Do any of you remember the summer of 1999, when Santana managed to dominate radio playlists with various genre-bending songs from his Grammy winning “Supernatural”? There was “Smooth” with Rob Thomas, which burned up the rock/pop charts for months at a time. Then came “Maria Maria” with Wyclef Jean and The Product G&B, a song that managed to have a hip hop loop-based aesthetic at the same time as it allowed for significant adlibbing for Santana, showcasing his incredible chops. On the Latin charts, “Corazon Espinado” featuring Mana also made a significant dent, winning the collaborators two Latin Grammys. The album was an astounding success, going 15 times platinum and earning Santana 9 Grammys.
And then came “Shaman.” The follow-up effort went double plat and garnered a couple hits, but it felt half-hearted after the pop majesty of “Supernatural.” I mean, Michelle Branch on the lead single? Come on. Instead of building on the transcultural chemistry he achieved on “Supernatural,” Santana retreated into much safer territory, producing a paint-by-numbers approach to penning crossover hits and losing much of the music’s soul in the process.
Sergio Mendes’ “Encanto” reminds me of “Shaman” in a number of ways. Coming on the heels of “Timeless,” his first album in ten years and a fantastic collaboration with will.i.am and cohorts, “Encanto” has some big shoes to fill. Although it never blew the fuck up like anything by Santana, it was quite successful and displayed Mendes’ talents for a whole new generation of listeners, particularly through his pairing with stars like John Legend and Justin Timberlake. And while his latest is in no way a bad album, I can’t help feeling like something is missing by comparing it with its predecessor. In Mendes’ case, though, instead of moving squarely into pop territory, he has repositioned himself in the more traditional world pop mold with which older listeners will be familiar. In doing so, he has somehow crafted an album that is simultaneously less radio friendly and more poppy than “Timeless,” consequently losing much of the edge that made his last album such a compelling listen.
Let’s be clear: this is not a hip hop album. There isn’t a 16-bar verse to be found, at least not by any traditional rap definition, and the closest you’ll get to a “rap” collaboration is with will.i.am himself, who shared production duties with Mendes this time around. Fergie does show up, on the utterly unremarkable “The Look Of Love” remake, but “Encanto” is otherwise dominated by international musicians who mesh with the older Mendes vibe and sound completely at home with his band, Brasil ’66.
The tracks produced by will.i.am have a more typical hip hop song structure, and a number of them are pretty decent. The aforementioned Fergie collaboration is skippable, but “Funky Bahia” featuring will.i.am and Siedah Garrett does a good job of blending the hip hop with Latin jazz, from the varied percussion and keyboard flourishes to the looped acoustic guitar. “Agua De Beber” sounds like a “Timeless” leftover, with Mendes’ piano and will.i.am’s vocals playing tag all over the track and set off by a shuffling groove.
The rest of the album is produced by Mendes himself, and the more straightforward Latin tracks work the best, especially since the attempts at genre fusion are so aborted here. Carlinhos Brown dominates the syncopated funk-fest of “Odo-Ya.” Natalie Cole gives yet another stellar performance on “Somewhere In The Hills (O Morro Nao Tem Vez),” which finds Mendes on his beloved Rhodes 73 keyboard. “Y Vamos Ya (â€¦Let’s Go)” would come off a little cheesy, with its “Ay-o” choruses and sunshiney instrumentals, if Colombia’s Juanes didn’t contribute such a charming and catchy melody with a hook you’ll be singing along with even if you can’t speak Spanish.
By far the best song on the album, and one that shows what might have been, is “Lugar Comum” featuring the Italian performer Jovanotti. He is frequently branded a rapper, but this title doesn’t really fit him, as his style is much too fluid and difficult to pigeonhole. Over standard Brasil ’66 percussion, he sings/raps/wanders/muses his way around the track, displaying his considerable charisma and reminding stateside listeners just how much we’re missing by being so U.S.-centric. In addition to Jovanotti’s vocals, “Lugar Comum” also gives Mendes plenty of room to develop a scene-stealing solo on his Rhodes. This blurring of genre boundaries is what I was hoping for throughout “Encanto,” and with “Lugar Comum” Mendes has proven that he is easily capable of such musical heights even if he prefers to play it a little closer to home.
There really isn’t a bad song on the album, but there are few truly great ones, either, and at times the mood veers a little too close to lite radio for my taste. I know many long-time Sergio Mendes fans disliked “Timeless” for its “dilution” of his original sound, but the experimentation that moved it toward a modern audience also made it a captivating listening experience, something which is not as true of “Encanto.” The album is still quite enjoyable, especially when it settles on a style that works for the musicians involved, but it lacks the extra punch I had come to expect after listening to Mendes’ work with hip hop luminaries like Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought. Regardless, “Encanto” is a worthwhile album, and if you can appreciate the international flavor, you’ll be more than satisfied with the overall product.