A report by Isabelia Herrera for Pitchfork.
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Diva, an album that captures Ivy Queen’s legacy as an ardent lyricist and vocalist, a forceful defender of women, and a torchbearer for reggaetón’s subversive—and commercial—promise.
Long before she’d earned the honorifics of La Diva, La Caballota, or La Potra, Puerto Rican rapper Ivy Queen was a pigtailed newcomer whose panties rose above her baggy pants. This was Martha Ivelisse Pesante Rodríguez’s look when she infamously auditioned for The Noise, the Puerto Rican collective and nightclub that became pivotal to the evolution of reggaetón in the ’90s. Back then, Ivy Queen was a shy girl from around the way, a young emcee and songwriter from the small town of Añasco eager to cut her teeth in an emerging movement. She’d arrived at the home of now-legendary DJ Negro, ready to drop a verse for some buzzy rappers (and soon-to-be pioneers) who had assembled that day. She was so overwhelmed by nerves that she grabbed the mic and turned her back to DJ Negro during the performance. “Muchos Quieren Tumbarme,” a vicious and self-assured proclamation of femme autonomy, flowed out of her, securing her spot in the crew.
Ivy Queen’s audition was a bellwether for the gender expectations she would navigate—and challenge—throughout her career: the fine lines between assertiveness and confrontation, confidence and arrogance, weakness and vulnerability. In an industry often driven by the objectification of women and the reinforcement of male control over our pleasure, Ivy Queen was tasked with destabilizing the dominance of male desire in reggaetón, while also pushing against monolithic critiques of the genre as inherently misogynistic. She was responsible for making space for all those who are marginalized in the movement—a role too often demanded of women in music, and even more so when they are heralded as the queen, the sole figure carrying the weight of liberation for others. And as deferential as it is, the title “Queen of Reggaetón,” as she’s commonly referred to, isn’t enough to capture all of Ivy’s complexities, to reveal everything she has to offer us.
No project embodies this better than Diva, Ivy Queen’s third studio album. Ivy Queen teamed with independent label Real Music in 2003 for the release; in 2004, the project was licensed and distributed as Diva: Platinum Edition under Universal Music, now with a handful of bonus tracks and remixes. The album is a snapshot of reggaetón in a crucial moment of transition; the genre was in the midst of commercial ascent and sonic transformation for the masses, and although others like La Sista and Glory made their mark, Ivy Queen remained the most visible woman in a boys’ club. With its deep dancehall and reggae en español influences, along with its themes of revenge, sexual freedom, and the politics of the dancefloor, Diva evinced the elasticity of reggaetón—its intrinsic capacity to soundtrack the carnal and the political.
Ivy Queen’s arrival did not come without obstacles. Pesante Rodríguez attended high school in New York, but dropped out in the late ’80s and eventually moved to Puerto Rico. She fell in love with hip-hop en español while watching Vico C on television, mesmerized by his ability to blend incisive raps with sticky dancehall riddims. But she was equally enamored of the salsas and boleros of powerhouse vocalists like Celia Cruz and La Lupe; she started writing her own music after watching the former during a 1974 Fania All-Stars concert on TV.
After a stint in The Noise, Ivy Queen went solo, releasing her first two albums, En Mi Imperio and The Original Rude Girl in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Sony Music signed her for the latter album, which featured a highly publicized collaboration with Wyclef Jean, an early sign of the commercial maneuvers reggaetón would embrace in the new millennium. The Original Rude Girl unfortunately never reached its anticipated commercial heights, and Ivy Queen was dropped from Sony. La Caballota issued singles on compilation albums and mixtapes like The Majestic and Kilates, before releasingDiva on the independent Miami-based label Real Music Group in 2003.
