The Week In Pop

Rosalía Is Becoming Earth’s Most Exciting Pop Star

At this late date it’s rare to encounter music that truly sounds like nothing else, but El Mal Querer pulled it off last year. The Catalonian singer Rosalía’s second album was truly unique, alchemizing traditional flamenco with futuristic R&B in a manner that felt both natural and visionary. Palmas that hit like accented letters, agile nylon-stringed guitar runs, and a grandly weeping string section merged seamlessly with airy synth pads and booming minimal beats. A melody from Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” became the foundation for an operatic ballad that seemed to never stop ascending. Swooning vocal theatrics straight out of ancient Andalusia morphed into lithe, breathy Auto-Tune runs.

El Mal Querer was fresh, and more importantly, it has endured. Now that the shock of discovery has worn off, the album has lost none of its luster. If anything, its charms have only been amplified through repeat exposure. The songs are not just forward-thinking but timelessly great. They hold up; they dig in deeper. Even if imitators somehow manage to turn the album’s singular style into trend fodder and its tics are subsumed into the mainstream until they no longer stand out, El Mal Querer itself will remain of those records capable of upending someone’s entire musical universe. It’s just that good.

As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd explained in her insightful review, Rosalía’s album was an extension of the global bass scene that emerged a decade ago, in which producers began updating their countries’ traditional folk music for the modern dance floor. It was as heady as you wanted it to be — check that Arthur Russell sample on “MALDICIÓN – Cap.10: Cordura” — but Rosalía and her co-producer El Guincho were not just crafting canny genre exercises to be dissected by cultural anthropologists. They were making pop music, and Rosalía was very much a pop star. She proved as much in a series of music videos as captivating and distinct as the album. And with a slew of new singles this year, she has left no doubt about her desire to be not just one of the best artists in the world, but the biggest.

It’s working. “Con Altura,” her nimble dembow banger with El Guincho and Colombian reggaeton hero J Balvin, surpassed 500 million YouTube views this week. It’s the most viewed video of the year by a female artist in all of planet Earth. “Con Altura” been viewed 300 million more times than the “Old Town Road” video and still claims a bigger tally even if you add the official audio for the Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus smash. On YouTube, where Spanish-language pop has been the dominant musical force in recent years, “Con Altura” has ascended to a higher plane.

Chalk up some of the song’s success to Balvin, a transcontinental superstar whose videos routinely surpass 100 million views and occasionally climb into the billions. But Balvin’s been on tracks this year with Selena Gomez, Sean Paul, Ozuna, Bad Bunny (with whom he recently surprise-released a whole album), and many others, and none of those videos have come close to the reach of “Con Altura.” Something else is contributing to the song’s breakout success, and that something is Rosalía Vila Tobella.

With Frank Dukes (The Weeknd, Lorde, Camila Cabello, Post Malone, Travis Scott) joining Rosalía and El Guincho’s production braintrust, “Con Altura” flies fearlessly out of El Mal Querer’s carefully curated comfort zone and into the modern urbano landscape. Bigger, brighter, and more overtly hip-hop, it is a clear crossover bid. So is follow-up “Aute Cuture,” a brisk R&B body-mover that forges further into the Neptunes minimalism that accented her album. If El Mal Querer was Rosalía and El Guincho showing how much they could accomplish within strict aesthetic parameters, now they’re proving they can thrive outside those boundaries. The trajectory reminds me of when Frank Ocean followed up the mercurial Endless and Blonde with a smattering of accessible jams the following year — except unlike Ocean, who seems content to exist in the margins, Rosalía is clearly in the midst of a world domination campaign.

One of the most impressive aspects of that campaign is that she’s been spearheading it without seeming the least bit thirsty. Venturing further into the mainstream has not diminished Rosalía’s sense of self. Like Beyoncé, she’s such a powerhouse presence, with such a clear point of view, that new sonic environments seem to adapt to her. Her appearances on James Blake’s Assume Form and the Game Of Thrones comp For The Throne demonstrate she hasn’t left behind her darker material even as she steps into the spotlight. And anyhow, the leap from the pure flamenco of Los Ángeles into El Mal Querer’s glorious genre hybrids a year later was at least as radical as any transformation she’s undergone in 2019. Just look at the videos: The airborne “Con Altura” dance party and the cartoonishly opulent nail salon of “Aute Cuture” may be more lighthearted than the gothic melodrama of the El Mal Querer videos, but the way she moves is largely the same, gliding between flamenco and hip-hop choreography as fluidly as her production distills the music.

That these new singles and Rosalía’s previous work were part of the same continuum became abundantly clear last week when she unleashed two new tracks that brought flamenco elements back to the forefront in a combined video called “Fucking Money Man.” The ostensible B-side, “Dio$ No$ Libre Del Dinero” (“God Free Us From Money”), veered all the way back into her signature shadowy realm. If not for a lyrical focus on materialism rather than the devastating breakup that informed El Mal Querer, you could easily slide it into the album’s tracklist. But the real showstopper was the A-side, a wildly colorful romp called “Milionária.”

