Reggaeton rapper Daddy Yankee turns to acting in 'Talento de Barrio'

August 30, 2008
SEN. JOHN McCAIN EN. JOHN McCAIN was smiling as widely as the Cheshire Cat when he announced this week the surprise endorsement of a big Latin music star with a most patriotic name, Daddy Yankee. But McCain may not be as happy with the way politicians are depicted in the bloody new movie that marks Yankee's debut as an actor, "Talento de Barrio," which opens here next month.

The reggaeton rapper plays Edgar Dinero, a petty gangster who lords over some poor projects in Puerto Rico, killing rivals with a vengeance and peeling off bills from fat wads of cash to get his crew into raunchy discos. When his mother nags him to change his ways, Yankee shoots back that he's no different from lawyers and politicians who rob the people, but with suits on.

Sorry, senator. At the Phoenix news conference this week where the unlikely duo announced their mutual admiration, Yankee had nothing but good things to say about McCain, calling him "a fighter for the Hispanic community."

You might have expected the Republican candidate to get a celebrity nod from someone closer to his conservative musical tastes (ABBA). You also might expect a young rapper with African roots to go for Obama, along with the raft of Latino artists who have already endorsed the Democrat, including singer Alejandro Sanz and comedian George Lopez.

But the biggest surprise is to find Yankee, 31, still on the cultural radar. For some time, the star's profile has fallen, along with the music he helped popularize. As reggaeton receded, Yankee's career seemed to run out of "Gasolina." The fact that media reports this week kept referring to his 4-year-old hit tells you Yankee got stuck at the starting gate, at least when it comes to his crossover dreams.

Three years ago, he was being courted by major U.S. labels, including Interscope, home of 50 Cent and Eminem, which partnered with his label, El Cartel. Though he released two albums under the deal, they didn't live up to expectations in the American market, dashing hopes that Yankee would be the one to reignite the so-called Latin explosion in pop. Yankee still has a site but it hasn't been updated for about a year, leaving the impression his career stopped dead in its tracks around mid-2007.

Yankee's dominance has dwindled in Latin music circles too. Not long ago, a new Daddy Yankee album would be considered an event. But his movie soundtrack, with 15 new songs, was released Aug. 12 without much fanfare. It's being distributed by Universal's Machete Music, but the label says promotion and marketing is being handled by Yankee's own team, which doesn't seem big on providing review copies for critics.

Still, the always faithful Latino fans have made the album No. 1, leaving Yankee as one of the few artists of his genre on the Latin charts, once dominated by reggaeton. And Staples Center sold out for the Aug. 16 hip-hop/reggaeton show sponsored by radio station Latino 96.3, featuring Yankee, Pitbull and others. Yet Yankee headlined that venue three years ago for his "Who's Your Daddy" tour, drawing 8,500 fans on his own. This time, he didn't even get top billing.

As expected, the movie opened big in Puerto Rico, but what happened to the big studio deal he was supposed to sign?

I wanted to talk to Yankee about all this, but a promised interview never came through. After his appearance with McCain, Yankee headed to Miami, then Colombia, where I lost track of him Thursday. Word is, his camp was worried the interview request was a ruseto get him to talk politics.

"He didn't want the endorsement to become a publicity stunt for himself and didn't want to tread on his friendship with John McCain," says Victor Elizalde, head of home video for L.A.-based Maya Entertainment, which is distributing Yankee's film theatrically on the U.S. mainland. "Self-promotion is not the reason he's doing this, unlike some celebrities."

That sounds honorable. And it may explain why the normally charismatic and loquacious rapper seemed slightly shy and awkward with the senator, confessing to being a man of few words, of all things. I also wanted to ask Yankee about his acting aspirations, the state of reggaeton and his new music, which sounds a lot less aggressive and more melodic, even with romantic traces of the popular bachata style in one track.

"Talento de Barrio," which Yankee financed out of his own pocket as executive producer, is obviously a low-budget film. It has a melodramatic plot in which Yankee's character has to choose between his life of crime and going straight as -- you guessed it -- a rising reggaeton star. It's not going to get any Oscar nominations, but it is watchable, in a telenovela sort of way.

Elizalde compares it to "Eight Mile," the movie starring Eminem. That's a cinematic stretch, but "Talento" does have the same biographical overtones. Yankee comes from the poor environment depicted in the movie, violent places that served as the caldron for reggaeton as a raw, raucous and rebellious reflection of barrio life. He even has a limp in one leg as evidence of the real-life gun violence he survived.

The weird thing is that music does not stand out in the movie. It's more of a backdrop. Yankee delivers his most convincing performance at the very end, when he's rapping over the credits, the camera in a tight close-up on his face.

But if Yankee wants to be a major star, as Elizalde says he does, he's going to have to lose the Third World modus operandi that afflicts much of the reggaeton world. When his star was ascending, Yankee was praised for being a smart businessman who kept control of his label and other aspects of his career. Now that strategy may be working against him.

For example, Elizalde says Yankee and his management team kept control of theatrical distribution in Puerto Rico, but didn't close the deal with Maya for the rest of the country until last month. Now, at Maya's request, he's going back to record English overdubs to help broaden the film's appeal when it goes to DVD. The Puerto Rican accents and slang are so thick that even I had to follow the English sub-titles.

When Elizalde met with Yankee earlier this month, he told him what it takes to become a film star, especially being available for the endless media junkets and interviews. "You have to make a decision whether you want to play in this arena or not," Elizalde recalls saying.

I had met Yankee in his old neighborhood in Puerto Rico three years ago when his "Gasolina" was still hot. He came across as an articulate, well-grounded, even spiritual guy who had a confident, clear sense of where he was going.

Now, he needs to take a tip from his movie character and put his career back on a productive track, before it's too late. Even the president of the United States won't help him do that.

"Talento de Barrio," starring Daddy Yankee, opens citywide Sept. 26. For more info, go to
**LA Times**