Weekly Billboard Theory — Despacito

I gotta be upfront. By no means am I an authority on any type of Latin-American music so I’m sure I’ll be missing a lot of details when looking into “Despacito.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do too much research on the subject matter as I’m still on tour and currently sitting in the first bench of a fifteen-passenger van so I’ll be doing my best to apply my pre-existing knowledge this week. That being said, it’s the first non-English language song I’ll be “reviewing” and I think it’s been a while since something like this has been up here. Drake, Ed Sheeran, and even 21 Pilots have been pumping out pseudo island music so it’s refreshing to get the real deal from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee even if Justin Bieber was slapped on there. I don’t know if it’s a song that I would ever listen to voluntarily but even without knowing the lyrics “Despacito” has something verrrrrry interesting happening as well as some distinct characteristics that classify it as a Latin Pop music.

Gotta stand by Daddy Yankee

Despacito Remix

Luis Fonsi x Daddy Yankee ft. Justin Bieber

Key: D Major

Tempo: 89 BPM

As soon as “Despacito” begins we can tell that it’s a Latin-American song. Why? The flamenco style guitar. Typically, this would be played with a nylon string classical guitar but instead, we hear a steel string acoustic. How can ya tell? The timbre of metal strings are very different than those of nylon and this represents a modern take on a historical musical style. Flamenco guitar is common in Spanish music and the music of countries that were originally colonized by Spain, so it makes sense that it is utilized in “Despacito.” EDIT — It’s been brought to my attention that the instrument sounding is a cuatro. Remember that time I said that “by no means am I an authority on any type Latin-American music?” Whoops.

The guitar isn’t the only signifier of Latin-American music throughout “Despacito.” As a matter of fact, almost everything is par for the course with the song and (my understanding of) the culture. Constant chord hits on the “and” of pretty much every downbeat is a clear indicator of Latin-American and Reggaeton music. The snare pattern of the drumbeat is pretty typical for most types of island dance music. Even the chord progression is familiar for this genre.

Daddy Yankee has an album called “King Daddy.” KING. DADDY.

Since I’m currently not capable of pouring over Wikipedia pages for this review, I tried thinking back to the biggest Latin-American hit before this one and I recalled that I used to play “Danza Kuduro” by Don Omar when I would DJ parties in grad school. This was the quickest and most legitimate reference I used to find common characteristics for “Despacito” but I noticed something almost immediately. THIS SONG USES THE EXACT SAME CHORD PROGRESSION. Well, okay, so it’s a whole step apart but they’re both vi-IV-I-V. Does every Reggaeton song use this chord progression? Of course not, but this is a pretty hilarious coincidence especially since they’re probably the two biggest Latin American hits of the past ten years. This chord progression should look similar as it’s from some of the songs that I’ve already written about but with a slight variation. Every song ever uses the I-V-vi-IV progression and vi-IV-I-V is just a shift of the permutation. Does that mean that Luis Fonsi is actually a brilliant 21st-century composer using serialism to create new chord progressions? Nah, but it’s interesting how a small change in something so familiar can create a very different sound.

Everything so far has been standard for a Latin-American song, so why is this song so far up the charts? Probably because of Justin Bieber, realistically, but the song also throws decades of tradition to the wind in a very subtle way. To understand this we gotta look into jazz music because this is where this distinction comes from. If you’re familiar with jazz music you’ll probably recognize the idea of swung rhythms. Normally when we play a rhythm we play all the notes evenly, but if these notes are swung then there is a slight delay when playing the “and” of every beat. There is rarely a difference in notation for this, but I’ll provide a visual example below so you can see what the difference would sound like.

On the left are regular eighth notes, on the right are how swung ones. Source: Guitar Noise

So why is this relevant to anything? Well, Latin jazz music is played straight. This means “without being swung.” Sure, they’ll use syncopation but repeated eighth note patters will not swing. A composition that truly showcases the dichotomy between the two styles is Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.” The “A” section of the piece follows the Latin American (more specifically, Afro-Cuban) traditions of rhythm while the “B” section is straight up swing featuring a walking bassline.

BUT WHY IS THIS RELEVANT TO ANYTHING? Well, “Despacito” KIND of swings. It’s not super deliberate but hear me out. The bassline isn’t a straight quarter note pattern which is kinda refreshing compared to most EDM songs. HOWEVER, “Despacito” also uses a production technique called side-chaining to bring out the kick drum in the mix. To oversimplify, the rest of the music is quieted down as the kick hits to make it more prominent. You can really hear it throughout Daft Punk’s “One More Time.” The rhythmic bassline in combination with the sidechaining makes it seem like the bass is playing just behind the beat, or SWUNG.

Another feeling of being swung is how laid back J-Biebz and everybody else sings the words “Despacito.” The tempo becomes very free as they single the title of the song. What if I told you this is because of a concept that we’ve touched upon several times? Look up what “Despacito” translates to in English. I’ll wait. Got it? It means “slowly.” So what concept would it be? C’mon. I believe in you. Go back and review. Alright, say it with me. 3. 2. 1. TEXT PAINTING. The music gets ~slower~ as they sing the word “Slowly.” So yes, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee threw away decades of musical tradition solely for text painting and that’s what makes this a great song. I mean, yeah you probably danced a bunch to the song on Cinco de Mayo, but the execution of the swung feel as a reference to the text painting is pretty genius. EVEN IF THEY DIDN’T MEAN TO DO THIS it still happened AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE.

My fav Daddy Yankee picture

Looking into next week and Bieber is at the top again! But this time he’s up there with DJ Khaled (I don’t know what he ever really does), Quavo, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Wayne. Will “I’m The One” be the song of the summer? IDK, but it’s not surprising that a song with such a star-studded cast is number one. BUT IS IT ANY GOOD? Find out next week! Mahalo!