Tego Time

Reggaetón star Tego Calderón drops the bling and turns inward on his Atlantic debut, "El Subestimado/The Underdog." Will that translate to a long-awaited U.S. breakthrough?

Tego Calderón has dropped the bling.

A few weeks ago, after much soul searching, the Puerto Rican rapper took off his trademark chains, rings, diamonds and anything remotely ostentatious and continued about the business of making music as he has always done: quietly and with little fanfare.

Indeed, the change in accoutrements suits Calderón well. The rapper has cultivated an image as the deep thinker and top lyricist of the reggaetón movement, a notion supported by his recent trip to Sierra Leone to film a documentary on the diamond mining business. Calderón returned a changed man, acutely aware of hardship and more determined than ever to lose that bling.

The marketability of that image will be truly measured with the Aug. 29 release of "El Subestimado/The Underdog." The album, arriving on Calderón's own Jiggiry label via a production and distribution deal with Atlantic, pairs his music with a marketing and promotional infrastructure far greater than has supported his music before.

But Calderón did not deliver exactly what Atlantic bargained for. "El Subestimado" is rich in rhythmic variety, ranging from straight-ahead reggaetón, salsa and Puerto Rican bomba to blues, reggae and funk. It is lyrically enticing and very rarely banal.

And, save for an occasional chorus, it is entirely in Spanish. "I have a hook in one song where I explain my position with the crossover," says Calderón, who is focused on Latin sounds. "I say, 'No, no, don't mess with the slo mo, you might not understand, but it's hot.' We purposefully had little English. Even though we had pressure from Atlantic to include Anglo artists, it wasn't what I wanted to bring, and they respected that."

Calderón's lone prior studio album, 2003's "El Abayarde," has sold a modest 132,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (A compilation, "Los Enemigos Del Guaisibiri," has shifted 105,000.) Given the language challenge, Atlantic is initially working "El Subestimado" to Calderón's core Latin audience at Spanish-language radio via the single "Los Maté." The track is No. 46 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart this issue. In the coming months, the label will work "Chillin' " and "Slo Mo," two songs that have some English content, to rhythmic and rap radio.

"It's all about starting with the core first and making sure -- and this is critically important to Tego -- that his core fan base and his core audience know he didn't change his musical philosophy because he linked up to Atlantic," says label chairman/CEO Craig Kallman, who signed Calderón. "For him, it was about staying true musically to what he believes in. And for us, it's about empowering him to do what he was musically inspired to do."

For Calderón, that meant biding his time between albums, to sidestep some of the hype surrounding reggaetón as a potential next big thing. "I didn't want to be the poster boy for this music," says the artist, who explained the album track by track during a recent evening in a Miami hotel room.

Instead of concentrating on creating an album of reggaetón hits, Calderón did some soul searching. He poured his heart out on "El Subestimado," including a track titled "O Dios" (O God), a word play on "odios" (hates) about fathers' rights to see their children, directly based on his own experiences with the mother of his oldest daughter. Another track talks about his deceased father. "Llorarás," the Oscar D'León salsa classic, features D'León himself. Even "Los Maté," an uptempo reggaetón track, deals with the struggle of rich against poor.

"It was a way to fulfill reggaetón and lyricism -- a kind of bridge between the two," Calderón says of his approach to the album.

The artists keeps close ties with many reggaetón acts and producers, including Don Omar (featured on "Chillin' "), Eddie Dee, Voltio and protégé Chyno Nyno. He says he is acutely aware of the lyrical and musical constraints of the genre, but also appreciates its advantages.

"The reggaetón beat is what makes people dance. And the dancing is an essential element. Even Anglos don't understand what we're saying, and they dance it," he says.

But for those who do understand, Calderón wants to make a difference, reveling in his Latin roots and shedding light on the plight of black Latins. "I'm done with denouncing and attacking," Calderón says. "What I want to do is educate: 'You are my fans, I want you to understand my people. Understand our pain.'"