How Rosalía’s Radical Take on Flamenco Found Worldwide Resonance

Rosalía. Photo: David Becker/Getty Images for LARAS

The first chapter of Rosalía’s world-altering second album, El Mal Querer, is an omen. The Catalan songwriter warns us as much in the song’s title (“Malamente — Cap. 1, Augurio”), so if you’d hoped for a fairy tale, you might want to temper your expectations. In it, Rosalía sings forebodingly about ominous symbols — a red crystal the narrator knew would break long before it did, a phantom voice lingering on the stairs, a bridge that sways just as she musters the courage to cross it. The woman in question disregards these premonitions, though something bad is coming up very fast along with them. It’s the sound of someone who realizes that she has to go forth and figure it out for herself.

Through the 11 chapters of El Mal Querer, one of the best and most ambitious albums of 2018, the idiosyncratic pop star unfurls the story of a malicious desire and harnessing power as a woman, detailing the disputes, jealousies, and revelations within a covetous romance. A central part of flamenco’s rhythmic backbone, the distinctive handclaps known as palmas, coexist among lightning-rod guitar melodies and elements of reggaetón, R&B, and Top 40 pop. Through her radical approach to an art form steeped heavily in tradition, her collaborations with the likes of J Balvin and Arca, and visual interpretations of the many gnarled stories within a covetous romance, the 25-year-old artist has enraptured listeners around the globe with the possibilities that can live through this folkloric music.

The way that Rosalía Vila Tobella has reworked flamenco is brilliant to some and blasphemous to others. Flamenco’s origins are disputed, though a number of historians believe that it’s drawn from a combination of cultural traditions, including Romany and Andalusian. Detractors say that the musician, who doesn’t bear Romany or Andalusian blood, has appropriated flamenco from its true form. “Not everyone has to feel it,” she told Billboard about the criticism. “Clearly, there is an audience that doesn’t enjoy what I am doing because it isn’t traditional. But I do it with respect and love for the tradition. It’s music that I’ve studied and that I made my own decision to immerse myself in.” The debate sparks questions, too, about the ongoing globalization of popular music, and the conversation that happens when a song travels elsewhere, then returns home changed, shaped by other sounds and ideas.

At the moment, though, there’s no one in the world that sounds like Rosalía. And it took her almost a decade to get to this point. As a teenager, she began playing guitar and piano, and started singing wherever she could around her hometown. She studied at Barcelona’s Taller de Músics, and she graduated from the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya, after studying flamenco with the maestro José Miguel “El Chiqui” Vizcaya for eight years. It’s a program that accepts few people, only one a year, and for good reason: Flamenco is a demanding practice, physically and emotionally taxing. To be a part of something so affective involves reconfiguring parts of yourself as well.

Last year, Rosalía released her debut album, Los Ángeles. Full of depth and lament, it is more of a straightforward take on flamenco, albeit an offbeat one. In it, her distinctive, spine-lilting vocals pair chillingly with Raül Refree Fernández Miro’s lone guitar strums. Her work caught the ears of megaproducer J Balvin; earlier this year, she and the producer Sky started kicking around a song, “Brillo,” which cropped up on Vibras, Balvin’s latest album from this past year. But to stand out among legends meant rethinking the storied rule book entirely, all while keeping flamenco’s heartrending drama at the core. So she teamed up with El Guincho, the producer who’s worked with the likes of Björk to draw out adventurous experiments through a pop lens, to bring El Mal Querer — which she crafted as her university thesis — to life.

In early November, Rosalía released El Mal Querer to much acclaim. The convoluted rhythms and many disciplines within it are all the more impressive given that she composed, arranged, and self-recorded the entire thing (she signed to Sony not too long ago). Ahead of its release, she deftly built up the suspense through videos and collaborations, letting her work’s originality appeal to the heart and the head, as well as the ears.

From the beginning of 2018 through the spring, Rosalía toured extensively, mostly around Spain, on the heels of Los Ángeles’ release. Around then, Rosalía went into the studio with Pharrell Williams, after he invited her to record. Shortly afterward, in May 2018, she released the video for the album’s first single, “Malamente,” which went viral in quick succession. In the Nico Mendez–directed video, she is the bull coming face to face with toreros and their red flags — except she’s gunning it on a motorcycle, the bike spewing red smoke behind her. The silent, robed nazarenos, part of Spain’s Holy Week festivities, are there, too, wordlessly riding skateboards under the judging eye of a huge cross. It’s hard to not hold your breath watching this video, just shy of three minutes long. It’s been viewed by tens of millions of people since its release and, of course, has spawned at least one GIF: In it, Rosalía and her accompanying dancers lean on a car, clapping with the backs of their hands.

Shortly after the video’s wild success, Rosalía started to bring out El Mal Querer live. The first run was this past June, at Barcelona’s Sónar festival — a production that also signaled her transformation from flamenco cantaora to full-on diva in Spanish press. She hit a handful of festivals over the summer, mostly in Europe, and in July, she unveiled the video for El Mal Querer’s third chapter, “Pienso en Tu Mirá — Cap.3: Celos,” also directed by Mendez. The song, which probes how jealousy manifests itself between a couple, is a gripping ride. It starts with a drive, where a flamenco singer figurine, clad in red and grasping a guitar, bounces on the dashboard as the car barrels forward. Rosalía, armed to the teeth with gold, loads a rifle with olives and reflects on how a lover’s stare is not unlike “una bala en el pecho” — a bullet to the chest.

