Gloria Estefan’s 14th studio album, Miss Little Havana, could have been sad. A 15-track return to her dance roots (out Sept. 27 on Verve Forecast) that features nine collaborations with Pharrell Williams, Havana seems desperate for attention and calculated for the prized “WTF?” response. After all, Estefan hasn’t had a Top 40 hit in the U.S. since 1998’s “Heaven’s What I Feel,” and it’s been more than 20 years since she was in the Top 10 (with the No. 1 hit “Coming Out of the Dark”). Pharrell’s not quite the hitmaker he once was, either, so Estefan ran the risk of not just seeming desperate by working with the Neptune, but also out of touch.
But this project is a product of Pharrell’s vision, who reached out to Estefan (not vice versa), she explained to a room full of journalists in New York’s Universal building Wednesday. And that makes all the difference. Havana is not the result of some sort of desperate bid for relevance – it’s too relaxed, self-assured and, frankly, odd for that. Winding through decades of Latin dance music, Pharrell opts for a bottom-heavy sparseness that flirts with salsa (“Say Ay”), merengue (“Wepa,” which has a speedy, Maluca-esque vibe) and freestyle (“Miss Little Havana”). The result is Pharrell in all of his spacious glory, playing with percussive textures and horn flare-ups like “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Hollaback Girl” just happened.
Estefan explained that she pushed Pharrell to employ live instrumentation, and Havana alternately sparkles with cowbell and slams with conga realness. For his part, Pharrell chose lower keys to focus on Estefan’s contralto, adding what she deemed a “sultry” vibe. “Somehow all the lyrics ended up being about sex or dancing. Or both,” she laughed. But again, there was no second-hand embarrassment to be had. (If anything, more 54-year-old women should be talking about sex to shock society with the realization that 54-year-old women have sex.) In the track “On,” Estefan sings, “Come over here, I’m going to spank you,” in Creole. Her collaborator on that track, Black Dada, was apprehensive about asking her to do this, but had no reason to be: “I’ll sing anything at this point,” said Estefan. Again, there was no sign of desperation; it was clear from her tone that this was to say that she doesn’t take herself so seriously.
Listening to Esefan talk about this album suggested that so many records would benefit from a commentary track. She talked about how drag queens should be all over the non-Pharrell production “Hotel Nacional,” and how fun it was to rhyme “hoochie coochie” in the lyrics of the track (SPOILER ALERT: “Susan Lucci,” “Yamaguchi” and “Bertolucci,” are her choices), which vacillates between a pop trance breakdown and Cajmere-style horny house. Estefan described the R3hab Remix of “Wepa” as “blown-up merengue/urban/drunk-guy-on-the-trombone,” and explained that perpetual gentleman Pitbull took four days to get his 16 guest bars perfect. She said that Pharrell’s stringy disco highlight “Right Away” goes from “really sweet to straight-up nasty.” “Nasty,” in this case, means the drums get big, not that she flips into 2 Live Crew-approved musical booty floss (in fact, bass music is a disappointing omission from an album about the sounds of Miami).
Estefan admitted that she doesn’t pay attention to trends and stays away from contemporary pop music well in advance of recording an album. That she at other points referenced Extreme (twice!) and Living Color as evidence of her wide musical taste would suggest that she indeed stays far away from contemporary pop. And, for the nine Pharrell collaborations, this is believable and it’s frankly amazing that she could figure out a way to be working in the currently lucrative field of dance-pop and not sound like everything else. The only problem is that much of the remaining material does sound like everything else; despite persistent Latin flourishes, the album devolves into big and screechy trance (and closing things out is a cover, of sorts, of the Jennifer Lopez song Estefan originally wrote, “Let’s Get Loud”).
I asked Estefan about her thoughts on dance music, since she’s releasing a dance album in a dance-obsessed time. She said that she had first-hand experience with dance stretching across languages and continents, and really reaching people. “Rhythm is gonna get you,” is how she explained it, invoking 24-year-old words.
It’s true, but it’s going to be an uphill battle for her to get this album heard – it might even have more of a shot if it were released anonymously, ageism being the cultural force that it is. Estefan’s voice, too, is brassy for contemporary taste, but she seemed aware of all this, too, genuinely puzzled over the youth of her Twitter followers (“Wait, did your parents indoctrinate you?” she wondered aloud). Still, there is something youthful about the exuberance present on Miss Little Havana: the songs sparkle with a joy that’s been largely missing from pop for a good amount of time (not for any lack of effort on Beyoncé’s part). Of this, Estefan said, “We need fun.” On Miss Little Havana, it’s there for the taking.
Rich Juzwiak is a writer and video editor whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Jezebel, and on This American Life. He runs the pop culture blog fourfour.