After hearing Camila Cabello's self-titled debut album, it is patently absurd to think she could have ever been content sticking it out and singing "Work From Home." If you're reading this Sam Smith, please don't get me wrong: that song is a jam. It's just so obviously not the trip Cabello is on.
As Camila demonstrates, she is a little too dark and a little too meta to be happy in a pre-fab girl group. Her album, though delayed from its expected September release, and its inescapable first single, "Havana," come at a noteworthy time in American history. Yes, because it perfectly positions her to be part of a Latin music breakthrough on the charts and the slow and sparse aspect of the current pop sound that she, along with executive producer Frank Dukes (Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West), explore. But also because this album positions her as a direct rebuke to our president, who uses racist terms and policies to refer to much of the Southern hemisphere. Though his latest slur was aimed at African nations, he has made his feelings about Latin America clear by reversing Obama-era policies with respect to travel to and business with Cuba, neglecting aid for Americans in Puerto Rico, and calling Mexicans rapists.
In addition, Cabello's success so far with "Havana," which is approaching a billion streams worldwide, became the longest run at number one for a song by a woman on top 40 radio in the last five years, and led her to become the first female artist to break 40 million monthly listeners on Spotify (making her the most streamed female artist). It's a remarkable achievement in a year that was not good to women in pop, one that Billboard noted had a "substantial drought" of women in the Hot 100. By substantial, they mean solo female tracks only made up 14% of the top 10 hits in 2017.
She doesn't have to say a word about the issues of racism and sexism in America, because Cabello's success as an artist who highlights her roots in Cuba says it all for her. She weaves elements of the pop experience into her songs as well, echoing a phrase from Alanis Morissette's debut album on "After All These Years" ("Does she kiss you like I kiss you?"), rap/sings with a vocal phrasing that feels familiar because it was designed by Pharrell on "Havana," and fellow Miami resident Pitbull and his cries of "worldwide" on "Inside Out."
Cabello colors outside the lines she drew for herself with "She Loves Control," produced by Skrillex, but with Dukes' fingerprints apparent in the swing beats that drive it. Cabello says she wrote hundreds of songs for this album, many of them composed in the bathroom on her tour bus while she was still with Fifth Harmony. This track is one it's easy to imagine her piecing together with the door locked, visions of artistic independence dancing in her head.
Several tracks ("Never Be the Same," "All These Years," "Consequences") deal with the disappointments of a failed relationship. It's a common theme in pop music, but Cabello takes it to exceptionally dark and adult places. She's clearly come to terms with it, which is almost too bad — I'd love to hear what an enraged and jilted Cabello sings. Her lighthearted songs ("Into It," which has a Ryan Tedder co-writing credit, and "Inside Out") are among the more musically forgettable entries, though their lyrics contain revelations about Cabello that make her feel more three-dimensional than if she had made this album entirely a study of a past relationship. And she shows she's open to love in the future with "Inside Out" and "In the Dark."
On the whole, the picture Cabello draws is intimate and well-edited. To take an album from hundreds of songs down to 10 is no small feat. Smartly, it gives us just a taste and leaves every avenue open for the next iteration of Camila Cabello. What it doesn't do is push her into the stratosphere of elite female pop stars, and that's probably for the best. She released so many singles before Camila dropped that ultimately aren't on the album. This may be a function of her desire to be constantly releasing music, as suits our new consumption models, or may have been her record label trying to find that career-defining smash, a signature track that would make her a household name.
In fact, when "Havana" was released, it was in conjunction with "OMG," a more obvious, EDM-influenced pop song that was given a harder push. The track that feels more authentically like Cabello, in no small part because of the work she shares on this album, won that round and, ultimately, gave her some room to grow, experiment, and get a little weird. It bodes well for Cabello that she doesn't have to conquer the world with her first album, leaving room to be beholden only to her artistic impulses. That was what going solo was all about, anyway.
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