Two years after the smash success of “Despacito,” his Guinness World Record-breaking collaboration with Daddy Yankee, Puerto Rican superstar Luis Fonsi follows through with his ninth full-length (and first since 2014), Vida. Fonsi’s career is no overnight success story — he’s spent the last two decades as one of Latin pop’s most chameleonic singer-songwriters. An island-born Boricua who transplanted to Orlando, Florida as a teen, he first cut his teeth singing doo-wop songs alongside high school classmate Joey Fatone of ‘NSync fame; the two linked up again on Fonsi’s 2002 English crossover album, and the same year Fonsi joined Britney Spears on her Dream Within a Dream tour.
He remained steadily on the brink of both English and Spanish pop breakthroughs during the 2000s before he finally scored a major hit in 2008 with his tearjerking guitar ballad, “No Me Doy por Vencido” (“I Don’t Give Up”). Yet his most significant contribution to Latin pop was in helping evolve the balada romántica beyond the domain of oiled-up womanizers and chain-smoking divorcées — modernizing the songs that Spanish-speakers refer to as canciones cortavenas, or ballads so incredibly potent they cut like a knife to the veins. Over the years, Fonsi has advanced the art of the cortavena by suffusing it with elements of rock, dance-pop, R&B, bachata and reggaeton, thus tailoring his own bespoke brand of Latin balladry. With Vida, he taps that superpower to the nth degree.
It’s only fitting that he opens with “Sola,” a lightfooted balada with a reggaeton swing. Fonsi backs up his “Despacito” body talk with the emotional sustenance that some critics were starved for in 2017: “You don’t have to be here alone,” he assures in both English and Spanish versions. “And if you wanna slow down/Then slow down, it’s only los dos.”
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On the contrary, Fonsi is far from alone in Vida, and it’s all for the better. Wedged between the sweeping melodrama of his solo tracks are plenty of features, from Ozuna’s honeyed verses in “Imposible” to the multi-lingual dancehall track “Calypso,” co-starring Hackney rap royalty Stefflon Don (and a cameo from Karol G in the remix). Just when Fonsi presents a hard act to follow with his shattering slow jam “Dime Que No Te Iras,” Top 40 pop virtuosa Demi Lovato ramps up the heat (and her own Spanish heritage) with a surprise bilingual performance on the hybrid vallenatón hit, “Échame la Culpa” (“Put the Blame On Me”). She poses a formidable vocal match to Fonsi, whose pipes light up with a firepower unseen in the previous tracks — a King of Hearts in the truest sense, he burns brightest as part of a twosome. And even though he’s hardly one to recede into the background, Fonsi shows that he’s learned that in this business, being a good team player can make for an even greater power player.