album review

The Complicated Evolution of Rosalía

Photo: ROSALIA/YouTube

Rosalía arrived like an unexpected spring shower, achieving maximum saturation at shocking speeds. In a flash, whispers about the gifted singer from Spain reimagining flamenco music for new ears blossomed into international acclaim, as the taste for stark covers of traditional flamenco tunes displayed on 2017’s Los Ángeles evolved into the spirited genre hybridization and the careful pop inroads of 2018’s award-winning El Mal Querer. By 2019, Rosalía was popping up on international hits alongside música urbana heavyweights J Balvin and Ozuna, and making appearances in English-language records by Travis Scott and James Blake. Rosalía discusses this evolution in mythic terms, like a hero’s journey. She first encountered flamenco at 13, as she explained in a 2019 Fader profile, and immediately recognized the role it would play in her musical future: “I realized, this is my path.” The quest to marry the traditional music of Spain to modern sounds in Latinx youth culture, to fill reggaeton and Latin trap songs with the melodrama and vocal theatrics of flamenco singing, has earned the vocalist an embarrassment of praise. El Mal Querer received awards at the Latin Grammys in 2018 and 2019, and was named Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album at the 2020 Grammys. In 2021, the Billie Eilish duet “Lo Vas a Olvidar” was crowned Best Latin at the MTV VMAs. But Rosalía’s critics see a problem: a white European woman swiping accolades reserved for artists of color from across the Atlantic.

To a cynic, Rosalía might seem like a ringer. Born in Catalonia, the affluent territory in northeastern Spain that has been actively trying to secede from the country for the last few years, the singer received training from a vocal coach as a teen, landing at Taller de Músics — the Barcelona school with a stated interest in “the dissemination of jazz, flamenco, and modern popular music” — at 16. From there, she enrolled in the Catalonia College of Music, participating in the flamenco program, which accepts only one student a year. It’s not the common experience. Dabbling in reggaeton and adjacent styles tied Rosalía to international worldviews outside her own and gave her a feeling of cross-cultural solidarity. When performing in Mexico and Panama, she explained in a 2019 Billboard video series called “Growing Up Latino,” “I feel Latina.” But there are people for whom this music is a matter of life and death, and there are people for whom this music is an avenue of personal expression. Rosalía is a terrifyingly good study, a singer at ease with any sound she surveys, who bends genre, culture, and music history to her will. El Mal Querer’s “Malamente” braided flamenco and R&B in service to a story adapted from a 13th-century romance novel; Los Ángeles sits a reworking of a song by 1900s Spanish Romani singer Manuel Torre next to a cover of indie-folk vet Will Oldham’s 1999 classic “I See a Darkness.” But as Rosalía excels in scenes tied ineffably to specific cultural identities, questions about what’s gained and lost when she takes up space in these communities persist. Some flamenco purists have taken the Catalan star’s success in a historically Andalusian form as an insult. Rosalía responded in 2018, stating that flamenco doesn’t belong to their community or anyone else’s. As she circles reggaeton, dembow, and bachata now, her every move seems to annoy someone.

Motomami, Rosalía’s third album, shows off the gains she made in the three-year campaign of singles and features that yielded international hits in the J Balvin collaboration “Con Altura” and the Bad Bunny duet “La Noche de Anoche,” and netted impressive YouTube view counts for the stunning videos for “Milionària” and “Aute Cuture.” The album lays out its goals in the first song, “Saoko,” which borrows the chorus from Puerto Rican reggaetonero Wisin’s 2004 hit “Saoco” as Rosalía raps about embracing change and finding peace in her inconsistencies: “Me contradigo, yo me transformo / Soy todas las cosas, yo me transformo.” If water’s always changing states, chilling to make ice or warming to become steam, why are we expected to stick with a fixed persona? Motomami revels in dualities: It’s an album about trying to square the pangs of desire with the freedom of being single, about wanting to look fantastic but knowing beauty eventually fades, about juggling the love of self and family and men and God, about combining sounds from the past and the present, from the avant-garde and the mainstream. “Saoko” references 2000s reggaeton but also plays with your expectations for the instrumentation, which shifts on a dime from rock-adjacent distortion to jazz, warning the listener to torch whatever pre-existing ideas they had about this album coming into it.

This music is restless, a puckish expression of exquisite taste. No style sticks for two songs in a row. After “Saoko,” “Candy” serves shimmering synths and Burial samples. “Diablo” interrupts its feathery reggaeton with stately James Blake vocals, this after the title track’s loopy Pharrell production. “La Fama” one-ups the old bachata remixes of Weeknd hits, getting Abel Tesfaye to sing an original, then “Bulerías” re-centers flamenco. The latter offers a close look at the spider web of influences Rosalía pulls from as it invokes the names of some of her heroes in prayer: “Que Dios bendiga a Pastori y Mercé / À la Lil’ Kim, a Tego, y a M.I.A.” (“Bulerías” also offers rare insight into how the singer copes with backlash as she pledges to meet negativity in kind — “De cada puñalaíta / Saco mi rabia” — and compares herself to the suffering woman from ’40s and ’50s flamenco star Manolo Caracol’s “La Niña de Fuego.”) Triangulating Rosalía’s interests through references, samples, collaborators, and covers is a blast. “Delirio de Grandeza” reimagines Cuban singer Justo Betancourt’s 1968 Fania Records weeper, adding a sample from short-lived rap duo Vistoso Bosses’ 2009 Atlanta bass track “Delirious.” “CUUUUuuuuuute” gets Argentinian DJ and producer Tayhana to loop up vocals from Vietnamese social-media star Soytiet for a clattering dance track that collapses unexpectedly into a quiet piano break. It’s here that Motomami starts to feel a bit too coolly curated, though, like an attempt to get the listener lost in the vastness of the artist’s sphere of influences. It’s a jolt when the breathy, carnal exaltations of “Hentai” give way to sped-up raps in “Bizcochito,” a song whose smirking rebuffs invert dembow tradition, suggesting that straight men aren’t the players they’re allowed to believe they are: “¿Tú eres el que pimpeas o te pimpean a ti?” “G3 N15” says our theme here is lust, not love: “Esto no es El Mal Querer, es el mal desear.” “No puedes joder con una motomami,” Rosalía explained on Twitter. She might fuck with you, but don’t get any big ideas.

