Quincy Jones is one of the most recognized and rightfully acclaimed figures in American popular music. He has arranged or produced recordings by most of the most dazzling pop singers of the last sixty years, including Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson, and for that he has taken home 27 Grammys in a mind-boggling number of categories.
A career like Jones’ is difficult to replicate, but Eduardo “Visitante” Cabra is doing his best: At just 40 years old, Eduardo “Visitante” Cabra has already won 24 Latin Grammys for his work as a writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist in the category-annihilating group Calle 13, as well as helping Shakira, Jorge Drexler, Monsieur Periné, Diana Fuentes and more in the studio.
On Friday, Visitante returns with an absorbing new album as Trending Tropics, a joint release with the Latin Grammy-winning Dominican singer Vicente García. (Visitante also produced García’s unfailingly beautiful A La Mar, released in 2016.) Like much of Calle 13’s work, Trending Tropics has furious energy and boundless musical curiosity, reaching from hip-hop to reggae, from merengue to disco, from choral music to fuzzy African rock. This stylistic bounty is put at the service of a single narrative: Trending Tropics is a 13-song exploration of the various ways that YouTube and Instagram and Twitter and other digital creations have re-wired human lives, and not always for the better.
“It’s a photograph of our distorted relationship with technology,” says Visitante, sitting on a small couch with García in a downtown Manhattan recording studio, sporting a Panama hat at a typically roguish angle. “There are weird things that happen now,” García adds, “like this guy who left his wife to live with a silicon girl in Japan. These stories started being the ideas to write the songs.”
The duo recorded Trending Tropics in studios around the world — San Juan, Madrid, Santo Domingo, New York City — and worked with a wide range of collaborators (Vetusta Morla, iLe, Ana Tijoux, Nidia Góngora), but they maintain a sniper-like focus on techno-fatuation. Named after the Spanglish term for the Internet, “Elintelné” is a story about an alien creature who lands on the earth and tries to determine why all humans are staring at the floor — they’re actually peering down at omnipresent phones. “Elintelné” might just be the fastest song you’ll hear this year; Juan Paz, who manages Trending Tropics, likens it to Mambo Violento. “On Fire” is another song where technology is anthropomorphized with dangerous consequences: Visitante describes it as “a track about a guy who goes insane with love behind a monitor.” The producer adds, “[The narrator] sees a floppy disk in his bed, and the floppy tells him, ‘burn it all.'”
“Most things you listen to, people sit there with their guitar, keyboard, kazoo, whatever, and they’re like, ‘Inspiration came, I just got dumped, I want to write about that!'” jokes Fab Dupont, an engineer, producer and longtime Visitante collaborator who has a hand on every song on Trending Tropics. Visitante and García, says Dupont, were not so frivolous. “These guys came in like, ‘this is what we want to do, and they really stuck to the theme,'” Dupont stresses. “It’s not just random songs about whatever.”
Even the twisting musical styles and changing tempos on Trending Tropics offer a comment on the impact of modern technology on culture. In a streaming-heavy, algorithm-obsessed era, where fitting into a monochrome playlist can make the difference between a hit and a whiff, the music industry’s tendency to follow particular trends has gone into overdrive. In mainstream Latin popular music, that means there is a glut of reggaeton and trap — it’s hard to find much else, for example, on the Spotify playlist “Viva Latino,” which is one of the most popular collections on the entire platform.
Visitante came out of reggaeton and hip-hop — see the early, still-great Calle 13 hit “Atrévete-te-te” — but, he worries, “Latin music right now, all the sound is the same: the same harmony, the same arrangement.” In contrast, he says, “[Trending Tropics] has different moods: Friday mood, Tuesday mood, the whole week in the album.” This is, in itself, a small protest.
With “Reasons to Fight,” an English-language collaboration with Ziggy Marley, Trending Tropics go even further in their efforts to link their overarching theme to the construction of the music itself. The song ends with a prolonged section of cacophony, a purposeful irritant. The musicians expect that most listeners will decide to skip ahead to the next track to spare their ears: and that’s the point. “They have the power to end the song,” Dupont says. Similarly, he adds, when it comes to smartphone infatuation, “they have the power to end the insanity.”
Visitante and company are also scheming up more ways to illuminate “the insanity” in a forthcoming video, which will zero in on the clicks-for-purchase economy; but Trending Tropics stress that they’re not interested in “preaching” a tech-free way of life. Visitante explains, “It’s criticizing the hyperconnection that we have, but it’s South Park style, that kind of humor.” At one point, he jokes that García has taken up with a silicon partner as well.
“We tried to express different, distorted ways of living,” the producer continues, “but we are not exempt. We are making fun of us. We are addicted to this shit. When I’m working in the studio, and I am in the phone, Vicente tells me, ‘Ah, you’re giving food to social media!'”
Similarly, Trending Tropics is never musically heavy-handed — it’s often deliciously breathless and teeming with hooks. Visitante is justifiably wary of technology. But that never stands in the way of him programming an irresistible beat.