In the first half of the 1990s, the Puerto Rican merengue singer Olga Tañón rocketed to fame behind a series of fizzy, kinetic, jubilant records. On albums like Mujer de Fuego and Siente el Amor, her band existed in perpetual forward motion, propelled by juicy lines from the hot-stepping horn section, bright spurts from the accordion and streams of single bass notes audibly high in the mix. Tañón skipped along, hovering above her musicians, reveling in giddy speed.
She drove dancers into a frenzy by issuing rough screams — see “Piel a Piel” and “Presencie Tu Amor,” where it’s as if James Brown suddenly popped into the studio during a merengue recording session — and cheerful interjections of onomatopoeic goofiness: “brrrrrrr!” And she was shadowed by precise, piquant backing vocalists, who sometimes echoed their leader, and sometimes engaged her in a vocal boxing match.
The combustible combination proved immediately successful — Tañón breached the top 20 on the Hot Latin Songs chart with her debut single, “Una Mujer Rota” — and durable: in April, “Asi Es el Amor,” a collaboration with Wisin, cracked the top 10 on the Tropical Airplay Songs chart. It’s her 27th top 10 on that chart, the most by any female singer, and a good omen for the release of her latest album, Olga Tañón y Punto, which hit shelves on Friday (May 12).
The arc of Tañón’s career, in some ways, has paralleled that of Marc Anthony: both performers pumped a series of records onto the charts in the early 1990s, reinvigorating traditional forms — merengue for Tañón, salsa for Anthony. Both gradually moved away from the driving style of their early days to make room for stately, dramatic ballads later in the decade. And both eventually tacked back towards the hard-nosed music that initially won them fame.
Tañón has worked to exert more control of her career in the last decade. In 2009, she founded her own label, Mia Musa Music. “When you have the opportunity to have your own record label, you don’t have as much pressure from so many people,” she tells Billboard. “A lot of times they [a label] tell you, ‘Get moving, run, run, run, we have to finish!'”
The singer favored a more considered approach for Olga Tañón y Punto, which she’s been working on for the last three years. “After making so many albums in my career, I didn’t want to make something that was improvised,” Tañón explains. “I wanted to make something with more thought in it. You don’t want to rush things, because you know that the public does not deserve just anything.”
“As the years go by you also become more demanding with yourself and with what you’re going to give to your public,” she continues. “We worked until we achieved a record that was effective, a record that was varied and included the people I had been wanting to work with.”
Tañón co-wrote seven of Olga Tañón y Punto‘s 10 tracks, and the album demonstrates the full extent of her range. “Decirte Que No,” a ballad laden with strings and electric guitars, builds to a gnashing rock chorus. The bonus track is a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah” that features her daughter. But she’s also still linked to the sound of the early 1990s here: the album opens with “La Gran Fiesta,” which features the kind of formidable horn-work that made Tañón’s early records so hard to resist. And Manuel Tejada, who helped produce and arrange Tañón’s debut album in 1992, appears on “Vuelve a Mi,” contributing piano and bass.
“Vuelve a Mi” is not a classic merengue record, though: instead, the song nods to the rippling, high guitar lines popular in bachata. It’s a lovely duet with Fernando Villalona, where Tañón harmonizes delicately before rupturing the song’s placid surface with eruptions of growling, brassy singing. “This is the second duet that I’ve had the opportunity to make with Fernando,” Tañón says. “I had wanted to work with him previously because of this grand voice that he has — I feel it’s one of the most beautiful voices in the industry.”
Tañón’s latest hit, “Asi Es el Amor,” moves in a different direction, acknowledging the dominance of reggaeton with a dogged verse from the rapper Wisin and some of the hard-bitten programmed rhythms that are popular on radio. The single is co-written by Descemer Bueno, the man behind Enrique Iglesias‘ world-conquering hit “Bailando.” Tañón calls him an “excellent composer.” “In life, the best people to work with are the people who have the humility to accept your ideas,” she suggests. “They shouldn’t be there to create a new style, because you already have a style, and they should respect that. We would write lyrics, and whatever I didn’t like we wouldn’t use; the same with the music. It was easy.”
“Asi Es el Amor” is an impressive amalgam of traditions: the reggaeton portions are fleshed out with horns, and arena-friendly kick drums smooth the transitions between the song’s interlocking segments. “We had agreed to create something together a long time ago,” Tañón says of Wisin. “He said, ‘I love this, let’s make it,’ and we did. When you overthink things too much, they don’t turn out. In this case it was very fast.”
Tañón is grateful that once again, she has a hit on the airwaves. “The most beautiful thing that my father taught me is to say thank you, because the people, even today, continue to support you in your career,” she says. “It is marvelous, and I am thankful to a lot of countries.”