Two years ago, René Pérez Joglar took a chance.
For over a decade, the 39-year-old had been the voice of Calle 13, a Puerto Rican hip-hop crew that had grown to massive visibility. The two core members — producer Eduardo Cabra, known as Visitante, and Joglar, who rapped as Residente — had earned the group three Grammys and two dozen Latin Grammys, and were considered one of the biggest Latin acts in the world. And then, Joglar decided he was done.
"I was starting to feel comfortable," he told an interviewer earlier this month, during an onstage event at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. "As an artist, that's the worst feeling."
Since then, Residente has been building himself a new career. His debut solo project goes beyond music: an album, documentary film and interactive website based on his own genealogy. It started with a simple DNA test and led him on a journey around the world.
"When I got the results of my DNA test, I started to make music. I started to research about the places that I learned that I had blood," he says. "At the studio I had a map of all the places to understand it better, and then I started to conceptualize the ideas for the songs."
In each country, he collaborated with local musicians and gathered field recordings. In China, he wrote about climate change; in Ghana, about being a father; in Puerto Rico, a song for independence.
He traveled to the Caucasus — to North Ossetia, which is part of Russia, and South Ossetia, which separated from Georgia in the 1990s — and wrote "Guerra," a song about war in a region touched by years of conflict.
"If you listen to the first two verses," he says, "I'm talking about war in a way that — let's say that you're about to die. They already surrounded you ... and you have a gun, and you're going to go all the way because this is it. I was talking about that moment."
After exploring the region, his understanding of war changed. He visited the Beslan school where, in 2004, Chechen militants took around 1,200 hostages. More than 300 people were killed, 186 of them children. He went with a woman who had lost her two children there.
"I started to feel heavy — you know, in my shoulders, my head. You can feel that a lot of people died there," Residente says. "Those are the times when you say, 'Why [do] these things happen in the world?'"
The experience made him question his process. "Even though I know I need to help people through my music — because it's something that I learned way before Calle 13 — I was also thinking, why do I have to do this, to take this energy?" he says. "But I wanted to feel it in order to write." He added a third verse, where war loses its swagger.
That idea of taking in the world around him for his writing, of feeling in order to create, is something Residente says he learned as a kid in Puerto Rico — where, in the 1980s, a bruised economy had brought steep unemployment and rising crime.
"At that time, Puerto Rico was a little bit violent," he says. "This is not because I want to sound dramatic. It's sad, but half of my friends, they died — you know, they got killed or they are in prison."
Residente grew up in Trujillo Alto, southeast of San Juan, as one of eight siblings in a lower-middle-class household. His mother, an actress, and his father, a labor lawyer, were both strong presences in his life. "So I grew up going to strikes, knowing that my dad was traveling to Central America or to Cuba," Residente says. "He was very into social movements, so I got that from him."
As a child, he played drums, alto saxophone and guitar. He also played baseball and enjoyed drawing — which, years later, would lead him to pursue both a bachelor's and a master's degree in fine art. It was while he was studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga. that he began to rap. (As he puts it, "I think art was my vehicle to be here now.")
The visual sense he honed as a student often feels present in his music. The Calle 13 song "El Aguante" crafts a scene of resistance to violent struggle in vivid detail: Aguantamos latigazos, que nos corten los dos brazos / Fracturas en cualquier hueso, tres semanas con un yeso — or, "We endure lashes that cut both our arms; fractures in any bone, three weeks with a cast." He has written black humor and party songs, discussed dating a Miss Universe winner and what it means to be Latin American, all in image-driven language.
"As an artist you have to be a reflection of the things that affect you," he told the audience at South By Southwest. "You need to be honest and put it out. Life is full of everything, so that's what I put out."
In Residente, his new album's companion documentary, he can be seen holding his collaborators to the same standard: For a song about his young son, he instructs the flutist to play like it's a raucous celebration, the guest vocalist to sing like she's cooing at a sleeping child.
Elsewhere, he is more irreverent: In the song "Somos Anormales" he writes about big noses, unibrows and cellulitis, making the case that no one is "normal" and everyone is a freak.
"I was looking [at] different kinds of people at the bar, so I started to describe things," he says. "We are equally different, and it's great to be different."
The song's video, shot in Siberia and featuring an appearance by John Leguizamo, begins with a graphic birth scene, crescendos in a violent battle and ends in a group make-out session. "We came from the same vagina," Residente explains. "And at the end we're fighting because of nothing, and we forget what we're fighting for."
Those NSFW images may make the clip harder to disseminate; viewers on YouTube have to verify their age before watching. The rapper says that frustrates him a little — but that the song and video make for a good introduction to Residente the solo artist.
"I think that Residente is darker," he says. "When you're making art, you have to be like that: honest and real, and that thing of bringing back that connection with human beings. I think it's missing in music. I want to bring it back."
Web editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen contributed to this story.