LONDON – C. Tangana, one of the biggest rap stars in Spain, had a “minor crisis” two years ago.
He rode a wave of fame known for provocative songs and equally provocative interviews. But he’s fast approaching his 30s, he said in a recent Zoom interview, and risked becoming one of those “embarrassing” rappers a decade younger than them.
So C. Tangana – real name Antón Álvarez Alfaro – made a U-turn and decided to try other musical styles that he had loved since childhood, such as flamenco and rumba, even with Spanish people.
“I opened a window that I had kept closed,” he said, adding, “I assumed it was going to go wrong.”
Álvarez’s experiment seems to have paid off. In February he released El Madrileño, an album that mixes traditional Spanish and Latin American styles, including rock, with electronic sounds and beats better known to his trap and reggaeton fans. It turned him from Spain’s greatest rapper to one of its greatest pop stars.
One of the album’s early tracks, “Tú Me Dejaste De Querer” (“You stopped loving me”), has over 100 million views on YouTube.
“You can listen to his music anytime and in any store,” said Pablo Gil, music journalist at El Mundo, a Spanish daily newspaper, in a telephone interview.
Some of the styles of music it offers were last popular in Spain in the 1970s, when the country was under Franco’s dictatorship, Gil added. Álvarez, he said, took up old-fashioned sounds, “undermined their meaning and made them modern”.
In a review for El País newspaper, music critic Carlos Marcos wrote: “It remains to be seen whether this is the birth of new Spanish pop or something we will forget in a few years.”
“But who cares?” he added. “Let’s enjoy it today and we’ll see it tomorrow.”
On YouTube, C. Tangana’s videos are now attracting comments from older music fans who probably would never have come close to his records before. “I thought the music my son was listening to was for landfill,” wrote Felix Guinnot, who said he was in his fifties, “but this boy is changing my musical perception.”
Álvarez’s road to fame has been winding, with several name changes to reflect new musical personalities. He was born in Madrid and started rapping in his teens, he said, but gave up music altogether twice. When the global financial crisis hit Spain particularly hard in 2008 – the country’s youth are still feeling its lingering effects – he stopped rapping to work in a fast food restaurant. He later got a job in a call center selling cell phones.
After falling in love with a colleague, he started rapping again. It was a toxic relationship, Álvarez said, but it inspired him to go back to the studio. “I said, ‘I have to be able to make money with it instead of selling or cleaning phones,” he recalled. “It changed my whole mentality. I started to think I had to sell myself. Me I’ve started doing things to get attention. “
In 2017 Álvarez had his first big hit with “Mala Mujer”, a title about his longing for a “bad woman” whose “gel nails left scars all over her body”. But he was soon better known for his relationship with Rosalía, a Spanish pop star (he co-wrote “El Mal Querer” or “Bad Love”, their breakthrough album, although they have since broken up) and for focusing on it has let in political controversy.
The next year, the northern Spanish city of Bilbao tossed C. Tangana from a series of concerts, saying that his lyrics demeaned women.
More recently, he urged people to reclaim the Spanish flag from the fascists, a potentially controversial endorsement in a country where some are linking it to Franco’s dictatorship.
Ana Iris Simón, a music journalist and writer who wrote about the response to “El Madrileño,” praised Álvarez’s outspoken nature. “He’s not afraid to interfere or speak his mind,” she said in an email.
Some critics still accuse him of being overly macho, Simón said. They point out that only one of the 15 guests on the new album is a woman (La Húngara, a flamenco singer). But Simón said these comments had nothing to do with how the Spaniards viewed him. “Public opinion and published opinion have never been as far apart as they are now,” she noted.
The new album also plays for Spain’s class differences, said Simón. These are artists and styles of music that have been “insulted by the cool cultural scene for years for being typical of the common people,” she said. Using these styles without irony, Álvarez added Iris and instead hugged her like an heir.
Álvarez said his choice of staff – including the Gypsy Kings, the flamenco band that was very popular in the 1980s; Ed Maverick, a “Mexican folk romantic”; and Jorge Drexler, a Uruguayan singer-songwriter – was driven by his love for artists who went their own musical ways. But he also hoped that working with Latin American musicians could change the way some Spaniards view the region.
“In Spain we have the problem that a lot of people still have this colonial mentality,” said Álvarez. “They think our culture is better than their culture, and that’s so stupid.”
During the interview, Álvarez said he was overjoyed that his experiment had paid off. He talked a lot about the joy of being seen as a good songwriter. But he seemed happiest when asked about the impact the album had on a particular person. His mother was “always very proud of him,” he said, “but now she can sing my songs.”
Comments on his YouTube tracks suggest that mom isn’t the only member of another generation doing this. Antonio Remacha wrote a long message under one title in Madrid He said his daughter forced him to listen to the tape against his better judgment, but he loved her.
“I have to admit that he managed to impress me when he was 62,” wrote Remacha of Álvarez, before politely and formally unsubscribing: “Congratulations and all my praise.”