The Catalan singer’s potent, smart second album is more complex than any Latin pop currently in the charts: she’s a gamechanger
This is flamenco 2.0 … Rosalía. Photograph: Europa Press via Getty Images
There was a time, not that long ago, when the second album by a twentysomething Catalan singer held to be revolutionising the sound of flamenco would have been automatically confined to the margins where world music lurks in the UK. Instead, Rosalía’s El Mal Querer is getting what you might call the full pop star treatment: released by a major label rather than a tiny specialist imprint, promoted with a selection of expensive-looking videos, and attention drawn to the stars who have apparently fallen under the spell of her music, a list that ranges from Dua Lipa to Pharrell Williams, with whom she has been collaborating for a future release. Her first UK gig took place not at Womad, but hip east London venue Village Underground, while the kind of websites that make it their business to write earnest articles about the socio-political significance of pop stars have already started writing earnest articles about her socio-political significance.
, where flamenco is a big enough part of the pop landscape for the singer to have first encountered it in a Barcelona park, booming from the sub-woofer boosted stereos of tricked-out cars in the same way you might hear grime or drum’n’bass in the UK. The fact that a major label clearly thinks she can repeat the trick here – and indeed in the US – is presumably down to the ongoing vogue for Latin-flavoured pop. If Luis Fonsi’s proved that a song primarily in Spanish can top the charts, then perhaps that’s indicative of a wider cultural shift, signalling the end of British audiences’ traditional inability to treat pop in any language that isn’t English as anything more than a source of novelty hits.
But even if it is, El Mal Querer is a rather more complex, interesting and left-field prospect than any of the Latin pop successes to date. At its most commercial – as on the flatly brilliant single Pienso en Tu Mirá (a gold-selling hit back in her homeland) or the early 2000s R&B-flavoured Bagdad – it offers a sparse, spectral version of the kind of super-smart pop that Christine and the Queens produce, the rhythm tracks decorated with flamenco palmas, or hand-clapping, the arrangements minimal wisps of electronics and bass, the vocals front and centre.Rosalía: Pienso en Tu Mirá (Cap. 3: Celos) – video
Even at its most pop, the focus on Rosalía’s voice lends El Mal Querer a head-turning freshness. She can really sing – when she lets rip on the more traditional flamenco-styled Que No Salga la Luna or the a capella closer A Ningún Hombre, it’s a pretty visceral experience – but her voice is audibly rooted in a different musical tradition to the usual styles in which pop vocalists perform. The standard set of tricks (post-Whitney extemporisation overload, sub-Winehouse aged soul, please-compare-me-to-Kate-Bush kooky swooping etc) are all noticeable by their absence. Instead, her voice is powerful and gutsily emotive: her melismas sound more Middle Eastern than Mariah Carey.
In addition, swathes of El Mal Querer are noticeably more experimental than most current mainstream British or American pop artists would countenance. Rosalía co-produced the album with sometime Björk collaborator Pablo “El Guincho” Díaz-Reixa, and she’s also recently been working with another Björk cohort, Venezuelan-born experimentalist Arca. That figures: there’s a similar sense of exploration and space here as you might find on a Björk album, while it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture the Icelandic singer doing her stuff over the high-drama string arrangement of Reniego. Nana sets Rosalía’s voice against a stark backdrop built entirely from sampled and Auto-Tuned vocals, Reniego mixes castanets with distorted snatches of voices and sound effects that may have been ripped from a kung-fu film: midway through it dies away into silence and an eerie little wordless vocal loop appears, fighting for space with Rosalía’s voice.
A crisp 30 minutes long, El Mal Querer is clearly intended to be a concept album – each track comes with a chapter number and subtitle – although without either a translation or a fluency in Spanish, what the concept might be remains a mystery. It doesn’t matter: this is music potent and adventurous enough to grip you without understanding a word of what she’s actually singing. Whether it’s going to appeal to the kind of audience who’ve bought into the vogue for Latin pop thus far is another question entirely: even at its most straightforward, it’s not terribly straightforward and it’s a very long way indeed from Despacito or indeed anything else in the charts. But that’s precisely its appeal. Whether it heralds the arrival of new pop phenomenon or not, El Mal Querer sounds like the calling card of an entirely unique new talent.
This week Alexis listened to
The standout from Joy O’s latest six-track EP 81B: minimal dancefloor funk made out of ghostly, whispering voices and a subtly chugging rhythm.