” undoubtedly meant something to Latinx listeners in the U.S. and abroad in 1967. Yet even then, it served as tropical kitsch for white American audiences to consume and discard. Over the years, the song became better known for its use in a Burger King campaign than for its musical import and the caliber of the performers behind its versions. Seeing the immensely talented Bad Bunny approaching the zenith of the Billboard singles charts on the subliminalized back of a goddamned Whopper combo feels more than a little bit triggering.
Still, “I Like It” is a tremendous track for Bad Bunny. It’s the highest he’s ever gotten up the Hot 100 to date by a wide margin, with Becky G’s “Mayores” a distant second with its No. 74 peak late last year. His guest verse includes a rare dip into English, but mostly delivers the boastful, sex-and-wrestling-obsessed trapaholic spiritually leading the way for Latinx rappers. Sure, there’s always the risk of another bubble burst like the fizzle of the last Latin explosion, yet we know in our hearts that the streams and downloads driving “I Like It” right now is supported by a demographic shift in America. It’s the children and grandchildren of Latin American immigrants making all this possible. Of all the charting songs on Invasion Of Privacy, the one with two Spanish-language features is outperforming the rest? That’s no coincidence; that’s a movimiento.
Los Favoritos Del Mes
Eladio Carrión featuring Khea, Cazzu, and Ecko - "Mi Cubana (Remix)"
The rudely booming bass and auto-tuned chorus of the guitar-flecked original find reinvigoration courtesy of fresh bars by Argentinians Cazzu and Ecko.
Cazzu featuring Eladio Carrión - "Hello Bitche$ (Remix)"
Returning the favor, Carrión hops on one of the best Maldades cuts with a bit of bilingual brashness for a sexually charged shutdown of the competition.
Niña Dioz featuring Lido Pimienta and Ceci Bastida - "Tambalea"
An ice cold spitter with a calculated flow, the queer Monterrey native draws from her life experiences and from those of other Latinx women for this bold anthem, giving the Polaris Music Prize winning Pimienta some time on the mic.
De La Ghetto featuring Fetty Wap - "F.L.Y."
A legend in Latin hip-hop teams up with New Jersey trap’s resident romantic for a pop rap ditty aimed squarely at the radio.
Miky Woods featuring Bad Bunny - "Estamos Clear"
The Puerto Rican duo come together with a reference heavy cut that touches on everything from basketball and wrestling to gangsters past and present.