It's hard to imagine that anybody was betting on Cucu Diamantes when Yerba Buena made its axis-shifting debut eight years ago. Sure, she was co-founder with Andres Levin, but come on . . . there were so many talented people up on that stage. And until El Chino left for his own projects and Xiomara Laugart took off to portray Celia Cruz on Broadway, she tended to take a back seat onstage. Not that she wasn't riveting. To the contrary: Catlike and acrobatic on vertigo-inducing heels, Cucu was fast talking and hyper-sexy. She was just so cool that it was hard to tell how deep her presence went.
But "Cuculand," her solo debut, should put the spotlight right where it belongs: on her remarkably flexible pipes, and on her equally remarkable good sense of who she is. On "Cuculand," she and Levin (the album's co-producers) understand exactly what she can and can't do. Rather than limiting Diamantes, this knowledge sets her free to make a surprisingly personal and satisfying album. That means sassy, classy party music, with a little less hip-hop than you'd find on a YB album, a little more trip-hop and cumbia, a touch or two of Latin balladeering, and a dose of high energy. Cucu's voice is clear as a bell but tender, too. And maybe that's the real surprise in "Cuculand": the warmth -- along with the story. YB's lyrics were pretty much throwaways in service of hip shaking. But "Cuculand" has a narrative that reveals Cucu's pride and vulnerabilities, her heartbreak and what she's overcome. Standout tracks include "Mas Fuerte," with its milonga-ish rhythm and '60s twang, about living well as the best revenge on an ex; "Alguien," a tongue-twisting and perverse little take on love, money and understanding; and "Fee," the closest thing to pure pop -- Latin pop, that is.
-- Achy Obejas (Feb. 2009)