The Ageless Appeal of Jovanotti, Italian Rap Superstar

He stands tall and oozes confidence, but there is no trace of arrogance. He's intelligent and worldly, but also humanistic and compassionate. He's successful, but never complacent.

During our 40-some minutes, we talk about AIDS, world hunger, Europe's financial crisis, rap beefs, his relationship to Cuba, his friendship with Juanes, his profound love for New York, fatherhood, the meaning of success, and the things he still dreams of achieving.

But first I had to get something out of the way, and find out how a guy who spoke no English could become so enamored with hip-hop in the 80s that he took it upon himself to bring the art form to Italy. All it takes is one listen to his debut album, 1988's Jovanotti For President, the cover of which shows him rocking a sideways baseball cap, to realize just how much he was influenced by the culture.

"It was a way of having fun with words," says Jovanotti, who then breaks out into his best rendition of "Rapper's Delight." "Maybe that was the main reason that drew me to it, the fact that I didn't understand anything. I was like 13, 14, so at that time you're not interested in the lyrics. There was an energy inside that music and it was different from anything else I was listening to at the time."

Since the 80s, Jovanotti transcended the rap genre and started experimenting with classical music, ska, funk, rock, folk, and Latin rhythms, collaborating with the likes of Sergio Mendes, Ben Harper, TV On The Radio, the Beastie Boys, and even Pavarotti.

His latest album, Italia 1988 – 2012 on ATO Records, is not so much as a greatest hits album as a compilation of Jovanotti's most compelling work, including his first international hit, "Piove," from 1994.

But it's not all nostalgia on the album. There's also a new side to Jovanotti, which longtime fans will want to discover.

"In New York, I found Rome, I found Milan, I found Par-eese/New York is made of Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and Ven-eese/Grandmaster Flash, Beastie Boys/I wanna wake up in the city with Frankie and his voice," he sings on "New York For Life," one of four new tracks on the album. By Frankie, he means Frank Sinatra, of course, someone who comes up more than once tonight as his favorite singer of all time and happens to be – surprise, surprise – Italian.

For Jovanotti's new project, producer Ian Brennan says he chose to focus on the thread that runs through all of his work: "his voice, which, largely due to its understatement, resonates with a rare intelligence and humanity that makes it instantly recognizable, standing out like a sore thumb—in all of the best ways—from the sea of commercial Italian radio pop."

For Jovanotti, though, his success hasn't stunted his personal or artistic growth. He could have very well retired by now, but he's still looking for, as he calls them, new "refreshments."

"Most Italian artists, once they have success at home, they don't go away to look for more success outside," he says. "You feel like you're a part of this large, super-family, you feel so connected and you become a sort of relative to the people. Sometimes I feel like I have 50 million cousins.

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