One day short of a year after Tego Calderón released The Underdog/El Subestimado (2006), a sprawling album that defiantly distanced him from the reggaeton bandwagon -- thereby alienating a significant segment of his audience and commercial prospects in the process -- he returned with El Abayarde Contra-Ataca, a remarkably refined effort that is a sequel to his classic debut, El Abayarde (2003), in name only. If anything, El Abayarde Contra-Ataca (i.e., The Abayarde Strikes Back) is a sequel to The Underdog, in terms of musical approach if not name. Some fans might understandably wish otherwise. El Abayarde was the album that established Calderón as one of the leading lights of the reggaeton uprising circa 2003-2004. It was practically genre-defining, in the sense that it was one of the first reggaeton full-lengths to stand alone as a true album rather than a compilation of disparate tracks. Plus, it, along with Don Omar's The Last Don (2003), also introduced to the masses the production duo Luny Tunes, who would quickly become reggaeton's go-to hitmakers. The Underdog, on the other hand, was genre-defying. Over the course of 23 tracks, Calderón pushed the boundaries, frequently delving into rap as well as "salsaton," and he used the album as a platform to air out his world view. For every run-of-the-mill reggaeton exercise like "Cuando Baila Reggaetón," a rote would-be hit featuring Yandel that found Calderón sounding uninspired, if not downright bored, there were songs like "A Mi Papá" and "Llora, Llora" -- the former an emotional ode to his recently deceased father, the latter a salsa-cum-reggaeton mash-up graced with a chorus by the great Oscar d'León. On El Abayarde Contra-Ataca, Calderón refines the aspects of The Underdog that worked (the stylistic mash-ups, the rapping, the Caribbean-isms) and ditches those that didn't work so well (the run-of-the-mill reggaeton). In addition, he presents a considerably more joyful mood lyrically and limits himself to 14 tracks in 52 minutes. Consequently, this album is much easier to enjoy than its predecessor, which, for as curious as it was at the time of its release, was admittedly difficult, especially when taken as a whole. It helps, too, that El Abayarde Contra-Ataca is laden with highlights. The opening run of "Tradicional a Lo Bravo" (a fun-filled tropical dance song), "Ni Fu Ni Fa" (a chaotic production that includes techno bleeps as well as chanting children), and "Cual Es el Plan y Eso" (boasting a show-stopping rap courtesy of Calle 13 vocalist Residente) is fantastic, while further highlights such as "Quitarte To'" (featuring hot up-and-comer Randy on the hook), "TTTTego Remix" (hard-hitting), and "No Era por Ahí" (absolutely crazed production) pop up every couple songs. Overall, El Abayarde Contra-Ataca is a reassuring release by Calderón. His previous album was alienating in many ways, and though some championed it for its defiance and experimentation, in retrospect it's evident it was a transitional effort in need of further development and eventual refinement. El Abayarde Contra-Ataca is also a reassuring release for reggaeton. The recently stagnant style really needs to be challenged creatively by more albums like this and Calle 13's Residente o Visitante (2007), for the potential for greatness is there, as proven by this pair of albums.
Review by Jason Birchmeier