Sometimes I worry every viable blend of genres has been explored, and that there’s only so much innovation that can still happen in pop music without fundamentally changing what pop music is. Other times: flamenco R&B! This is suddenly a thing now! And it’s really good!
Rosalía Vila Tobella is a Catalan singer, formally trained in flamenco music and dance. After singing alongside more established performers in tablaos throughout her teens and 20s, she released a debut solo album, Los Ángeles, in 2017. It’s a flamenco record through and through, recorded in a raw style that places the focus entirely on her spectacular voice. Exceptional as the album is, it doesn’t scream crossover hit. Los Ángeles is a deadly serious take on an old art form by an up-and-comer aiming to establish her legitimacy against traditional standards (with one telling curveball: she ends the album with a Bonnie “Prince” Billy cover).
The next year saw Rosalía’s follow-up, El mal querer, launch her into an entirely new universe. El mal querer is a concept album, based on an adaptation of a 13th century Occitan romance called Flamenca (naturally) that Rosalía had originally developed as her graduate thesis. El mal querer is anything but traditional, blending flamenco techniques with elements of modern R&B, pop and hip-hop. These songs are mostly in the two-to-four minute range and read as sharply crafted radio pop, but at their core is something unquestionably unique. This isn’t the sound of a pop artist adopting traditional Latin music in ways we’ve heard a million times – this is a generational flamenco talent who’s decided to conquer pop. It’s legitimately new and exciting.
My favorite on the record is “Pienso en tu mirá,” sung from the perspective of a husband expressing jealousy toward everything he imagines seeing and touching his wife when she leaves the house – the air, the Moon, the water she drinks, the jewelry she wears. It’s both as impassioned and unnerving as it sounds, with pulsing handclaps and heavily processed backing vocals building an energy that feels both novel and familiar.