A complex but flawed piece of work, does the Spanish rap star manage to bring flamenco into the 21st Century?
Over the course of listening to so much music from around the world, I have surprised myself at how little music I have totally disliked. Even in genres that I used to steer well clear of, like modern rap music, reggae, and house music I now have found albums and artists in those genres that I either genuinely like and admire, or at least can enjoy for a period of time. Still on the lookout for that death metal album of which I can bear more than 30 seconds, however. So, when I first listened to El Madrileño by Spanish rapper C. Tangana, while there were some songs I liked, overall, I strongly took against it with a vituperative dislike that surprised me, and I thought would be hard to overcome. It sounded like a mess, with rap and reggaeton mixing in with rumba and flamenco in a way that at best was incongruous and flashy, and at worst actively unpleasant to listen to. It did not seem like Tangana knew what he was doing, rather that he just liked two disparate genres with no knowledge of how to mould them together. However, the rules that Danny and I have concocted are clear – every album must be listened to at least twice – and as such I went back to listen to it again, and it was on this second listen where El Madrileño revealed itself to me, and I was wrong about some of it. Tangana clearly does know what he is doing musically, he clearly has a love for the traditions of flamenco. That said, he things I disliked about it first time round still stand, but I am now able to articulate what I like about it, as well as what still does not work for me.
“C. Tangana is trying something new, and for that, I applaud him. He is taking the innovative spirit of 'new flamenco' and bringing it straight to 2021.”
I think it is worth pointing out that this album is effectively continuing in the tradition of what has become to be known as ‘new flamenco’. Less of a genre, more of an ethos, it seeks to renovate and reinterpret flamenco for the times in which its practitioners live. For renowned cantaor Camarón de la Isla, this meant combining flamenco with elements of punk, rock, and pop in his seminal album La Leyenda del Tiempo, for C. Tangana, it means combining flamenco traditions with rap music, and I had a hard time with that initially, especially on the first track, which I still don’t like, mainly because of the obnoxious vocal distortion he has placed over his singing, which I found unpleasant, and overall I find the song to be a bit of a dirge. However, things pick up with the second track, Tu Me Dejaste De Querer, which is a genuinely good song, and features some fantastic vocals from La Húngara and Niño de Elche. It is also one of more heavily flamenco inspired songs on the album, and the extra vocals pack a punch that Tangana’s rather weedy vocals fail to do. Flamenco is often about passion and energy, and Tangana’s voice does not have that energy to it at all, though its softness comes into its own on certain songs.
Tangana has a good eye for a collaboration, and it is the collaborative efforts that often lean towards flamenco where I find myself enjoying the album the most. It seems at its most successful there, especially on the aforementioned song, and on Ingobernable, where the French-Spanish Romani legends The Gipsy Kings add a much-needed punch to the album. The guest spots don’t end there; Uruguayan superstar Jorge Drexler appears on the excellent Nominao, and renowned Spanish musician Kiko Veneno appears on the brilliant Los Tontos, the song that gets closest to ‘pure flamenco’. We also have Cuban singer, guitarist, and Buena Vista Social Club member Eliades Ochoa popping up on Muriendo De Envidia, whose rich, soulful voice and Cuban stylings liven up proceedings somewhat. This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but this both helps the album, and perhaps damages Tangana’s own personal brand, as every other guest singer is far, far better than he is, and while it helps lift the songs, his weak vocals are shown to be even more unimpressive. However, it shows his generosity of creative spirit that he is willing to let other musicians take the spotlight for a large chunk of the album, and for that I commend him. Part of life is knowing your limits, and to his credit, Tangana seems to know his. By outsourcing much of the passionate flamenco vocals, he elevates his work in a selfless way.
While I cannot fully get on board with this album, it is certainly a much better and more interesting album than I had initially given it credit for. C. Tangana is trying something new, and for that, I applaud him. He is taking the innovative spirit of 'new flamenco' and bringing it straight to 2021. Modern rap and flamenco are strange bedfellows, but Tangana makes it work – just about. I still can’t get my head around about a third of the album, with songs like Demasiadas Mujeres, Párteme La Cara, and Nunca Estoy all feeling like unnecessary songs and also failures, and while that might sound harsh, I feel it is apt. They are failures because they fail at what most of the other songs succeed so well at, and that is bringing tradition to the present day and making it alive and real and modern, taking traditions that have been long held in Spain and making them relevant to the here and now by knowing how to mix it with modern genres - though Demasiadas Mujeres was a huge hit in Spain, so what do I know? Nonetheless, this quality is evident throughout the album, but also in his NPR tiny desk concert, available on YouTube, where he is performing this music with his family and friends, all of them taking part in it as if after a family meal and they’ve spontaneously started a sing-along. Musical tradition and musical culture needs to be living and breathing, and so for that, I think he’s doing a good job. I can’t fully buy into his work on a musical level, but I can buy into it enough.