Stepping onstage at Brooklyn’s Public Records one night late in October, Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Ileana Cabra carried herself delicately, dressed like an indie Alice in Wonderland in a puff-sleeved mini dress. The artist, who goes by iLe, was getting ready to serenade the crowd with her brassy voice while performing songs from her new album Nacarile — and didn’t look at all like she was about to burst into a bullish rap. But halfway through “Ningún Lugar,” a slow rock number written with Argentine freestyle rapper Trueno, iLe launched into his verses with a spitfire force of her own.
Over the next few minutes, iLe would remind her audience of the artist she has always been, and the one she continues to become: bold, ever-evolving, and deliberate in every lane she occupies, whether it’s the rousing protest balladry she’s known for, or hip hop en español for a night.
It’s hard to imagine, then, that nearly three years ago, iLe found herself suddenly directionless. “I was feeling very lost,” she shares with Rolling Stone, just hours before her show. “But I had to keep composing.”
Nacarile, her third studio album released last month, is the product of this period of uncertainty, one prompted by the pandemic and the ongoing aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Inspired by the old island phrase, “nacarile del oriente,” an impassioned way of saying “no,” the record reaches deep into the collective disillusionment of the last two years. Yet iLe refuses to stay there. The LP sees her sifting through the disparate parts of herself — the lover, the feminist, the defender — to find new and familiar ways of showing up in a world that seems increasingly hellbent on breaking us.
It’s a process of rediscovery iLe has gone through before. When she was just 16, she started performing alongside her older brothers, René “Residente” Perez Joglar and Eduardo “Visitante” Cabra, of the widely decorated hip-hop group Calle 13. Since branching off on her own in 2016, iLe, now 33, has spent her solo career establishing a considerable command of Caribbean and Latin American music genres from throughout history. She has darted effortlessly between big band bugalú and salsa of the 20th century, to her home island’s ancestral rhythms of bomba and plena — as evidenced by her debut and sophomore albums, iLevitable and Almadura, respectively. Nacarile, however, sees iLe in new territory altogether, leaning away from many of the classic styles that won her a Grammy back in 2017.
“I wanted this album to have a different energy,” iLe recalls, describing her previous album as “very percussive” and stylistically “rigid.” Working without a blueprint, sonically or otherwise, iLe’s only certainty when she started working on Nacarile was that she wanted it to be “more melodic” than its predecessors. The 11-track project delivers on this simple goal with stunning variance: There are tastes of starry synth-pop (“A La Deriva”), riffs on reggaeton (“Algo Bonito), blistering boleros (“Traguito”), and balladry fit for any indie darling (“No Es Importante”). But rather than hiding behind these new textures and the album’s many collaborators, iLe’s voice emerges clearly from the ether.
Lyrically, iLe lays herself bare on tracks like “(Escapándome) De Mí,” a slinky electronic song about avoiding romantic relationships. “Todo lo lindo de ti/ Me asusta/ Me asusta porque me gusta,” she sings in the chorus, admitting what it’s like to be afraid of falling in love with a partner once you realize you like them. In the song’s music video — her first to self-direct — iLe throws herself off a ledge, free falling through space as her voice sinks in Auto-Tune. This act of jumping into the unknown speaks not only to her dive into love, but also to what she’s done on the album at large. “Sometimes you just don’t want to deal with the vulnerabilities that you have,” iLe shares. “I needed to take care of that part of myself, to listen to it and acknowledge it.” Nacarile, in turn, marks her most inward work yet.
One constant remains, however, from iLe’s earlier projects: her emphasis on the political. She enlists heavyweight artists Ivy Queen, Mon Laferte, and Natalia Lafourcade for their shared feminist power on the record, at a moment in history when women around the world are fighting for reproductive and social freedoms. On “Algo Bonito,” Ivy Queen delivers an especially seething takedown of the patriarchy, smacking down any preconceptions of what a woman should be: “Me importa poco de lo que me tildan/ Nunca he creído que callaíta me veo mas linda,” she raps (“I don’t care what they call me/ I’ve never thought that I look prettier when I’m quiet.”) iLe reached out to the trailblazing reggaetonera at the recommendation of her brother, Gabriel. At first, she wasn’t sure if the collaboration would happen — but Ivy Queen was game.
“I admire her as a woman in urbano. She is a role model and she has represented that for me ever since I was a little girl,” iLe recalls. “Now, to work on a song with her, it’s crazy… It was amazing to have her power and her lyrics. We found a way to connect even though we are so different. As women, we hurt in similar ways. Everything that happens to one woman, it’s as if it could happen to any of us.” That’s why, iLe stresses, it’s so important to her to speak to these shared experiences in her music. “Until patriarchy simply disappears, we have to keep talking about it, protesting, and claiming what belongs to us as women in this world.”
While Nacarile largely draws on universal realities of love and gender, the album’s centerpiece, “Donde Nadie Más Respira,” focuses iLe’s activism closer to home. Punctuated by sharp, suffocated gasps, the song calls out the violent consequences of Puerto Rico’s enduring colonization by the United States. Released ahead of the island’s gubernatorial elections in 2020 — the first to take place since island-wide demonstrations, which iLe participated in, led to Governor Ricardo Rossello’s resignation in 2019 — “Donde Nadie más Respira” continues to resonate. It hit even closer to home in September, when Hurricane Fiona made landfall and left the island without power, exposing the continued effects of colonial mismanagement and neglect.
As seen with Hurricane Maria, climate disasters pose an imperial threat over Puerto Rico — and elected officials often grease the wheels for this exploitation. “We voted for the same political party that, to me, represents corruption,” iLe explains. Ever since, Puerto Rico has been steered into the pockets of foreigners searching for tax breaks and opportunistic developers, all while the island’s electrical grid system — now powered by the privatized LUMA Energy — continues to incur mounting costs for locals despite regular outages. (Right before leaving the island for her show in New York, iLe says the power went out again at her home.)
Disheartening as it is to see her island, and her people, under colonial pressures, iLe doesn’t settle into hopelessness for long. “There’s a lot of unfairness in this world that needs to be acknowledged and we need to do something about it,” she says. “My music is where I try to express the way I feel about these things, and hopefully, make a change.”