At the time Diva was released, Ivy Queen was as reverent of her roots as she was focused on imagining an artistic future for reggaetón. The album firmly honors Ivy’s love of lyricism and movement, but it also tells stories of sexual liberation for and by women. The year before Diva’s release, sexual and racial anxieties about reggaetón exploded in Puerto Rico. Senator Velda González launched an “Anti-Pornography Campaign” calling for the removal of all “pornographic” material from reggaetón music videos and lyrics, which she claimed degraded women, were vulgar and sexually indecent, and presented an affront to family values (read: white, middle-class norms). The campaign reflected deep-seated racist fears about hypersexuality and respectability in Caribbean music. Of course, there are plenty of examples of women’s bodies being exploited in reggaetón. But predictably, much of the discourse was facile, failing to make sense of the ways the entertainment industry commodifies women, only to later punish them for expressing their own sexuality.
Diva disrupted many of these simplistic narratives. Rather than relegating women to spaces of spectatorship or sexual service, the album explores the freedom of independence, the euphoria of dance, and the satisfaction of revenge. It allows us to enjoy a perreo sucio and remind men that we can be the masters of our own desire. Ivy Queen discards any sense of genre determinism, and instead creates moments of joy and authority—even if they remain within the boundaries of fantasy and commerce.
Diva begins with Ivy Queen laying it all on the floor. Using the language of a boxing match, she recounts her years of rap battles in The Noise, the obstacles she has faced, and the poet and prophet she’s become in spite of an uneven playing field. Many of the tracks signal Ivy’s profound love of dancehall, rap en español, and her eminence in the movement before it was dubbed reggaetón. “Papi Te Quiero” employs the “Buy Out” riddim made most famous by Notch’s “Nuttin’ Nuh Go So,” while “Money Making” enlists legendary Panamanian rapper Japanese, who lends his deep baritone and old-school flow to the production alongside a verse from Ivy’s now ex-husband Gran Omar. Meanwhile, “Sangre” and “Tú No Puedes” are reminders that Ivy Queen is first and foremost a rapper; both revel in hypnotic, early ’00s bombast, and you can almost feel Ivy Queen’s ornate, acrylic talons gripping the mic as she smugly announces her arrival: “Llegó la perra” (“The bitch has arrived”).
But it’s when the album heads to the dancefloor that Diva excels; this is where La Potra most convincingly asserts her power, where she invites us to lay siege to hypermasculine posturing, to revel in sex and refuse the conquest of our bodies. With its playground handclaps and blazoning horns, “Alerta” is at once an affirmation of tenacity and an explosive warning for any and all men intent on interrupting your grinding. “Quiero Saber,” which appeared on the platinum edition of Diva, is an invitation to a dancefloor entanglement with plinking synth stabs that sound like they were lifted straight out of a 2003 FruityLoops drum kit. You can practically feel the humidity in the basement perreo air with the song’s “bellaqueo tra-tra-tra-tra” outro. Of course, even the dance tracks on Diva reflect complex cultural prejudices; “Súbelo” invokes the all-too-common racist epithet “pelo malo” (“bad hair”) levied at Black Latinas who style their curls naturally.
It’s “Quiero Bailar” that will live on as Ivy Queen’s most memorable dancefloor anthem, a reprieve from any reggaetón night dominated by cishet men’s voices and sexual cravings. The baroque harpsichord preamble will go down as one of reggaetón’s most unforgettable intros, turning an antiquated flourish into a vehement assertion of consent. Ivy Queen rides the beat, a version of producer Jeremy Harding’s “Liquid” riddim, and reminds her man that expecting sex after a perreo-fueled tryst is just plain dumb. The song affirms that women in reggaetón are more than just nightclub accessories.
