Jay Leno was telling the one about a crazed artist who bursts into a radio station in Brazil and holds a gun to the head of a DJ, demanding airplay for his music.
“So that’s what happened to Ricky Martin,” cracked the smirking late-night TV host.
The joke was based on an actual news item about a desperate unknown in Rio who took record promotion into his own hands. But its stinging punch line speaks volumes about the public perception of Martin. Not long ago, he was one of the world’s hottest pop stars, then he disappeared from the charts and dropped from public sight.
But now Martin is back with a surprisingly introspective and moving new album that should silence critics who didn’t take him seriously, and quell the quips about the most successful pelvis since Elvis. Following a two-year retreat, some intense soul-searching and a last-minute switch in the language chosen for his comeback, Martin returns Tuesday with “Almas del Silencio” (Souls of Silence), his first Spanish-language album in five years.
It’s a stirring collection of often personal songs written for him by some of the top composers in Latin pop, including Juanes, Alejandro Sanz and Ricardo Arjona. Musically, it’s a dramatic reaffirmation of Martin’s Latin roots, but mature and modern, with strains of flamenco, vallenato and the classic, well-crafted Latin ballad.
“I really needed to go back to my focus, to my center, to the beginning,” says Martin, 31, who got his start 20 years ago as a child star in the Puerto Rican teen group Menudo. “I had the need to search within, and really dig deep, and find those emotions that, because of the adrenaline and the euphoria that I lived for a couple of years, were probably sabotaged.”
Martin (born Enrique Martin Morales) may forever be identified with “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” the 1999 smash from an album that sold 15 million copies worldwide and epitomized the so-called “Latin music explosion.” But when sales of his 2000 follow-up, “Sound Loaded,” dropped to 4 million, much of the industry wrote him off as a one-hit wonder.
But jokes aside, Martin certainly doesn’t have to threaten program directors to play his new single, “Tal Vez” (Perhaps), an aching reflection on lost opportunities and last chances. It’s been No. 1 on Billboard’s Latin chart since its release two months ago.
Martin debuted the song at Billboard’s Latin Awards ceremony May 8 in Miami, where he lives. Then he flew to Mexico, where he got his start as a solo Latin singer and soap opera star, to film a Televisa TV special. Next week, he comes to Los Angeles for a radio-sponsored concert (closed to the public) Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, followed by an in-store appearance the same night at Tower Records in West Hollywood.
But although his Latin comeback is in full swing, most non-Latino fans are probably still wondering whatever happened to Ricky Martin. That cultural gap underscores the challenges facing Latino artists who try to navigate bilingual careers.
Behind the scenes, Martin still struggles with the superstar pressures of trying to maintain success in both worlds. Last year, he shocked his longtime career associates by suddenly scrapping plans to first release another English-language album, which was almost complete. At the last minute, he scrambled to gather material for the new Spanish album instead.
“Everybody went crazy -- the record company, my managers,” Martin recalled this week by phone from Mexico City. “They said, ‘What are you talking about? The [English] album is already done and you want to release another album in Spanish?’ ”
Rick Dobbis, president of Sony Music International in New York, says the label is pleased with both albums. The English release is due next year, but nobody is expecting another cultural phenomenon a la “La Vida Loca,” which Dobbis called “an extremely unusual feat” for any artist. “Ricky not only survived that phenomenon, which can submerge other lesser stars, but he came out of it in great shape,” he says.
Martin, meanwhile, seems determined to redefine himself as an artist, in both languages. He’s moved far beyond the fluffy, romantic pop material that made him a star in Latin America during the ‘90s, long before American audiences were seduced by his crossover charisma.
The cost of fame on such a colossal level is a theme that runs through the new album. In the tender and reflective “Asignatura Pendiente” (Pending Assignment), written for him by Arjona, he wonders about the value of what he’s accumulated --"a fan club on the moon and a giant house I can see from the plane, a photo with Bush and more cars than friends.” In the song, the artist yearns for the things he left behind in Puerto Rico -- innocence, pure love, his very identity.
“It’s very hard when you’re being seduced by the applause and fame every night,” Martin says. “You know, this grandiose complex shows up, and you love it. You think like nothing can destroy you. It was really intense and completely addictive.”
Leaving it, he suggests, was as painful as detox. During the interview, Martin bristles a bit at challenging or probing questions, which he calls “negative.” When asked if he searched out respected songwriters to give himself the artistic substance he’s been accused of lacking, Martin shoots back that not every performer is capable of working with the heavyweights: “Go ahead, try it.” Martin says he doesn’t worry about critics or people who resent his success, or even the pressures to produce another mega-hit.
“Listen buddy,” he says with a touch of testiness, “after 20 years in the business, I don’t have to prove anything to anybody -- I’m here to add, not to subtract. There are a lot of people that hate Ricky Martin. I am not going to think about that. I’m going to think about the people who really appreciate what I’ve done for music.”
But most of all, Martin says, he won’t miss la vida loca.
“Not at all,” he says. “I lived it. I loved it. But it’s the past. I think there are two eternities in life that can really break us down. Those are yesterday and tomorrow. They don’t exist.”