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In Peso Pluma’s 'Éxodo,' he outgrows his regional Mexican roots

The regional Mexican artist's new album, <em>Éxodo</em>, pushes his sound further.
The regional Mexican artist's new album, Éxodo, pushes his sound further.

In the lead-up to his fourth studio album, Exódo, Mexican hitmaker Peso Pluma sheared off his famous mullet haircut. He headed to a songwriting camp in Miami. And to the chagrin of his fans, he scrapped and postponed several tour dates in the U.S. and Latin America. If he was going to maintain his status as lead ambassador of regional Mexican music and surpass the success of his 2023 breakthrough — the Grammy-winning LP Génesis, which at No. 3, ranked the highest of any other Mexican album on the Billboard 200 — he would have to elevate his craft.

Éxodo arrived last Thursday night as a data dump of 24 songs split between 16 classic corridos tumbados, and eight splashy hip-hop and reggaetón-infused tracks, featuring cameos from Cardi B, Quavo, Anitta and Rich the Kid. Here, Pluma continues where he left off in Génesis: with edgy narcocorridos that demystify the ordinary (though precarious) lives of those working the drug trade, now juxtaposed with boastful dispatches from his expensive new life as a pop star.

As Pluma’s fans vow to outstream his last record, they’ll still have to contend with Taylor Swift. Now nine weeks running at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, she’s maintained her status by releasing limited edition versions of songs from The Tortured Poets Department, including remixes and even voice memos, on the same weeks that pop stars like Billie Eilish and Charli XCX dropped highly anticipated records. One could imagine her eleventh-hour release of “Fortnight” in Spanish — “Quincena” featuring Christian Nodal? — but it would have been far too flagrant a move to thwart Pluma’s climb to the top.

Analysis of the rising star’s career is often eclipsed by superlatives that start and end with “The first Mexican to…” But given the stark lyrical contents of Éxodo — and the death threats that drove him to cancel a performance last year in Tijuana — Pluma’s nationalistic pride seems increasingly at odds with a government, helmed by the outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that would rather not claim him. What does it mean for a young artist like Peso Pluma to wave the flag of a country where he’s been lambasted and endangered for his performances? Where his songs, censored in multiple cities in Mexico, take the blame for the rampant crime and violence that inspired them?

Such tensions set the scene for his big exodus, as the album’s title suggests; but the artist remains too reticent to discuss them directly. For his appearance at this year’s Coachella, Pluma commissioned actor Morgan Freeman to recite a defense of his songs and the people whose stories they tell, including those working for the imprisoned Sinaloan kingpin, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Argued Pluma through his proxy: “The vicious cycle they were born into serves as their protection and their punishment. For that, they will always be on trial.”

Pluma scratches the surface of this dilemma on the pensive new guitar ballad, “Hollywood.” Co-starring San Diego-born balladeer Estevan Plazola, it’s the most politically charged release of Pluma’s oeuvre. Plazola, however, does the honors of singing its sharpest lines: “Our generation thinks differently / Look at the president, another one for the list of corrupt people / Absolute power, they live pure luxury / While here we are worth nothing.”

“But I will keep going on,” interjects Pluma, who sings of strolling through Hollywood and, seemingly, toward a more internationally geared chapter of his career.

Any champion of regionalism runs the risk of curtailing their creativity by identifying too hard with tradition. Pluma’s level of commercial success now demands he do more than simply advance Mexican music across the border. (After all, the Grammy-winning norteño band Los Tigres del Norte have been exporting narcocorridos since they dropped "Contrabando y Traición" in 1974.) Pluma’s contemporaries Natanael Cano and Fuerza Regida, who pioneered the trap-inspired “corridos tumbados” in the late 2010s, have since dabbled in EDM to further innovate their sounds. Pluma boards their bandwagon with a fleeting DJ Snake collab, “Teka,” but he shows more enthusiasm when indulging his taste for American hip-hop.

Pluma’s outlaw sensibility was sparked by corridos, but in American rappers, Pluma sees kindred spirits. It’s no surprise considering government crackdowns on rappers in the States, where songs by Atlanta MC Young Thug and his crew are levied as evidence of gang-related activity. With cutting input from Cardi B, Pluma talks up his own gangster fantasies in the Spanglish track “Put 'em in the Fridge.” He then lets down his guard in the dissociative haze of “Pa No Pensar,” a somber duet with Quavo. “I had to lose family / I had to earn money,” Pluma croons in Spanish, “Don't go with the pretense / They think I have what I want / ‘Cause sometimes I party.”

Fans need not worry that Pluma’s abandoned the cause of regional Mexican music; at the end of the day, his vulnerable corridos remain his strongest works on Éxodo. Requinto guitar players flit their fingers with rapid-fire dexterity in “Bruce Wayne” — and a wistful piano melody transitions him from the crafty, Mexican Spider-Man character he played on Génesis to a brooding Batman after dark. His loneliness surges and his scrappiness mellows in “Reloj,” a well-crafted sad sierreño anthem co-piloted by the emo-tinged subgenre’s poster child, Ivan Cornejo.

In Éxodo, Pluma offers listeners a sampler of his budding potential as a multi-genre star. Even if some collaborations seem more driven by wish-fulfillment than the spirit of artistic risk, the road ahead of Pluma looks much more open and scenic than before.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Suzy Exposito

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