Why Ana Tijoux Matters11 February, 2024
Ana Tijoux has just gifted us with a new album, Vida, her first in ten years, and I think this is significant, and not just because she decided to take the longest hiatus in her career right around the peak of her international popularity, but also because said hiatus coincided with the biggest tectonic shift in the music landscape of our times. It was right around a decade ago that Spotify launched in Latin America, streaming took over the industry and imposed the tacit rule of dropping new songs every other week in order to remain relevant to the tyrannic playlisting algorithms, and this, in turn, coincided with (or resulted in) the urban Latino music takeover.
Sure, she hasn’t been completely silent, she dropped some singles, did a few collaborations, toured and even became a published author in 2023. She didn’t exactly go into hiding. But remember, she was one of the top female rappers to cross-over internationally at a time when rap in Spanish was still pretty much an oddity to the ears of the anglophone global audience – those were the days before Despacito, Bad Bunny, Rosalía and the Latin trap revolution. Hip-hop had been alive and thriving in Latin America for decades before that – and Ms. Tijoux had been a fundamental part of it, since her breakthrough debut with Makiza in Santiago de Chile in 1998 – but the genre wasn’t really making much noise outside of the niche. It was an underground phenomenon exclusively for Latino hip-hop heads and it was expected to remain like that. So, the fact that she managed to get the attention of the English-speaking critics and tastemakers (Thom Yorke included) was huge! Then the revolution happened and all Latin rap derivatives (encompassed under the “urban” umbrella) became massive, a whole new wave of superstars went viral overnight and now it’s not at all uncommon to hear rapping in Spanish – often performed by female vocalists – at the very top of the global charts. For better or for worse, Ana Tijoux seems to have missed that boom. And she seems OK with that.
With Vida, the French-born Chilean femcee doesn’t seem to show interest in reasserting her claim for the throne or competing with the younger generation, she’s created a whole new lane, a safe space for the more mature audience who are more interested in soulful songs with deeper messages than booty-shaking for fifteen seconds in a TikTok choreography. Rap is still the main entreé she’s serving and hip-hop culture is still very present, she gives props to the pioneers and she doesn’t ignore the newer trends (Latin trap and reggaetón elements are subtly sparkled throughout). But she’s not a rapper battling for cypher supremacy, she’s a singer-songwriter who deals with serious matters and delivers cohesive albums, the kind that need to be listened to in order, from beginning to end. And that’s what Vida is.
“Millonaria” kick-starts the album by temporarily duping us into believing she had jumped on the bandwagon of the current trend of Latin trap’s obsession with mindless, ostentatious consumerism. However, quickly we learn that she’s pretty much mocking said trend by claiming her millions are accrued in the form of family, friends and the expanded community of loved ones which even includes her cat. Remember, this is an album by a woman in her mid forties, a mother of two, she has no business bragging about luxury brands or day-dreaming about showers of dollar bills.
Soon enough the trap beats lead to four-on-the-floor house music and set the overall mood for an album that’s her most explicitly dance-oriented to date, albeit not in the sense of hands-in-the-air nightclub bangers. It’s uptempo and upbeat, but at the same time it’s smooth and intimate. Again, her crowd is not necessarily packing dancefloors, much less twerking in stripclubs, these are some contagious dance grooves but to be better enjoyed on your headphones while roller skating or dancing alone in the intimacy of your living room, as she states on the irresistible “Bailando Sola Aquí”, one of the album’s highlights and an ode to the joys of living single. “Niñx” and “Cora” are other perfect examples of this new dance floor-friendly Ana, with a heavy pan-Latino identity and, at moments, flirting with tropical bass, taking us closer to Bomba Estéreo’s territory.
Ana has recently lost a loved one, and there’s a whole song about this, “Tania”, but instead of going somber and dwelling in grief, she opted for celebrating life with luminous optimism – hence the album’s title – and what better way of doing that than dancing?
There are also a handful of moments to slow down and meditate, and a lot of singing mixed in with her distinctive rap flow (she sounds way more comfortable with her singing voice, something she struggled with in the past). This is not exactly rap for the hardcore heads, but she serves them as well.
In “Tu Sae’” she delivers an epic love letter to hip-hop culture in its 50th anniversary, over a funky old school beat, with top-tier collaborations, thus reaching a status of hip-hop cred that most scene purists would die or kill for. Here’s the thing about Latin American hip-hop: it is full of purists who are firmly attached to the orthodox ways of interpreting the culture and allow little to no experimentation outside of the rigid old-school formulas. There’s a whole parallel scene, mostly populated by young straight males, who openly hate anything that diverts from the expected boom bap beats, anything else is heretic. These men are quick to distance themselves from anybody that dares to push the evolution of rap through fusion with other genres (something that women seem to be more willing to do, in general) and I’m absolutely sure they’d be quick to point out that they respected Ana Tijoux when she was doing “pure” rapity-rap, with Makiza or on her breakthrough sophomore release, 1977, but not quite since. Well, guess who got to collaborate with an underground legend and defender of hip-hop purism such as Talib Kweli and, on the same track, have the blessing of none other than PlugOne, a.k.a. Posnous, of the almighty De La Soul? Right.
Listening to rap in Spanish is not a novelty anymore, audiences around the world seem a lot more willing to accept it, and Ana’s legacy may have had something to do with that. She’s not here attempting to become the next urban pop phenomenon like Karol G or Nathy Peluso, but if any Spanish-language rapper has the cred to get props from the anglophone true-school heads and maybe cross-over at that level, that’s Ana Tijoux (and maybe Residente, but that’s it).
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