Nothing is more evocative of Rosalía’s self-awareness — that she might be simultaneously the greatest and worst thing to happen to flamenco — than a scene in this video, where a figurine of a flamenco bailarina, a fan in her hand, is smashed with a baseball bat. It ends with her atop an overturned truck on its side. She stands on the car, which bears her name and bleeds orange, writing out texts on her phone. In an appropriately dramatic twist, in July, the same month that she released the “Pienso en Tu Mirá” video, Rosalía posted an intriguing update on Instagram: She had just finished shooting her first scene with the legendary Spanish dramatist director Pedro Almódovar, for his forthcoming film Dolor y Gloria.

Late summer and early fall saw bigger and bigger shows, including a Hollywood Bowl performance, and an October TV appearance on Later … With Jools Holland in the U.K. She hasn’t slowed down following the record’s release, either. In mid-November, Rosalía gave an absolutely commanding performance of “Malamente” at the Latin Grammys in Las Vegas. She took home two awards for that song, Best Alternative Song and Best Urban Fusion/Performance. Later in November, she unveiled her own clothing line at Pull&Bear, the Spanish retailer, featuring the likes of crop tops, sweatshirts, and tracksuits. And just the other week she unveiled the video for “Bagdad — Cap. 7: Liturgia,” the part of this bad romance when things begin to turn (albeit slowly). On this seventh chapter, Rosalía’s vocal intonation cribs heavily from Justin Timberlake’s despondent sighs in “Cry Me a River.” Playing the part of a dancer at a club, she locks herself in the bathroom, crying so hard and so much that the water seeps under the door and floods the room, taking her with it.

Rosalía’s videos are often loaded with Spanish symbolism and religious iconography, and also with cars. They at once recall her life in Sant Esteve Sesrovires, the industrial town in Catalonia where she grew up, and where she often saw trucks pass. As a teenager, Rosalía first heard flamenco spilling out of her older friends’ cars near a park they frequented. But they also suggest flamenco’s mobility, and how it’s still evolving in real time. “My favorite flamenco singers, they’re not trying to look pretty,” she told the New York Times earlier this year. “They’re trying to put truth in what they do, in the way they express themselves. Sometimes that’s not beauty, but it’s beautiful.” With El Mal Querer, Rosalía has made the act of interpreting flamenco, and the stories within it, theater for the ears.

To conceptualize El Mal Querer, Rosalía looked toward another dramatic text: The Romance of Flamenca, a 13th-century text written in Occitan, a language that used to be a standard tongue in European literature, and that’s related to Catalan. The story follows a woman, also named Flamenca, who’s set to be married to Archimbaut, the Count of Bourbon. Everything seems fine until the wedding celebration itself, when Archimbaut suddenly goes apeshit with jealous rage. He lets his hair grow out, paces around muttering to himself, and banishes his beloved to a tower. The manuscript is only related to flamenco by name, but it stuck with Rosalía nonetheless. “It got me thinking, almost anthropologically: Centuries later, have we altered the ways in which we love and relate to other people, or are we still acting in the same ways?” she told Pitchfork.

It’s hard to say. The ways that we connect with each other (or try to) have certainly changed in centuries past, but humanity hasn’t shaken the toxic behavior that sometimes lives parallel to love. It’s especially evident in how Rosalía viscerally conceptualized “De Aquí No Sales — Cap. 4: Disputa,” a chapter in the saga that disturbingly details an episode of domestic violence. Using the rhetoric of abusers, she sings: “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” When she unspools the line that gives the song its title — that the person in the hands of the abuser isn’t getting out of there — her voice moves through a beat culled from a motorcycle revving, a swerving car, and sirens. On the album’s intermission “Preso — Cap.6: Clausura” shortly after, Rosalía enlists the famed Spanish actress Rossy de Palma to weigh in on trauma long after the fact. “It traps you without you realizing it,” she says of a poisonous love. “You realize when you get out of it. You think, How have I gotten here?” Rosalía’s there in the shadows, softly singing “duele, duele, duele” — it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

The ironic cruelty of hurt is that it can also sometimes give way to growth in time; the second half of the album orbits this idea, as well. It’s evident in the video for the auto-tune-imbued reckoning “Di Mi Nombre — Cap:8, Éxtasis,” which she dropped just days before the album’s release. Conceptually, the video channels Francisco de Goya’s La maja vestida, a 19th-century painting featuring a woman leaning back, all-knowing as she gazes back at us. While the circumstances differ from person to person, love’s distinctive pain, and its fallout, rings familiar through these songs. “At one moment I’d like to be crazy and not love, because love causes pain, pain that has no end,” she confides on “Maldición — Cap:10, Cordura,” with Arthur Russell’s sparse, plucky “Answers Me” sampled behind her. Flamenco’s visceral nature becomes the brutal vehicle through which Rosalía wrestles with the noxious parts of desire, the ones typically eschewed in popular culture. It’s part of why this record, and its feeling, has captivated so many people.

El Mal Querer doesn’t exactly end without pain, but it does find the narrator in control of her life. Fittingly called “A Ningún Hombre — Cap. 11: Poder,” the stripped-down song is bolstered by Rosalía singing through her, refusing to bend for any man that “dictates her sentence.” To do so, she makes a promise: “I’m going to tattoo your initial on my skin, because it’s mine — to remember forever what you did to me one day.” The reminder of what she went through will propel her — and by association, us — forward.

Rosalía’s Radical Take on Flamenco Found Worldwide Resonance