Flamenco – or at least, a partial understanding of the culture – occupies a fanciful space in the consciousness of U.S. listeners. The radio-ready sound of The Gipsy Kings is many Anglo listeners’ only reference point for the genre. But unlike the latter’s often vibrant and playful delivery, El mal querer, Rosalía’s second album, delivers a concise yet emotionally harrowing experience that both transcends and serves to elevate the genre. The album overflows with the potential to enthrall audiences, while expertly sidestepping any perception of novelty its folkloric foundation may invite.
The 25-year-old Catalan singer recently gained momentum stateside with the release of the single and stunning video for “Malamente,” which helped garner her an impressive five Latin Grammy nominations. Already a superstar in Spain, she snagged a standout feature on J Balvin’s Vibras, which dropped in May, and has a Pharrell collaboration on the horizon. She’s amassed an enviable collection of co-signs that includes everyone from James Blake to Khalid to Kourtney Kardashian. And she’s poised to become a household name in the States, while singing in Spanish and operating within a hybrid version of a culture usually associated with the Romani gitanos of Andalucía.
El mal querer is a self-described concept album about a doomed relationship, based on the 13th century work Flamenca, often thought to be the first modern novel. Each song serves as a chapter, gently advancing the narrative, as the album swims in a carefully understated current of electronic whispers. While it often submerges itself deeper into the folkloric leanings, the album never fully anchors to its flamenco roots.
On “Que No Salga La Luna,” Rosalía flexes her melismatic flamenco vocals over a sparse yet bullish guitar and palma (or clapping) arrangement meant to showcase her powerful bellow. The Paquera de Jerez sample and bulerías loop make this song arguably the closest to traditional flamenco on the album. And it’s this austere vocal delivery that can captivate even the most skeptical of audiences. She seizes the listener just deeply enough to evoke the sensation of drowning in misery, then quickly relinquishes the audience as the album weaves into one of its lighter junctures. These push-and-pull moments come in ephemeral blasts, like on the following track, “Pienso En Tu Mirá,” which boasts one of the most pop-forward melodies on the album. It’s a welcome reprieve from the previous song’s bubbling gravity. The album’s severity is crucially tethered to its weightlessness.
One can get lost in this record, and be pulled back to sanity by its brief moments of unmitigated bliss. And at a succinct 30-minutes, it’s the ideal length for easy digestion. Any longer, and the album might succumb to the weight of its own power.
Pablo Díaz-Reixa (aka El Guincho) co-produced the album along with Rosalía. The experimental, sample- and loop-driven style he’s cultivated over the last decade flows through many of the album’s tracks. On “De Aquí No Sales,” motorcycles, screeching tires, and blazing sirens create a layered composition, harkening back to a production approach reminiscent of Mark Bell and Bjork’s style on Dancer In The Dark. “Reniego” — based on a traditional gypsy number, and an arrangement by gitano singer Camarón de la Isla — fundamentally mirrors the Icelandic artist’s haunting “Joga,” particularly in its use of a powerful string section as a vehicle for her vocals. She samples Arthur Russell’s “Answers Me” on “Maldición,” and Timbaland and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” on “Bagdad,” which shows Rosalía’s broad musical lexicon – one she isn’t afraid to use to create something breathtaking.
But for all of El mal querer’s pop and experimental proclivities, it is ultimately an album fettered by its flamenco tradition. Rosalía’s masterful cantes, the use of Andalusian and gitano phrases and iconography (like “illo!” and the Nazareno in the “Malamente” video), makes escaping this album’s debt to Romani and Andalusian culture impossible.
And it also makes it difficult to gloss over the fact that Rosalía herself is Catalan. Even as she’s ascended to mainstream fame in Spain, she’s faced some criticism from gitanos, who suggest that her use of their culture is exploitative and disrespectful. One critic of hers, a gitana activist named Noelia Cortés, suggests that the Catalan singer uses gypsy iconography as a costume, like “false eyelashes.”
However, it’s worth noting that Rosalía is far from the only creator outside of the gitano community working within the genre. Catalan singers like Mayte Martín, or Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela point to the way in which flamenco is used worldwide, even by those outside of the communities that helped foster it. But for many, it’s Rosalía’s code-switching and supposed appropriation of gitano terminology (which she has refuted), not necessarily her use of the genre, that’s irreconcilable. The size of her platform has also drawn negative attention. With headlines like “Rosalía is Redefining Flamenco,” the problem, according to many whose very culture and identity rests in the traditions of flamenco, is that it’s not hers to redefine.
But for Rosalía, this doesn’t seem like a cheap ploy to capitalize on a tradition. She cares about the culture, the craft, and the execution. And it shows. She has more than a decade of flamenco training, both in dance and vocal performance, and she studied music production in college. Her newfound status across the pond could bring tremendous opportunity to shine a wider spotlight on the marginalized gitano communities she’s artistically bound herself to. Hopefully, she’ll heed the call, and give back to the people that have given her so much.
And there’s no denying that the larger platform will come. This album is a game-changer; she’s being hailed by many as the next breakout Spanish-language star. With all the attention on música urbana’s rapid entry and domination on mainstream U.S. charts, El mal querer proves that audiences are ready for Spanish-language music across the board, even if it lacks a danceable rhythm with which listeners are more familiar.
Rosalía’s El mal querer is out now on Sony Music Spain.