A message of self-sufficiency and empowerment steadies Motomami through the roiling creative twists it owes to its twin interests in complicating our grasp on Rosalía’s abilities as a vocalist (by foregrounding her raps and running her voice through discomfiting filters) and tying international movements in modern Spanish-language music to their 19th- and 20th-century antecedents. El Mal Querer dealt in stories about escaping toxic relationships, a quality inherited from the source material it was based on, which recounts the tale of a woman locked in a tower by her jealous husband. Motomami keeps suitors at arm’s length as Rosalía reminds herself and her fans of the power of being desired, and the power they hold apart from it. These songs luxuriate in designer threads and spurned advances, but they also warn us about tying our self-worth up in desirability and material wealth, since we’re all marching toward inevitable death. “Candy” is a song about dancing through the memories of someone you don’t really think about anymore, about the satisfaction of watching an ex pine for you long after he blew it. The stream of images of firearms and motorcycles in “Hentai” primes you for a closing verse that leaves the door open to the possibility that it is legitimately an ode to erotic anime, a song about killing a partner, not just an elaborate riff about blowjobs. Motomami carefully considers the cost of romantic involvement and opts for something that stops short of surrender. “La Combi Versace” yearns for a partner to cuddle with, then Dominican rapper Tokischa cuts in with a reminder that it’s possible to have this connection with a man without being tied down: “Vestida de blanco, me visto de novia pero no soy tu esposa.” Motomami ends with Rosalía pondering the future as cherry blossom petals falling over “Sakura” evoke withering youth: “Ser una popstar / Nunca te dura.”

In the years spent fine-tuning the sound and scope of this album, Rosalía has spoken candidly about her interest in affecting change in a music business that doesn’t offer as many opportunities to women as it does to men. In a Billboard interview with Pharrell, who worked on “Hentai” and “La Combi Versace” in addition to the title track, Rosalía walked us through the politics of features, mapping out how it’s possible to take up the most real estate on a song without taking home the most pay. As eager as she is to shake things up, though, her career path is a familiar one. The story of the godsend whose raw skill justifies the space they occupy in communities of color is also the story of Eminem, who has won the Best Rap Album Grammy six times, more than any other living rapper. Whiteness, or close proximity to it, often buys artists greater visibility, even in nonwhite spaces. White artists get commended for trying to “transcend culture” while performers of color are often pilloried for the same behavior. Jamaican dancehall singer Shenseea was criticized this year for incorporating American hip-hop and R&B sounds into her debut album, Alpha. People who grouse about Lizzo’s pop moves want the rapper and singer to make music that sounds like what she looks like. Solange’s eccentric 2019 masterpiece, When I Get Home, does not enjoy the love its more straightforward 2016 predecessor, A Seat at the Table, does. Rosalía has admitted that it’s privilege in part that affords her the freedom to change drastically with each album and to enjoy acclaim that was never showered on the innovators of the genres she’s delving into. Motomami offers a chance to fix that.

But beyond the Justo Betancourt sample and the killer Tokischa spot, you have to really lurk the credits to catch the contributions of Caribbean and Latin American musicians to Motomami. The videos for “Saoko” and “Chicken Teriyaki” put women out front, but you have to be quick on the draw to catch fleeting shots of the lone mocha-skinned dancer in the background of the latter clip. The real revolution would’ve been bringing everyone to the table to share the spotlight this concerted push for crossover success is bound to generate. It’s not Rosalía’s fault the music industry uses “Latin” interchangeably with “Spanish-speaking” while ignoring the deeper distinctions the term carefully delineates, opening press coverage and award shows up to flaps like handing props for Latin stars to a European artist. She’s not to blame for narrower opportunities allotted to artists who don’t sing in English, for the language barrier that shut a lot of popular artists out of the upper reaches of charts until recent years, for the dearth of critical respect for reggaeton throughout the 2000s, or for the history of talent shielding white artists from criticisms about their dealings in communities of color, where everyone knows someone who could make millions, given the resources to nurture their abilities. Look, Rosalía can make whatever music she wants. She’s brilliant. Motomami is great. But if her vision for this music of San Juan, Santo Domingo, Medellín, Miami, and the Bronx fails to honor the richness of those origins, if the story is just the richness of her gift, this isn’t the change that was promised. Rosalía does not have to change the world. But if she was trying to, she’s missed a few spots.

The Complicated Evolution of Rosalía