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C Tangana
Photography Javier Ruiz, Styling Alex Turrión

C. Tangana: the rapper blending Spanish and Latin traditions with sleek pop

Catapulted to viral fame on a 2016 tune with Rosalía, the Madrid-born rapper’s third studio album expands on themes of masculinity and fame to take him out of the ‘trap artist box’

Walk through any plaza in Spain and, chances are, you’ll hear the crisp trap sound of C. Tangana blaring out the speakers. One of the country’s biggest musical exports, the Madrid-born rapper – real name Antón Álvarez Alfaro – has been hailed as Spain’s answer to Drake, and is often credited in shaping the sound of música urbana (an umbrella term used to describe Spanish-language music with roots in reggaeton, dancehall, and trap), alongside the likes of Mala Rodriguez and J Balvin. His 2016 track “Antes de morirme” with then-girlfriend Rosalía catapulted him to viral fame, and has a staggering 93 million views on YouTube.

Despite going on to win four Latin Grammys for his work on Rosalía’s 2018 breakout album, EL MAL QUERER, Álvarez hasn’t received the same Anglo recognition as his Spanish-speaking contemporaries, like Bad Bunny or Bad Gyal. Rarely is he covered in the British or American press. “It’s probably because of how I speak the language,” he jokes over Zoom, where we speak via a translator.

But this is something that he hopes to change with his third studio album, El Madrileño. Featuring collaborations with artists from across Latin America – including flamenco pop titans Gipsy Kings, Oscar-winning Uruguayan artist Jorge Drexler, Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa, and rising Latin pop artist Omar Apollo – the 14-track record signals a move away from the trap beats and heavily Autotuned vocals that first propelled Álvarez to fame. Rather, El Madrileño combines traditional styles of music that Álvarez has loved since childhood – flamenco, rumba, and Spanish folk – with the contemporary sounds of alt r&b, art pop, and bolero, to create something that’s both sleek and nuanced. 

“My artistic ambitions were greater than the limitations associated with being a rapper. Like, I’ve been there, done that,” he begins. “Besides, I’ve never felt like a trap artist. I’ve never been a fan of those white kids from Europe who end up tattooing their faces and think they represent trap culture.”

Álvarez started performing under the alias C. Tangana in 2011 as part of the rap collective Agorazein. In 2015, he left his job in a Vodafone call centre to pursue music full-time, gaining recognition for viral hits like “Mala Mujer” and “Llorando en la Limo”. He explains, “I was put in the ‘trap box’ because of the boom in urban music within Spain. I originally started making music directly inspired by 90s rap, but following the popularity of Latin music, I began to move my music towards those genres.”

With El Madrileño, Álvarez wanted to make an album “that withstands the passage of time”. Imbued with the historical richness of Spanish-American folklore, the songs feel earnest and considered, with Álvarez ruminating on weighty themes of love, masculinity, and fame. “I think this album gives a glimpse into my process of questioning how I am supposed to behave as a man, and how men should be generally,” he says.

On “Cambia!”, Álvarez adopts the form of a corrido, a Mexican ballad often linked to a celebration of macho culture. Set against a stripped-back guitar melody, he grapples with the macho pressures placed on him from a young age. In it, Mexican artist Carin Leon sings, “I grew up hearing about brave men’s stories on/ Chalino’s verses/ Wanting guns, a new house and car/ That’s how the boy was forged”.

“I’ve been frustrated by the idea everyone has of how a man should be my entire life,” he explains. “I tried to be the man everyone told me I should be. But when I was in my twenties, I started feeling that the entire world was telling me that was not the way anymore. I had to rebuild and reconfigure myself.”

“I’ve never felt like a trap artist. I’ve never been a fan of those white kids from Europe who end up tattooing their faces and think they represent trap culture” – C. Tangana

He describes his first encounter with the renowned Cuban musician and Buena Vista Social Club member Eliades Ochoa, who appears on the track “Muriendo De Envidia”. Álvarez was having dinner with a friend in Cuba’s Vedado neighbourhood, when he noticed Ochoa sitting on a porch nearby playing dominos. “We are already very drunk on rum,” Álvarez grins, “We were all very excited and convinced him to give us a little guitar concert that night”. Several drinks later, they decided on a song about a washed-up artist who finds himself alone at the after party of an award’s ceremony in a rented suit. “He is there just because he used to be someone relevant. It’s a feeling that most artists will feel at some point,” he explains.

Upon release, El Madrileño reached over five million streams in less than 24 hours. But speaking with Álvarez – or, as his friends call him, Pucho – it’s hard not to be taken aback by how down to earth he comes across. “I am aware of my limitations,” he admits. “I’m not the best dancer, nor is my voice particularly special.”

There’s a familial spirit to his output, which you can see clearly in his recent NPR Tiny Desk concert, filmed at home due to COVID restrictions. Álvarez and his extended family, including his mum, rumba legend Kiko Veneno, and flamenco-pop icon La Húngara, sit around a half-eaten feast, in a scene reminiscent of a Pedro Almodovar film. It speaks to the warm spirit of sobremesa – the longheld Spanish tradition of relaxing after a meal.

Álvarez sings, “Pucho, how could it be possible / that without hitting a single note / you managed to get the entirety of Spain to listen to you?” The crowd cheers him on, with an energy that radiates from the laptop screen. 

Over the course of our conversation, he makes several references to his family and its influence on his trajectory. His mother is his financial manager, while his cousin looks after the business side of things. “It’s all thanks to them,” he says. “When I ignore social media, I feel like the same person I was back when I was 15 years old.” This is the family that flanks him in the celebratory visual, clapping their hands to a syncopated rhythm, beckoning us to take a seat at Pucho’s table and bear witness – listen with them, the entirety of Spain, an anticipatory world.

El Madrileño is out now