You remember the Steve Harvey incident. On December 20, 2015, the veteran comic and TV personality hosted the Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas. When the time came to reveal the winner, Harvey read the name of Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutiérrez. She took the stage and was crowned Miss Universe with all the attendant fanfare. There was just one problem: Pia Wurtzbach, Miss Philippines, was the actual winner. Harvey had misread the card. He sheepishly announced his mistake, Gutierrez handed over her sash and crown to Wurtzbach, and the snafu turned Harvey into a worldwide punchline for a while. You probably laughed about it yourself.
Some people didn’t find it so funny. “What baseball means to the US, beauty pageants are to Colombians, OK?” Lido Pimienta told The Believer in 2018. “This is our national sport.” Pimienta — the Barranquilla-born, Toronto-based multi-disciplinary artist whose 2016 album La Papessa won the Polaris Prize as Canada’s best album of the year — was appalled by the reactions she witnessed online in the wake of Harvey’s mixup. “I have my English Facebook and my Spanish Facebook,” she continued. “I’m scrolling, scrolling, and the comments made by the Colombian diaspora I follow are horrible; they’re disgusting. For weeks, months, people were so sour about this. There’s three-year-olds that are going blind because of malnourishment. But this is what, collectively, Colombians have decided to be united about?”
It didn’t help that, as a black woman of African and Indigenous Wayuu ancestry, Pimienta had always felt excluded by the beauty standards powering Colombia’s pageant industrial complex. In an NPR interview published this week, Pimienta identified Colombia’s hostile response to the Harvey mixup as the genesis of her new album Miss Colombia. “That was the moment that my blindfold came off,” she recalled. “Am I even Colombian when I don’t share the same feelings?” Pimienta’s music has always confronted Colombia’s injustices in bold, innovative forms, dating back to her days as an 11-year-old metal singer. Her 2010 debut Colors and 2016’s La Papessa increasingly blurred experimental electronic pop with the traditional folk and dance styles of her homeland. Now, on her latest album, she casts sidelong glances at Colombia’s culture writ large, weaving her observations into songs that brilliantly deconstruct and reimagine the country’s signature sounds.
Pimienta has been telling journalists about Miss Colombia for well over two years, detailing the ideas behind it, describing its sound. To NPR, she spoke about parodying pageant culture in the cover art, dolling herself up in “a gay version of a wedding dress.” She called the album “a cynical love letter to Colombia” from a subset of people “that [are] just fucking tired.” In late 2017, she explained the album’s aesthetic as “industrial reggaetón: beats, my voice on top … but if all the beats are played with brass instruments. So, it is very ambitious, but I know that I am going to do it. And it is going to be amazing.” Now the album is finally here, and yes, “industrial reggaetón” is a decent way to put it. And yes, it is very ambitious. And yes, it is amazing.
Miss Colombia begins and ends with a pair of mostly a cappella tracks titled “Para Transcribir,” subtitled for the sun and moon. On the first of these messages “for transcription,” she builds from carefully constructed flutters into unbound wails, spiraling upward from pain into glory. The same melody returns at the end, but backed by layers of her own voice and settling into a peaceful calm that suggests a degree of resolution for the conflict driving the album. By opening and closing this way, not only does Pimienta establish Miss Colombia‘s themes, she also puts the spotlight on her own powerhouse vocals, centering herself as your narrator and tour guide. It’s as if she’s ushering you in and out of her world.
Once inside, prepare to be stunned. On the first half of Miss Colombia, Pimienta and collaborator Prince Nifty infuse cumbia — a Colombian four-on-the-floor rhythm that draws from Indigenous, African, and European influences alike — with classical instrumentation and electronic flourishes that connect the dots between reggaetón and Radiohead. This is the side of the album Pimienta has spotlighted in the lead singles, a series of bangers grounded in heady concepts and heavy emotions. They add up to some of the most uniquely stirring pop music in recent memory.
“Eso Que Tu Haces” is synthetic chamber pop you can swing your hips to, with a chorus that shoots upward like a geyser; translated to English, it reads, “That thing you do, it’s not love.” “Nada,” a duet with Estéreo’s Li Samuet, thumps even harder. It’s a lullaby Pimienta wrote for her daughter shortly after giving birth, unpacking the pain women endure in this world. “Te Queria” pairs the album’s most carefree-sounding beat with comparably weighty lyrics about, in Pimienta’s words, “moving on from those who won’t appreciate your light but still can see it enough in you to want to steal it.” On lead single “No Pude,” some of Miss Colombia‘s darkest production becomes the backdrop for a lament about the intense love and hate for her country that makes it impossible to fully give herself over. In one of many genius twists, Pimienta shrouds the melody from “My Favorite Things” in sonic shadows and violent noise.
Halfway through, the album pivots to San Basilio de Palenque, the Americas’ oldest surviving town founded by freed slaves. This is the stretch that makes me wonder if Miss Colombia could be a double entendre, as in “I miss Colombia.” It’s introduced with a spoken interlude by Rafael Cassiani of Sexteto Tabalá, a band from Palenque that introduced a teenage Pimienta to many of her nation’s traditional sounds. After Cassiani recites his city’s origin story, the album segues into a pair of folksy, organic songs that do away with the electronic and orchestral elements, laying bare the rhythms and voices at the center of the music. Some of the electronic pulse returns for Miss Colombia‘s proper finale “Resisto Y Ya,” a vibrant manifesto on which Pimienta rejects the pressure of being a token spokesperson for her culture and reframes her very existence as an act of radical resistance.
No one deserves to carry the burden of speaking for an entire people group, but there’s no denying that Pimienta became one of her culture’s highest-profile voices here in North America when she won the Polaris Prize. With Miss Colombia, she has used her platform to introduce her newfound audience to issues many of us would not have otherwise known about. She has couched these reflections in powerfully original music, refracting the cultures that formed her through the prism of her own inspiration. In her singular fashion, Pimienta has drawn back the curtain on a vast world to be explored. This album is not the last word on Colombia, or even the last word on Lido Pimienta. It is one chapter in one artist’s story. But wow, what an artist, and what a chapter. Who’d have believed Steve Harvey could have inspired such a rich text?
Miss Colombia is out 4/17 on ANTI-. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years, the feverishly anticipated Fetch The Bolt Cutters.
• Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien’s first solo album as EOB, Earth.
• Shabazz Palaces’ experimental rap head trip The Don Of Diamond Dreams.
• Black Dresses’ radical DIY pop offering Peaceful As Hell, which actually dropped yesterday.
• Clarence Clarity and Wolf Alice associate Rina Sawayama’s debut album Sawayama.
• RJD2’s conversation-sampling The Fun Ones.
• The latest Howling Hex offering from Royal Trux’s Neil Hagerty, Knuckleball Express.
• dvsn’s moody R&B collection A Muse In Her Feelings.
• Soul Asylum’s late-career return Hurry Up And Wait.
• The self-explanatory Danzig Sings Elvis.