From AI to Spanish-Language Rap’s Evolution: Residente Talks ‘Las Letras Ya No Importan’

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As one of the most influential and outspoken voices in Latin music, Residente has consistently pushed the boundaries of Spanish-language rap. Whether exploring the depths of human emotion and societal issues through his art, or pissing off mainstream reggaetoneros via hard-hitting tiraderas, there’s no denying that one can’t turn a deaf ear to the artist born René Pérez Joglar.

With his second full-length solo album, Las Letras Ya No Importan (or Words No Longer Matter) — released via 5020 Records, following his 2017 eponymous debut — Residente’s evolution from a genre-bending rapper to a multifaceted artist and cultural commentator is unmistakable. This latest work, released Friday (Feb. 23), embarks on an exploratory journey through sound, emotion and critical opinions, featuring a diverse roster of collaborations that span genres and geographies, from SFDK in Spain to Christian Nodal in Mexico and Amal Murkus in Gaza.

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Among the standout tracks, “313” emerges as a deeply personal ode to the passage of time and the preciousness of life, inspired by a friend’s passing and Residente’s own reflections on growing older. “Time is becoming more and more relevant in my life,” he tells Billboard Español.

“Bajo Los Escombros” offers a poignant look at the Palestinian struggle, crafted amidst the backdrop of conflict with contributions from musicians in Gaza and the voice of Murkus. “Jerga Platanera” dives into the linguistic intricacies of Puerto Rican and Dominican slang, while “El malestar en la cultura” and “Artificial Inteligente,” contemplate the evolution of rap and the intersection of humanity with technology, respectively. This album not only underscores Residente’s commitment to musical and thematic experimentation but also highlights his role as a visionary in the ever-evolving landscape of the música urbana genre and beyond.

During our interview at his home in Lower Manhattan, Residente’s living space mirrors the diversity and depth of his music. Surrounded by an eclectic collection of books — ranging from Apocalypse Now to José Parla’s Segmented Realities, and The Wes Anderson Collection — and art adorning the walls, his environment is a testament to his wide-ranging influences. The skylight and balcony overlooking the Hudson River offer a glimpse into the serene backdrop of his creative process, while his dozens of Grammy and Latin Grammys on display serve as a testament to his enduring impact on the music industry.

Dressed casually in baby blue corduroys, a matching t-shirt, and a baseball cap, accented with a chain and silver whistle, Residente’s demeanor is as relaxed and approachable as it was thoughtful, as he reflects to Billboard the depth and diversity of his latest album. By the way, today (Feb. 23) is his birthday.

You have a lot to celebrate: your new album, your new music video, your debut as a lead film actor, your birthday. How are you going to spend it?

I think I’m going to go to a bar with family and friends, quietly. I am happy with the result of the video and the theme of “313.” It is an example of what I want to do more of. I’m going to celebrate that, the video, the album and what’s coming in the future as well.

Your video for “313” is visually stunning. It also features Penelope Cruz.

I always think about the visuals when I write songs, regardless of whether I make videos for them or not. Some people make videos for the song; I think I make music for the video. All the time I’m thinking visually and that’s where I compose the music. In this case I started to make the music and I was writing the ideas, adjusting to the weather conditions. It was quite difficult to shoot in November in Madrid, there is not much light. It snowed, it rained, everything happened during the shoot. That slows you down and the delay costs money. When you’re directing you have to think as a producer, writer, editor, and actor. I’m thinking about everything at the same time.

I have Penelope Cruz also in the video, and Silvia Cruz singing. We connected super well when I met [Penelope]. I also met her husband Javier [Bardem], and I’m a fan of both of them. I love what they do, they’re tremendous actors and they have a super nice family. I originally said, “I’d like Penelope to be in it.” I talked to her and she said yes. Little by little she connected with the song.

The inclusion of violins in that track and the guitar strings you use in others are beautiful and show a musical diversity along with some boom-bap beats. How do you decide which instruments or sounds to use in your compositions?

The album has songs that are older, and I had other songs that didn’t [end up on] the album because I didn’t feel they are connected to this moment now. When “René” came out four years ago, I was going to release an album at that time and, well, now I’m releasing them. Now I do have songs that feel like they are more relevant today, like “313,” “Artificial inteligente,” “Quiero Ser Baladista” or “Bajo Los Escombros.” All these have cello, double bass, all this musical stuff. It seems to me that it is an album that marks a transition, as it happened with Calle 13’s second album, Residente or Visitante, which marked a moment. After that, everything was different.

With your second studio album following your acclaimed 2017 debut, how do you feel your music and message has evolved in this latest work?

In this album I feel that the message comes more from my own experience. It is a very personal album, like “313” which is about enjoying this moment. I had a lot of losses last year and the year before. People I love died and everything I’m talking about enjoying all this comes from that experience in the past. And the last record was world music meets rap. This record is the more vulnerable part, like “Rene,” “313” or “Ron on the Floor.” It’s much more open in soul and spirit than before. I’ve always been open, but this time I’m more with the openness.

Upon entering your home, it is impressive to see the amount of Grammys and Latin Grammys you have won. How do you maintain your passion for music after so much success?

I maintain my passion with therapy, trying to do different, creative things that fulfill me. I feel a little tired as an artist, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I want to dedicate myself more to filmmaking, screen writing, experimenting, acting. Now we have a film out at Sundance, which won the Grand Jury prize. It’s called In the Summers. I’m the lead actor, I’m surrounded by spectacular actors and actresses who taught me a lot. I loved it. And the directing part I always love. I think that’s what keeps me motivated and inspired to keep working. It’s moving, doing other things within music as well.

How do you see the current state of Spanish-language rap and its culture, and how does your album contribute to this conversation?

One is a tool, and the other a genre that has rules and a culture that is respected. The discussion that was unleashed based on the list [of essential rappers in Spanish published by Billboard] seemed immature on the part of some of my colleagues. I think rap deserves to evolve as much as possible. I separate rap from hip-hop a lot. For me, [hip-hop] I see it as a genre where the tool of rap is used. That’s what I do.

I’ve never pretended to be of any specific musical genre, nor do I care. Never, since Calle 13, and right now, I’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed. I’m not a singer because I don’t sing, I rap, so I use the tool of rap. My album is for all the little kids who want to be rappers, who can’t sing but want to say things, and through rhyme is an alternative. And I’m doing well; I’m proof that you can do well doing different things, rapping, making music, making it evolve.

The future of rap, if it continues to be overprotected — is like protecting a child so much that it won’t know what to do when it grows up. So it’s the same with the music genre. You have to feed it new things, get it out there, let it evolve and move. It will continue to evolve, if not, it will stay there and other genres will come along and pass over it. It’s important, so that it doesn’t overtake it, and so that the kids who want to write rap can experience their creativity to the maximum, and take it to the maximum, as high as they can.

Listen to Las Letras Ya No Importan here:

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