Rosalía’s El Mal Querer proves she’s a complicated genius

The singer’s just-released second full-length project is a triumph.

November 05, 2018
Rosalía’s <i>El Mal Querer</i> proves she’s a complicated genius YouTube

Rosalía’s El Mal Querer opens with a warning. “Malamente,” the sly prologue, features a giggle as she sings the repeating hook “bad, bad, bad, bad….” Ominous, but hardly a deterrence. I can cite the exact moment in the track’s music video that was hook, line and sinker for me. It comes near the beginning of the high-budget visual, when the Spanish singer is dressed in red, surrounded by an circle of dancers all in adidas tracksuits. She spins, the camera catches her gaze and it is completely hypnotic. Other moments in the video are notable and equally breathtaking too — like the clever, modernized metaphor of a bullfight but with motorcycles — but I must’ve gone back and repeated that one snapshot moment over a dozen times.

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El Mal Querer is the Spanish nuevo-flamenco star’s second album, which she released with Sony on Friday. It follows 2017’s Los Ángeles (as in “the Angels”, not the city), her first officially released collection of music. That project introduced her to the world as a hybridizer of modern pop sounds — 808s and electronic synth work — and flamenco. She fell in love with the traditional art form at 13, when she first heard revivalist Camarón de la Isla blasting from a car near her school in Catalonia. It has since served as the rich foundation for everything she’s created.

Her newest project builds upon that experimentation and is of near epic proportions, with a full narrative arc behind the album’s 11 tracks. On El Mal Querer, each song is given a capitulo, or chapter, and the project, as a whole, forms a book: The Bad Love. The narrative arc is shaped like a “u”, opening with a dark omen (Cap.1), then dipping into conflict (Cap.4), before a sharp ascent into sanity (Cap.10) and landing on a meditation on power (Cap.11). In an interview with Jezebel’s The Muse, Rosalía explains that the album’s concept originally served as her university thesis. The narrative draws from the 13th century manuscript, Flamenca, which tells the story of a woman whose jealous husband imprisons her in a tower when he believes her to be cheating. She eventually escapes by manipulating her way into the good graces of another man, while simultaneously lying to her husband. Rosalía’s retelling ends on a similarly defiant edge. The album closer is titled “A Ningun Hombre” and opens with the lyric “I won’t allow any man to dictate my sentence.”

From prologue to finale, we get to hear the full versatility of Rosalía’s musical imagination. “PIENSO EN TU MIRÁ” (Cap.3: Celos), is simultaneously delicate and biting with its languid synth work and rhythmic clapping. The ringing line of the track, “Pienso en tu mirá, clavá, es una bala en el pecho,” (roughly, “your gaze is a bullet in the chest”) gets visually translated as blood slowly seeping through shirts in the accompanying music video. “DE AQUÍ NO SALES,” (Cap.4: Disputa) exudes pure energy with growling, motorcycle-revving samples that eventually melt into frenetic handclaps, and insane chopped-up vocalization.

But the most revelatory moment of the album for me is chapter seven, “BAGDAD.” She opens up with a distorted interpolation of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” sung in Spanish, which took me by surprise. Unsurprisingly, it sounds good as shit. From there, it transitions into this choral-esque hook that reminds me of Christmas in the best way possible — twinkling and transcendent, in a particularly venerable way. (As if to push that point further, the title for this chapter is “Liturgy.”) The twists and turns of this chapter are perhaps the most confusing, exciting, and adrenaline-rush-inducing wonders that I’ve heard in music all year.

That’s not to say that the tradition is ever pushed too deep under the surface. “Di Mi Nombre” (Éxtasis) the eighth track is fueled by the steady rhythms of flamenco’s palmas, as are most of the tracks. Rosalía’s vocalizations flow through notes like a current, as you’d expect from traditional cante flamenco. When stretching to her upper register, her voice also does this thing — not so obviously a vibrato but similar — where it’s gripping the note so tightly, it slightly wavers. It is beautiful, in its urgency and precision.

Since its release, El Mal Querer has, deservingly, attracted praise and attention. Effectively capturing the hype, James Blake tweeted Friday: “The new @rosaliavt album just what the actual afjhkhhhhhdiquyhqkzjdhjsnbahjkbbsbdhsjajbaFfdfffdffffffffffffffffffff.” It feels like Rosalía current ascent is not only a monumental moment for herself, but also her country, and should inspire a closer examination into the historical space that she now occupies.

While doing research for this piece, I stumbled upon something that gave me pause, that I want to acknowledge. The Jezebel article on Rosalía brings up the possibility of cultural appropriation in her engagement with flamenco. The origins of the art form have been difficult to pin down by historians, as so many culturally separate varietals practiced by Spanish, Andalusian, and Romani people have all contributed to the modern understanding of flamenco — but the earliest records of cante flamenco, or song, date back to the seventeenth century. The art form, which was granted UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity status in 2010, has unquestionably now been enveloped into Spanish identity and nationalism, and within the country, has become a source for debates on authenticity and preservation. Questions of whether Rosalía’s performance draws on specifically romani styles of flamenco, and if that’s OK, are being asked in Spanish media. (Rosalía is from Catalonia, a region of Spain that has ties with the popularization of flamenco. Romani people have historically suffered erasure and marginalization in Spain.)

I can’t make any rulings right now, as I still currently lack the complete historical context — but this discussion feels worth thinking about. It has surely complicated my understanding of flamenco, and having a wider contextualization of genres, which so often get narrowly classified into digestible binaries, seems like a move in the right direction. I imagine, the world’s ears, and scope, can only get wider.

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Rosalía’s El Mal Querer proves she’s a complicated genius