Before he collaborated with Rosalía, helping her craft the avant-garde songs of her 2018 breakthrough album El Mal Querer, C. Tangana had traversed rap and trap in Spain, with an attitude that was both hardcore and experimental. A former Catholic schoolboy and philosophy major in college, he possessed the intellectual banter that music snobs love, but also a knack for finding the right commercial edge to his hooks.
By 2017, he had won Best New Artist at Spain’s Los 40 music awards, and Best Worldwide Act from Spain at the MTV EMA Awards. Natti Natasha, Becky G, Farruko, Paloma Mami, Tainy and Lauren Jauregui all recorded collaborations and remixes with Tangana, in a bid to dip their toes into a Spanish market increasingly saturated with “Latin” reggaetón. Meanwhile, Tangana tested the waters in the U.S. and Latin America, where he played Lollapalooza Argentina.
With a rapper’s swagger and writer’s broodiness, combined with a sleek sense of style, Tangana – real name Antón Álvarez (“Pucho” to his friends) — became a media obsession in Spain, with influencers and intellectuals hyper-analyzing the meaning behind every gesture and video image. By last summer, Tangana’s global streams were nearing the 2 billion mark.
Then, he turned 30. “The thought of doing the same 30 songs I’d been doing when I was 20 kept me up at night,” he says. So did the notion of taking his music further, going deeper, delving into creative areas not bound only by sound recordings.
The easy route could have been even bigger collaborations. Instead, Tangana turned inward: his new album, El Madrileño (‘The Man From Madrid’), out Feb. 26, is an homage to his hometown. The project digs deep into the roots of Madrid’s essential sounds but also incorporates visual imagery and a sense of tradition (every single cover from the project is a Goya-like painting) that begs to be discovered, unpeeled and re-listened to. He raps and sings, as traditional Spanish guitar intertwining with electronic loops and handclaps.
And although 12 out of the 14 tracks are collaborations, they are so unexpected they’ll make you reel, ranging from Cuban veteran Eliades Ochoa and icons Toquinho and José Feliciano to alt up and comers like Omar Apollo and Ed Maverick. There’s also traditional flamenco and Spain aplenty in the arresting, bachata-laced “Tu Me Dejaste de Querer,” featuring Niño de Elche and La Húngara; the single, released in November, racked up 2 million streams on Spotify within 24 hours, making Tangana the platform’s top debut of the day. The song debuted and peaked at No. 83 on the Billboard Global 200 chart dated Nov. 21, 2020 and at No. 38 on Billboard Global Excl. US chart.
The collaborations are a mix of careful curation, but also simple admiration. “People often think you move because of artistic affinity, but the artists I’m interested in aren’t the ones who stylistically do something like me, but those who have a [similar] professional vision of a work ethic,” says multi-time Latin Grammy winner Jorge Drexler, who collaborates with Tangana in “Nominao.”
Drexler — a lauded, rock-minded singer-songwriter who won an Oscar in 2005 for “Al otro lado del río” — joins forces with Tangana in a sparse, guitar-driven song that delves with irony on the fleetingness of fame. The video ends with an encounter between Tangana and Argentine rock legend Andrés Calamaro in an elevator. “I’ve always liked artists who build bridges, and I met Pucho precisely when he was building important bridges,” adds Drexler, “with Iber America, with the song, with the format and with the rules of the song. And with a commitment to a bridge between the past and a raging modernity.”
Tangana spoke with Billboard about the new project, and everything it represents, from his home in Spain.
This album sounds far more Spanish than your previous works. Do you agree?
Totally. I’ve always been centered on urban music. Then I did trap, electronica, reggaeton, dancehall. All that is inside me, but I’ve never used folk and roots music as a starting point. And since I was traveling around the world, the nostalgia made me feel more madrileño than ever. I mixed that with what was around me.
Is the album born from the artists or the songs?
Initially from the songs. But since it’s born from my travels, I was clear there would be many artists and many collaborations. Many times I’d be in the studio and think: “This part would be perfect for…” In “Muriendo de envidia” with Eliades Ochoa, for example, the part he sings is something El Pescailla used to sing. During the time of crooners like Frank Sinatra, we had Pescailla, who sang rumba catalana, and I always thought Eliades sang in the same register.
That was in Cuba. How did that encounter happen?
I went to Cuba to film a video, because my creative director is in love with Cuba. While we were there having dinner [one night], we realized there were two men sitting in a back table in the garden, and one of them took off his cowboy hat. It was Eliades Ochoa. We went up to him, introduced ourselves, told him about the project and he said if we came back to Cuba, he’d take us to his studio with his musicians. We did.
I discovered Adriel Favela with his [2018 song] “La Escuela No Me Gustó,” which introduced me to corridos. I have many Mexican friends and they told me about the new trend with young acts doing more urban corrido. And during a trip to Mexico, I heard Carín León on the radio, and his melodies reminded me of ’90s Spanish pop act Andy y Lucas.
Then, one night in Madrid, we began writing a corrido, I sent the demo to Adriel on my phone, and he heard it while he was on the touring bus with his musicians. Half-hour later, he sent me a video of all of them singing and playing the song. When I saw that reaction, I made the move to call Carin and also ask him to be on the song. I just called him and said, “I’m a fan.”
It’s such a diverse album. What binds it together?
More than anything, I wanted it to sound like a Spanish album, independent of the genres. I also wanted it to be an album that didn’t get stuck in nostalgia. Even at its most traditional, it had to have something modern. And I also wanted all the tracks to be linked by the subject of love.
You talk about love, but there’s quite a bit of spite in here — particularly in terms of being professionally successful where others doubted you. What do you have to prove?
First, I always had artistic ambition, and it was hard for urban music to get the professional respect. Now, I’ve sat with all these maestros, and I’ve kind of gotten over it. But as a rapper, my artistic ambition was a bit frustrated.
Well, your style of rap is quite different from most things out there…
That’s the other thing. The complex of being different, of not really liking fame. I’m a studio rat, and you have to face this entire machinery and be professional about it. In Spain, I do feel the media pressure of having a career, and it’s been both frustrating and inspiring when it comes to writing songs.
Going back to the collaborators, you could have collaborated with bigger commercial names. Why not?
Precisely that’s the vindication. I was clear I wanted young acts like Omar Apollo, Ed Maverick, Adriel. But I wanted them to be outsiders. Ed Maverick has 150 million Spotify plays. He moves fans, but he’s an outsider. I love the mainstream. I love the Bad Bunny, J Balvin album. I love all the Puerto Rican producers. But I felt this was an opportunity and my idea was to do an album with outsiders, even if they have a huge audience.
I’d dare say that none of the artists on the album are really trending in a big way, except for Adriel and Carín.
You’re completely right. I feel that with urban music, I’ve been hiding things I liked but had never surfaced: like rumba, pop, rock. As an artist I didn’t want to see that part of me. Probably because I thought it wasn’t cool or trendy or what I could show as a young artist. But it turns out that’s the coolest thing I can show. Something that isn’t trendy, but if you look at it through my lens, becomes new or becomes something you can understand.