You could be diplomatic and call Kiko el Crazy an influence, or you could cut the bullshit: The man fathered many of the trends that your favorite Spanish-speaking pop star is currently borrowing for style and clout. Everyone from Bad Bunny to Rosalía has sampled him or invoked some of his lingo, hoping to replicate just a little bit of his Dominican dembow magic. Take “Saoko,” on which Rosalía says “la pámpara”—a now-ubiquitous self-mythologizing catchphrase that Kiko invented. Or consider the (ethical?) non-monogamy banger “Titi Me Preguntó,” which samples the same slogan and Kiko’s maniacal laughter. A cursory review of the Billboard Latin charts over the last year will demonstrate that dembow is the industry’s new favorite toy—and that Kiko has been one of its primary envoys.
The artist born Jose Alberto Rojas Peralta has been making music since 2009, but he broke out of el bajo mundo, or the dembow underground, around 2019, arriving in the public eye with hot pink hair, neon drip, and hairless cats—a larger-than-life panache far removed from the diamond-hard toughness of many dembowseros at the time. He caught flak from homophobes for wearing skirts, painting his nails, and voicing support for queer communities—choices that he says caused some artists to refuse collaborations with him, even as his songs were planted firmly in the thematic realm of dembow’s (often hypermasculine) obsession with sex and partying.
But his debut, 2022’s Llegó El Domi, was marred by middling pop hooks and corny EDM build-ups; it was an obvious bid to soften dembow for pop audiences. For Pila’e Teteo, his second album, Kiko seems to have flipped a switch. Like the shock of a defibrillator delivered to an arrhythmic heart, it revives the devil-may-care whimsy that made Kiko so magnetic in the first place.
Pila’e Teteo excels at two of the elements that make dembow so irresistible: hooks and humor. Kiko’s charisma stats are maxed out here: On “Pichirry,” he recruits El Alfa to flip the Dominican term for chicken butt into a metaphor about a woman’s ass. On “Loca y Linda,” he daydreams about someone as “crazy and pretty” as the YouTuber and influencer Lele Pons. The Angel Dior-featuring “Pa’ Ti Ya” transforms an expression about being down for someone into a hook about loading up on pills (at one point, Dior brags about taking molly that sends him to Jupiter). Any dembowsero can rap about getting laid or turning up, but the ability to wield wordplay, metaphor, and onomatopoeia into laugh-out-loud moments is a gift, and part of what makes Kiko so exceptional.
Kiko may not be able to sculpt his voice into infantile babbles or trilling yelps like El Alfa, but he still has impressive vocal control. You can pretty much hand him any beat and he’ll find a way to fit his voice into its contours. Over the ragga bounce of “Pa Que Baile,” Kiko twists his vocals into playground taunts and dancefloor commands. On “Te Puede Llena” and “Tu Va Dobla,” producer Imperio builds a maze that Kiko easily solves: Layers of handclaps, chopped vocal loops, and Fever Pitch riddims cross over and under each other, Kiko turning every corner with effortless brio. “Saco e’ Sal” is horror-movie dembow, with Kiko rapping so fast, it almost feels like he knows he’ll be the first to get killed off.
Pila’e Teteo lands like a grueling HIIT workout; with 15 songs running well over 100 BPM—and most under the three-minute mark—you are likely to be panting by album’s end. The pace is breakneck, but rarely do Kiko and his guests struggle to keep up—instead, the speed is a motivator, pushing everyone here to stay the course or risk getting lost in the blur. Dembow is a collaborative, singles-based genre, but Pila’e Teteo takes it a step further; this is a lineup showcasing genre sluggers both past and present. There are appearances from veterans like El Alfa, Chimbala, and somehow, the late Monkey Black; as well as prolific young guns Flow 28, Angel Dior, and Braulio Fogón. The features are usually seamless complements to Kiko’s style, as on “Con una Casa en el Cuello” and “Saco e’ Sal.” In other moments, like on “Pa’ Ti Ya,” his creative partners outshine him. Kiko stepping aside from time to time isn’t necessarily a detriment. More so, it affirms his status as an expert curator: the man has summoned his peers and disciples for the teteo of the century.
When it falls back on lazy, retrograde tropes, Pila’e Teteo doesn’t live up to its promise. “Haitiana” reproduces cringey racial myths about Haitians, African-Americans, and blackness, while on “Rapa Un Cuero,” Kiko brags about having sex without a condom. And even though artists like Yailin La Mas Viral, Gailen La Moyeta, Tokischa, and La Perversa are part of a massive renaissance for women in dembow, Pila’e Teteo features none of them. In fact, it doesn’t feature any Dominican women at all; the Andalusian rapper Mala Rodríguez is the only woman to appear across all 15 tracks, and while her verse on “Saco e’ Sal” rips, the choice to spotlight someone from Spain rather than the Black women who are actually part of the movement is a disappointment.
Pila’e Teteo arrives at a decisive moment for dembow. Long derided by the elite as too crude, too Black, and too low-class—a barrier to entry that has obstructed the genre’s incursion into the mainstream Latin music industry—it finally seems that the world has picked up on the movement’s power. Skeptics often attributed that struggle to a problem of dialect, claiming that Dominican dembow artists relied too heavily on hyperlocal slang, which made their songs less palatable for a wider Spanish-speaking audience.
Ironically, that experimental engagement with language is part of what has drawn stars like Bad Bunny and Rosalía to the music. Whether it’s through ribbing banter, knowing innuendo, or onomatopoeic romps, dembow artists have transformed Spanish into a linguistic playground, one that all the new kids want to frolic in. As the Dominican critic Jennifer Mota has written, the world may stigmatize the way we speak the colonizer’s language as “improper.” But in their phonetic subterfuge, dembow artists are also forsaking more than 500 years of grammatical entrapment and colonial fuckery.
Pila’e Teteo builds a discipline of rebellion. With his inventive approach to language and wacky aesthetics, Kiko has shepherded a constantly transforming genre into freakier, more playful directions. Pila’e Teteo is not a hybrid-pop attempt at a crossover audience or a watered-down version for the uninitiated; it is dembow in its rawest form. It is the sound of La 42, of Dyckman, of Cristo Rey—the music that blares out of corner colmados and custom soundsystems, scandalizing your mother and infuriating gentrifiers. Let them stay mad.