Hearing a Panamanian duo like Los Rakas rap in Spanish over dancehall beats mixed with West Coast G-funk synths probably doesn’t shock too many devout music fans nowadays. Less than even ten years ago, though, the likelihood of hearing such a cross-cultural puree of language, sound and style was a rarity. It might have been going down but the road accessing to western listeners was just being paved. Now it’s practically a norm, from Vampire Weekend jacking riffs from Ghanaian highlife to Uproot Andy spinning Colombian-imported electro-cumbia at a mid-week NYC dance party.
Despite the current surplus of neo, non-Western “World Music” channeling through our DSL cable and out our speakers, Los Rakas does occupy a unique, uncharted space amidst all the musical clutter. Originally hailing from Panama, the duo have since set up shop in Oakland, Calif., where they started dropping mixtapes of playfully stripped down hard-hitting plena (rough-edge dancehall reggae en español) with English and Spanish rhymes for a self-coined sound called “barrio rap.” Since then the duo have branched out further away from the dancehall and more towards the west coast, Latin hip-hop of their stateside peers with mixed results. The 2010 single “Soy Raka” (featured here on Chancletas y Camisetas Bordata re-recorded simply as “Soy”) is an infectious, mid-tempo heap of bass slapped together with a no-frills, repetitive chorus easy to rap along with, even to the average mid-western gringo. Other singles such as the saccharine R&B “Hacerte El Amor” or the 15 years too late Bay-Area weed ode “Hierba” found the duo attempting new styles but evidently out of the comfort zone that helped generate a buzz around the boys in the first place.
Chancletas y Camisetas Bordata (Flip-Flops and Fly Tank-Tops) is fortunately more focused that these missteps and finds the duo attempting to re-tool what they’re good at. Full of bass-heavy, west-coast indebted head-bobbing beats coupled with syrupy raps to get the dance floor two-stepping but not wiling out, Chancletas works because Los Rakas and the producers they work with keep it stupidly simple. Setting the tone is the overly-sexed, dub-steppy “Panty Wanty,” which is neither particularly danceable or sexy, but works by being both ridiculous and amusingly creepy with its whispery chorus and breathy high-end space sounds. The following offering “Borracho (Culea),” roughly translating to something about drunk sex, actually samples bedsprings and a “Gonna Make you Sweat” drum machine to drive the beat. Coupled with a numerous count-downs in Spanish, scratchy-synths and group vocals repeating “Culea,” the track comes off like a X-rated version of Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” with more rap appeal than queso-pop. In “Ta Lista” (She’s Ready), the duo rap over flawlessly blended rustic Latin percussion with G-funk keys. Raka Dun opens with a syrupy slow verse that is then complimented with Raka Rich’s high-pitched speedy raps balancing the smooth moving pulse of the song.
Elsewhere Chancletas continues to showcase Los Rakas’ affection for smoky, G-funk sci-fi synths, domineering bass and catchy recurring choruses. “Camisetas Bordadas” begins with the slow dub-step of “Panty Wanty” but then takes off with pushy raps and an edgy call and response from an unnamed female contribution. While the EP opener “Vengo De Panama” is an obvious ode to The Chronic 2001 with plucky strings over a wheezy keyboard but incorporates a lively element with Dun and Rich’s dancehall delivery showcasing their ability to effortlessly blend two differing styles.
Ultimately Chancletas y Camisetas Bordata works well because it doesn’t stray far from the sound that it establishes throughout its eight tracks. The combination of Los Rakas’ own version of plena with their love for the sound and aesthetic of Cali-rap comes off as a natural fit. It works so well sometimes that its easy to forget how little of this so-called “barrio rap” that there is out there. At some point, the Rakas will probably have to branch out further from what they’ve established on Chancletas. Until then, though, drop the treble and enjoy rattling some windows with this solid and largely unique offering.