Reggaeton's Bright Star Does It His Way - Pop

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Bio_Tego_Calderon7983.jpgIt was with great fanfare that Atlantic Records announced the signing of Tego Calderón in June 2005. He was the first major-label signing of a reggaeton artist, the Caribbean style (a combination of hip hop, dancehall, salsa, bomba, and merengue) that had already become a mixtape and urban-radio hit, and now looked poised to take the rest of America by storm.

Around that time, I profiled Mr. Calderón for a magazine. We spent the afternoon driving from a photo shoot to an interview with Hot 97 DJ Angie Martinez, where he talked about his forthcoming album, "Subestimato/The Underdog." Our transportation was a deluxe SUV - compliments of Atlantic - wallpapered in a huge image of Mr. Calderón's afroed profile on the side. With the window rolled down, he chain smoked Marlboros and signed autographs at stop lights all the way downtown.It appeared the underdog had the world by the tail.

Now, a full year after the original release date, his album is finally seeing the light of day. I won't pretend to know the minds of record executives or the specific causes for the delay, but I have a

theory: The record isn't at all what Atlantic signed on for.

What made Mr. Calderón so attractive, what set him apart from the rest of the emerging reggaeton stars, was his ability to move seamlessly between the worlds of Spanish and English, reggaeton and hip hop.Whereas stars like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar sound soft with their sing-songy styles, Mr. Calderón is pure street. Like Tupac, Biggie, and Jay-Z, he is gifted with an instantly recognizable voice - in his case a sultry, syrupy baritone - that flows easily over any beat. His reputation in America owes as much to mixtape appearances - on 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P.," Fat Joe's "Lean Back," the Game's "Love Them Hoes," and Cypress Hill's "Latin Thugs" - as to his own songs. No matter whom you match him up with, Mr. Calderón seems to get the better of his American counterparts.

That's what makes "The Underdog" so baffling, as much to listeners as to the record label. Instead of stuffing it with top-shelf beats and name-brand rappers, Mr. Calderón has instead taken the opportunity to explore his afro-carribbean roots and to showcase salsa, dancehall, and reggaeton talents even less well known than himself (among them Voltio and Chyno Nyno).

At 25 tracks, there's a little bit of everything here. "Los Maté," the first single, showcases the pixilated boomtick-ticka-tick-boom beats that have come to define reggaeton during the reign of super producers Luny Tunes. The Latin rhythms and Santana-sounding bent guitar notes of "Mardi Gras" recall the stoned funk of Cypress Hill. "Bad Man" is a straightforward reggae track with choruses by dancehall MC Buju Banton.

Mr. Calderón's first love - before rap - was Latin jazz. He was trained as a percussionist, and you can hear his affinity for the music on songs like "Llevatelo Todo" and "Slo' Mo." "Chango Blanco" does away with rapping altogether, as he sings a classic samba over a hipshaking beat of congo, piano, trumpets, and an all-male nightclub chorus.