Camila Cabello seeks solo success with uneven debut
Matthew Munhall | Monday, January 22, 2018
Pop music history generally suggests that only one bona fide superstar can emerge victorious from each teen pop group. NSYNC launched Justin Timberlake to success, while JC Chasez’s solo career fizzled out after one album. Beyonce’s fame eclipsed that of her fellow Destiny’s Child bandmates, as she became perhaps the defining pop star of her generation.
Since the early days of Fifth Harmony, it was clear Camila Cabello desperately wanted to be the group’s breakout star. Fifth Harmony, assembled by Simon Cowell on the American version of “The X Factor,” became the most successful girl group of the decade, with its infectious hits like “Worth It” and “Work from Home.” Cabello – who was born in Havana, Cuba and grew up in Miami — was not Fifth Harmony’s strongest vocalist, but she positioned herself as its star, with her nasally vocal runs on the group’s hits (listen to the final chorus of ”Work From Home” for evidence). Nonetheless, after only two albums with Fifth Harmony, Cabello left the group, which resulted in an acrimonious feud with its remaining four members. “We wish her well,” the group’s statement about her departure stoically read; eight months later, they threw a fifth member – meant to represent Cabello – off stage during their performance at the 2017 VMAs.
While Cabello scored a few minor hits collaborating with other artists — including a forgettable duet with Shawn Mendes and a hook on a Machine Gun Kelly song — her solo success was far from ensured. “Crying in the Club,” her debut solo single, was a retread of Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” and failed to make an impact on the Hot 100. Neither did the follow up, “OMG,” despite featuring a guest verse from Quavo.
That changed with “Havana,” which became one of last fall’s biggest pop hits and recently secured the longest run atop Billboard’s Pop Songs chart by a female artist since Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” nearly five years ago. As a solo introduction, “Havana” is not quite “Crazy in Love,” but it’s still an undeniable pop song, with its Rihanna-biting hook, salsa piano riff and trumpet solo (even despite some mediocre bars from Young Thug).
Nothing else on her debut album “Camila,” unfortunately, quite measures up to “Havana.” Cabello’s main collaborator was the prolific Frank Dukes, who was behind the boards on Frank Ocean’s “Blonded” singles and Lorde’s “Melodrama.” Dukes is a musical polymath, bringing a tasteful palette of modern pop production to Cabello’s songs, which are largely about navigating infatuation and heartbreak as a young celebrity. It’s an album that, ultimately, seems perfectly calibrated for the streaming era: its ten songs sound perfectly capable of being slotted in on any number of Spotify playlists, competently written and immaculately produced while being largely forgettable.
The album’s first half, consisting of a handful of dance tracks influenced by crossover Latin pop – especially the dancehall-lite banger “She Loves Control” – is much stronger than its second, which lags with a string of lethargic ballads. Opener “Never Be the Same,” a descendant of the woozy post-Lana Del Rey school of pop, perhaps best encapsulates Cabello’s worst impulses as a singer and songwriter. “Just like nicotine, heroin, morphine / Suddenly, I’m a fiend and you’re all I need,” Cabello breathily sings, marrying her tendency to strain the higher register of her voice with hackneyed drug-referencing lyrics.
Besides “Havana,” the best track here is the melancholic ballad “Real Friends,” a track about the loneliness of fame, in the lineage of Britney Spears’ “Lucky.” “Can I run away to somewhere beautiful / Where nobody knows my name?” Cabello pleads in her raspy croon, backed only by acoustic guitar. It’s extremely affecting – a song that, despite being about a very specific celebrity problem, gestures at the universal power of pop music – and a showcase for Cabello’s promise as a pop artist in the years to come.
Label: Syco Music
Favorite Track: “Havana,” “Real Friends”
If you like: Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande
Shamrocks: 2.5 out of 5