The gruff bars of “Quiero Bailar” and many other Ivy Queen songs are a central element of her magnetism. She’s part of a long lineage of throaty women vocalists in Latin America, like the influential Cuban singer La Lupe. Scholar Alexandra Vazquez aptly describes this genealogy as “the kind of hoarseness that sounds like having to constantly speak above things”—especially men. This quality of Ivy’s voice has also long cast a shadow on her work, sparking misogynistic and homophobic insults that characterize it as overly masculine or too butch. La Diva shrugs off these slights; she embraces her vocal style as a “blessing” that allowed her to stand out, perhaps most clearly in her songs of betrayal, like Diva’s “Tuya Soy” and “Venganza.” As scholar Petra Rivera-Rideau writes, when Ivy Queen spits venom about a partner’s infidelity in her signature baritone, she presents herself as a woman who longs to be seen and loved in her suffering, signaling many of the same themes of abandonment, anguish, and humanity La Lupe explored in her work. But Ivy Queen assures us that her agony won’t be in vain; both “Tuya Soy” and “Venganza” threaten violence for all the deception, even promising she’ll force her man to his knees if he tries it.
For those of us who grew up in the midst of reggaetón’s commercial rise, Ivy Queen soundtracked hundreds of preteen parties de marquesina and femme sexual adventures. The rapper has said her career wouldn’t have blossomed without the LGBTQ community, who granted her the nickname “La Diva” in the first place (the term of endearment was first bestowed upon her at the drag shows she attended with her late friend, makeup artist Willy Rosado). She’s won over queer fans for her support on issues like gay marriage, while also challenging homophobic claims that queerness is a “virus” and defending Ricky Martin when he came out in 2010; in 2014, she toured gay clubs in the U.S.
Alongside Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen has been lauded for ushering in reggaetón’s commercial rise—in 2004, Diva: Platinum Edition hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Tropical Albums chart. But once again, Ivy was tasked with representing all those who were marginalized at the peak of the sound’s mainstream surge. Women in reggaetón were mostly known as chorus girls or side chicks; Ivy Queen became the exception to the rule. The whispered hooks and breathless moans of artists like Jenny La Sexy Voz were key to reggaetón, but often went uncredited (a tradition of silencing that continues to this day, as evidenced by the controversy around Puerto Rican singer Nesi’s unnamed appearance on Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Sola” and the few Black Latinas who are currently visible in the genre’s mainstream today). Ivy Queen has described the responsibility of speaking for all women as a “challenge” and a “status that is difficult to maintain,” and in a 2014 Houston Chroniclearticle, she succinctly recalled the immediacy of her fame: “All of a sudden, I was the voice of many women.”
Ivy Queen indisputably stepped up to the challenge, but she was forced to navigate the contours of a sexist industry. Sometimes, she had to affirm her skills in masculine or binaristic terms; at others, she had to soften herself for fear of appearing too pushy. The examples are endless: In 2008, she dismissed rumors that she was a lesbian in an interview with the Dominican newspaper Hoy, reaffirming her previous heterosexual marriage and current relationship and saying she “raps like a man.” After Diva’s release, she revealed she originally wanted to title the album La potra, but Universal Music Latino considered the title “too threatening” and “would not sign off” on it. Four years later, she told Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día about the ways she was forced to use the rhetoric of masculinity to prove herself in the industry. “For a woman to exist in this genre, no one knows what we have to go through,” she said. “Sometimes you have to show a masculine side for them to pay attention to you. I didn’t earn this spot because of a pair of boobies—it’s because of my voice, my character, and the respect I’ve had that others treat me equally.” Finally, in 2010, she echoed this sentiment, telling the El Paso Times, “In this industry, I have to be one of the guys.”
All of these experiences expose the burden that women musicians face in the confines of the patriarchy. Ivy was not afraid to rap about being a woman who was confident but still plagued by heartache; nor was she afraid to celebrate her sexuality while rocking a pair of baggy pants. A new generation of artists has attempted to follow in Ivy Queen’s footsteps and cited her as an influence—among them Cardi B, Melii, and Melymel, as well as dozens of others who grew up as outsiders to the movement, like Karol G and Rosalía. Ultimately, La Caballota has remained a singular presence in mainstream reggaetón: an ardent lyricist and vocalist, a forceful defender of women and queer communities, and a torchbearer for the genre’s subversive—and commercial—promise.