13 months ago, the brother duo Mau y Ricky weren’t having much luck as artists — none of their singles had charted. Songwriting was another matter: Ricky had reached the Top Five in Mexico with his work on Thalia’s “Por Lo Que Reste de Vida,” and both men had then enjoyed global success thanks to their contributions to Ricky Martin and Maluma’s “Vente Pa’ Ca.” But like any writers, they still had a lot of songs in the tank, waiting to find a home. “We finally had a meeting with our record label where they were like, ‘why don’t you just release these songs instead of keeping them in a folder in a computer?'” Ricky remembers.
They did, and one of those songs was “Mi Mala,” a whispery, subtly propulsive duet with Karol G about a no-strings-attached affair. “In a matter of weeks it did commercially better than any song we’ve ever done as artists,” Ricky says. “It just kind of changed our lives altogether.”
The success of “Mi Mala” gave the duo new possibilities as artists, and they followed it with a string of singles, including “Ya No Tiene Novio,” with Sebastian Yatra, which cracked the Top 15 on the Latin Pop songs chart, and “Desconocidos,” out today, a collaboration with the Colombian singer Manuel Turizo and another hit-writer, Camilo Echeverry. Like all Mau y Ricky songs, this one sounds almost too easy. Cheery and succinct, it could work well strummed in the back of a bar or thunking out of a car’s sound system.
Mau y Ricky’s status as hitmakers seems pre-anointed — their father, the Venezuelan star Ricardo Montaner, racked up 22 Top 10 hits and sold many millions of albums between 1989 and 2005, specializing in the kind of sweeping, romantic pop music that has since been swept out of the Latin mainstream by reggaeton. Mau y Ricky studied music as children, began working as a duo when Ricky was 16 and were signed by Warner four years later.
The pair were initially committed to the artist path, but their singles failed to catch on: “Preguntas” was too saccharine, while “Iré Trás De Ti” embraced ringing guitar pop at a time when that sound had all but vanished from Latin radio.
Ricky says the duo fell into writing for their peers accidentally. “We never really tried to work for other artists,” he explains. “Everyone kept telling us, ‘you should write for other people.’ I asked my publisher for a list of people that were looking for songs, and I said, ‘you know what, we’re just going to aim for the biggest name on this list, and if it works out, then we’re meant to do this. And if it doesn’t, and they don’t record it, then we knew that wasn’t it.”
Thalia was top of his publisher’s list, so Ricky whipped up a demo for “Por Lo Que Reste de Vida,” a swing-for-the-fences ballad. “I heard radio silence for two months, and then one day I get woken up and they tell me it’s the next single,” Ricky says. “After that, our songwriting career kind of boomed from there.” The “Vente Pa’ Ca” credit earned them a Latin Grammy nomination as writers, and they soon were in the enviable position of no longer having to peddle songs. “At that point it was just artists hitting us up directly for co-writes,” Ricky says.
This led to a series of highly productive sessions, so by the time “Mi Mala” came out — a remix that included Becky G, Leslie Grace and Lali went platinum — it coincided roughly with an impressive burst of hit-writing for others. The duo worked on Sofia Reyes’ “1, 2, 3,” which became the biggest single of Reyes’ career in April, and they wrote the Becky G and Natti Natasha duet “Sin Pijama,” which reached Number One at radio in August. When the Colombian star Juanes released his new single “Pa Dentro” this summer, it featured writing from Mau y Ricky as well.
These songs, along with the duo’s solo singles “Japonesa,” “22” and “Mal de la Cabeza” with Becky G, frequently sound like variations on a single concept. Lyrically, they tend to catalog various forms of romantic torment or lusty infatuation. Ricky ticks off some of their favorite categories. “My girlfriend broke up with me and I’m sad, or I got cheated on, or I fell in love with someone outside of my relationship,” he says.
The airy melody in Mau y Ricky songs is frequently carried by a guitar, often acoustic-sounding and closely mic’d; the rhythmic engine is a lightweight approximation of the signature reggaeton beat. The duo tend to layer their songs patiently, adding elements, whenever possible, one at a time, so that everything coheres maybe during the second half of the first verse, or right before that first hook. But the arrangement rarely obscures the singer-songwriter core of the tracks — Mau y Ricky have figured out a savvy way to smuggle some of their more traditional musical training onto the radio.
“Desconocidos,” a hook-up-now-sort-out-the-rest-later single, fits easily into this lineage. It’s just acoustic guitar and voice for 21 seconds, then guitar and bass for another 10. The bare structure brings other elements into focus, especially the singing: Fluttery “no-no-no” ad-libs behind Camilo Echeverry’s verse, repeated twice, higher the second time; a shadowy low harmony from Manuel Turizo; a high wordless vocal block. The combination of singers keep shifting, like it might on an old Fleetwood Mac record, but the guitar keeps plugging, as steadfast as the ensemble is mercurial.
Mau y Ricky’s previous single, “Ya No Tiene Novio,” became the pair’s highest-charting release in the U.S. to date. “Desconocidos” is poised to continue their upward trajectory, helped by the fact that Turizo is fresh off his Number One radio hit “Vaina Loca.” The duo haven’t quite reached their stated goal, which is, according to Ricky, to become “the number one artists in the world.” But, he says, “we definitely feel a difference from when we were trying to do a meet and greet and 10 people would show up.”