Puerto Rican artist iLe is not one for half-hearted attempts. Ever since she debuted her brawny voice as a teenager singing with Calle 13, she has moved with confidence as a singer-songwriter that’s not afraid to throw a few punches in a dramatic bolero or a protest plena. Yet, in 2020, a year after releasing her sophomore album “Almadura,” iLe was free falling. “I felt like I was floating,” she tells Refinery29 Somos. “There was a point I needed to accept how I was feeling: uncomfortable, lost, out of orbit.”
“Nacarile,” her third solo album, is the result of those eerie emotions, a nearly three-year project that she describes as “turbulent.” It’s an 11-track collection of synth pop, reggaeton-infused beats, bellonera-ready boleros, and airy ballads that carry a levitating aura that edges on darkness. Contrary to her last album, “Almadura,” which was rooted in Caribbean rhythms like bomba, plena, and salsa, “Nacarile” takes the songstress on a walk toward an experimental path. “It’s something much more melodic,” she says.
The album opens with an extraterrestrial sound typical of UFO sightings in movies and TV (“A la deriva” featuring Flor de Toloache), followed by melodic lullabies (“Ningún Lugar” featuring Trueno) and distorted vocals (“Escapándome de mí”) that ooze a feeling all too familiar for anyone alive in 2020: “I was affected psychologically, but once I accepted it everything flowed,” iLe says. It’s that grounding feeling that comes from self-acceptance that gave way to songs like “Algo Bonito,” featuring reggaeton legend Ivy Queen, as well as “En Cantos” with Mexican songstress Natalia Lafourcade, and “Traguito” featuring Chilean heavyweight Mon Laferte. “The album is a combination of all the emotional, psychological, social, and existential distortion that happened at the time,” she says.
It’s all in the name. “Nacarile” is a slang term for many occasions, as words tend to be used in Puerto Rico. For one, it can be used to describe middle-of-nowhere locations, as well as a colloquial substitute for the word “no.” In both cases, it served ILe’s purpose wholeheartedly: “It was my way of describing the lost feeling in the middle of quarantine, but also of saying, ‘Nacarile, I’m not staying in this black hole.’”
One of the most empowering moments in the album comes in “Algo Bonito,” a protest song that speaks directly to the colossal loss of women’s rights and access to reproductive care across the world, for which she enlisted Ivy Queen. “Dime algo bonito,” sings iLe in the chorus. While iLe has dabbled in urbano before — working with Calle 13 and collaborating with artists like her half-brother Residente and Ñengo Flow — this is the first time she has invited a reggaeton exponent into one of her projects: “It was so crazy because Ivy is, well, her,” says iLe. It was a natural collaboration though, with Ivy Queen racing through punchy bars like, “Nunca he creído que calla’íta me veo más linda” and “Si es grande tu ego, el mío es de tamaño colosal,” a verse that iLe describes as “powerful,” spit in the soulful lyrical domination she has embedded into reggaeton since its early days. But what’s that “algo bonito” iLe believes women want to hear? “Abortion access, our right to be however we want to be, and not have to live up to patriarchal standards,” she says. “Also, breaking with those clichés of what women like, deserve, or want, that romanticized idea of what being a woman is.”
“Algo Bonito” is joined by “Donde nadie mas respira” as another call for protest in the album, highlighting the deadly consequences of colonialism from the time of the Spanish conquest to today. “Se veían a lo lejos, con aire de salvadores,” she sings, continuing with “Pero yo no veo vida, yo veo una muerte lenta.” While she dropped the single in 2020, right before the elections in Puerto Rico, it remains as relevant on the day of our interview in 2022, two weeks after Hurricane Fiona left the archipelago in a complete blackout once again.
But iLe says the song was born in the aftermath of the 2019 uprising — dubbed “Verano del 2019” — in Puerto Rico that resulted in the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. While the world marveled at how a tiny archipelago under the control of the United States could unseat its governor in less than a month of protests, a year after, Governor Pedro Pierluisi, who is from the same political party as Rosselló, won the general elections. “I was disappointed that after removing a governor from office, we had such low self-esteem that we went for the same kind of leader,” she says. “Of course, it’s all a result of colonialism.” What has followed in Puerto Rico is nothing short of grim: Tax incentives have turned the archipelago into fiscal paradise for rich foreigners, which experts and activists say is causing a mass displacement of communities; the electrical grid is now under the control of LUMA Energy after the dismantling of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which has led to regular outages and price hikes; and the Fiscal Control Board, appointed in 2016 by the President Barack Obama’s PROMESA Law, has continued a rampant chain of budget cuts that have left Puerto Ricans’ resources depleted. And iLe remains disheartened: “Even if it affects us, we are not doing anything to change it, so we are almost agreeing with all of this,” she says.
When haunted by the ghosts of negligence and imperialism, perhaps the most daring thing iLe does in “Nacarile” is believe in love. With songs like “Escapándome de mí,” “Paisaje,” and “En Cantos,” for which she collaborated with Natalia Lafourcade, iLe delivers purely romantic ballads that are fit for a rom-com scene. And even when the love turns tragic like in “Traguito,” a telenovela-like drama with Mon Laferte, or “No es importante,” a dark track to combat lovesickness, the songstress reveals herself as an eternal romantic, cementing heartache and amorousness as two of her prevalent themes in her discography.
After all, what’s more revolutionary than believing — in anything, honestly — amid what has felt like the end of times? In saying “nacarile” to all that, iLe delivered herself to us. One could only pay it back by doing the same.