Daymé Arocena, “Alkemi”
By Rebecca Bodenheimer · March 01, 2024 Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

On her first three albums, most recently 2019’s Sonocardiogram, Cuban-born singer Daymé Arocena displayed a mastery of global fusion, drawing connections between Afro-Cuban folkloric music and progressive jazz. Appropriately for an album named after the Yoruba word for alchemy, Alkemi heralds another creative transformation in the form of a pivot to pop that, as she told the New York Times, was over a decade in the making, a delay owed not to creative hang-ups, but the genre’s complicated history. As an Afro-Latina woman, she felt pigeonholed in ways that other Spanish-speaking singers like Rosalía and Karol G weren’t. That Black Latin American women have historically been poorly represented in the love song genre only made those discrepancies more noticeable.

A collection of multi-faceted, multilingual songs exploring love, sensuality, and relationships, produced by Eduardo Cabra of the acclaimed rap/reggaeton group Calle 13, Alkemi centers Black female love and desire while reinforcing Arocena’s roots in Afro-Cuban music and progressive jazz. Batá drumming and flute melodies co-mingle with soul-funk brass and synths on “American Boy,” the album’s most immediate track. “Coda” pairs Arocena’s powerful, timbre-heavy vocal scales with a jazzy arrangement for a luxurious, Sadeesque sound. She sings in English on “I Rather Let It Go” and “Die and Live Again,” the first giving us a chorus with a piano montuno combined with Congolese-style guitar flourishes. “Die and Live Again,” a slow ballad with unusual harmonies, ends the album on an uptempo note, with a midsection featuring a salsa piano montuno overlaid by a trap beat, a surprising combination that really works.

Elsewhere, Alkemi fuses electronica with Caribbean popular genres, particularly reggae. “A fuego lento” and “Como vivir por el” both begin as ambient-sounding ballads, eventually adding in reggae grooves and horns. The former does this in the last third of the song, along with vocal improvisations from Dominican singer Vicente Garcia, while the latter switches to reggae in the chorus, Arocena skillfully scatting over the beat. Similarly, “Suave y pegao,” a duo with Puerto Rican singer Rafa Pabón, channels reggaeton, though the overall vibes are more neo-soul than Bad Bunny. The end result is boundless, unapologetic pop.

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