Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 began with booming rap and reggaeton, but the group’s style gradually became subtler and more expansive. Calle 13 frontman Residente, who performed Thursday at the Howard Theater, decided to travel even further on his self-titled solo debut, which was released in March. His map of the world was his own recently analyzed DNA, which led him to ancestral lands in Europe and Africa, and even to China.
The result is more introspective and, at least some of the time, quieter than the musician’s previous work. So for this concert Residente (aka Rene Perez Joglar) sagely mixed the new album’s material roughly 50-50 with livelier, more direct Calle 13 songs. Members of the sell-out crowd approved the strategy, pumping their arms and waving Puerto Rican flags. Only once, toward the end of the more-than-two-hour show, did fans react to the gentler new stuff by chanting a request for one of Calle 13’s raucous hits.
Residente didn’t neglect those, and some of newer songs were just as exuberant as the older ones, if a little more ironic in their messages: “Somos Anormales” (“We Are Abnormal”) is an anthem for the imperfect — genetically or otherwise — while “El Futuro es Nuestro” (“The Future is Ours”) presents a vision of a trashed tomorrow that might not be worth owning.
The performer slowed the concert after a few songs for “Desencuentro,” a ballad inspired in part by the French segment of his genome. But he boosted the energy immediately after that interlude, and didn’t take breather again for at least an hour. Bouncing in near-constant motion, Residente resembled a boxer, although his air-punches turned into a choirmaster’s exhortations whenever he led the crowd in a sing-along chorus.
Backing Residente was a seven-person band whose most prominent member was At the Drive-In and Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Keyboardist Kiani Medina’s synthesizer filled in parts of the album’s arrangements the other players couldn’t provide, but the emphasis was on live instrumentation. Three percussionists drove many of the songs, and all seven musicians beat on some sort of drum during “Dagombas en Tamale,” a song that resulted from Residente’s trip to Ghana. It was one of the evening’s highlights, as was “La Sombra,” which germinated in Burkina Faso.
Nearly all the lyrics were in Spanish, but Residente switched between that language and English when introducing the songs. Currently based in New York, the performer is pondering an English-language version of his recent album. Such a move might alienate some in the place one of the vocalist’s older tunes calls “Latinoamerica.” Judging from the ecstatic response on Thursday, however, Residente’s fans would follow him just about anywhere.