Her poppiest song to date, “Milionária” launches cheery major chords across a busy rhythmic skitter. Its lyrics prod at the universal impulse to both celebrate and skewer lavish wealth. It’s punctuated by a profane outburst — “Fuckin’ money, man!” — a rare excursion into English by an artist who has found an international audience without forgoing Spanish. (The only time I’ve heard her sing in English at length was when she covered Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See A Darkness” on her debut; yes, one of the world’s fastest-rising pop stars stans Will Oldham.)

Yet for all its broad gestures, “Milionária” finds Rosalía doubling down on her unique perspective. It’s the first song she sung in Catalan, the Romance language that permeates her native Barcelona. It weaves her beloved flamenco — and the distinctive rhythm of Barcelona’s gypsy party music Rumba Catalana — into the fabric of pop radio so deftly that you may not realize your head is bobbing to centuries-old Spanish folk music. It does not sound like someone who is losing herself in a desperate lunge for fame. It sounds like someone who knows exactly who she is ensuring everyone else will know soon, too.

CREDIT: Rich Fury/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

The Week In Pop took last week off due to Independence Day. While we were gone, the Raconteurs notched their first #1 album with Help Us Stranger, Lil Nas X’s 7 EP debuted at #2, and Gucci Mane entered at #7 with Delusions Of Grandeur. Meanwhile on the Hot 100, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” spent a whopping 13th week at #1, adding Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” to the list of superstar singles that had to settle for a #2 debut. (It’s Mendes’ fifth top 10 hit and Cabello’s fourth as a solo act, though she also visited the region once with Fifth Harmony.) Oh, and DaBaby’s “Suge” peaked at #7.

Now that we’re all caught up, we can move on to this week’s charts, where “Old Town Road” holds on to #1 for an historic 14th week. As we previously reported, it’s only the 10th song in the Hot 100’s 61-year history to spend that many weeks on top. Two of them, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito,” lasted two more weeks for a record total of 16 frames at #1. “Old Town Road” is now tied with the other seven songs for the second longest run on top: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997″/”Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You,” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Khalid’s “Talk” are back to their respective peaks of #2 and #3, while Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” is at #4 and the Mendes/Cabello duet “Señorita” falls to #5 in its second week. Lizzo rockets to a new #6 peak with “Truth Hurts,” which becomes her first top 10 single. (I really thought it would be “Juice”!) According to Billboard, the song was originally released in 2017 but caught on this spring after being featured in the Netflix movie Someone Great. It has since been added to the deluxe edition of her recent album Cuz I Love You, helping to propel the LP back to the top 10. Rounding out the Hot 100 top 10: Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance,” and DaBaby’s “Suge.”

Over on the Billboard 200, Brown’s Indigo enters at #1 with 108,000 equivalent album units and 28,000 in sales. Per Billboard, it’s his third #1 album. Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish remain at #2 and #3, followed by a #4 debut for the Black Keys’ comeback “Let’s Rock!” The Keys moved 52,000 units, 41,000 of them via sales, and made a big show of not selling ticket bundles to juice their sales figures as has become common practice. In a press release, Patrick Carney says, “We decided to avoid ticket bundling like we always have. To us, it feels like a gimmick. It exists solely as a way to game the charts and we want no part of that.”

Chance The Rapper scores his highest-charting album this week — not with the long-promised new LP dropping this month, but with 2013’s Acid Rap, released to streaming platforms and on vinyl for the first time. The mixtape tallied 40,000 units and 18,000 in sales to “debut” at #5. After Khalid at #6 and Lizzo at #7 comes Mustard’s first top 10 album, Perfect Ten, at #8 with 36,000 units/1,000 sales. Bad Bunny and J Balvin’s joint album Oasis enters at #9 with nearly 36,000 units/5,000 sales — the first top 10 album for both. And Jonas Brothers’ Happiness Begins closes out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Ed Sheeran, Chris Stapleton, & Bruno Mars – “BLOW”


Beyoncé – “Spirit”
Beyoncé can sing the hell out of just about anything, but “Spirit” doesn’t transcend the inspirational movie music genre the way some soundtrack songs do.

Ava Max – “So Am I” (Feat. NCT 127)
I wrote off “Sweet But Psycho” singer Ava Max as “Diet Lady Gaga” back in January, but that was before she dropped “So Am I,” a straightforward pop tune every bit as accomplished as “Sweet But Psycho” and far less aggravating. The song was impressive when she released it last spring, and if the newly added bars from K-pop stars NCT 127 feel kind of like fixing what wasn’t broken, their presence will probably help the song become a hit.

Why Don’t We – “Come To Brazil”
I salute the way this builds from a barebones, almost lo-fi sound into a full-fledged banger in just over two minutes. Also, why don’t we come to Brazil?

Julia Michaels – “17”
Michaels’ typically misty and moody new Inner Monologue Pt. 2 EP is a bit bland on balance, but there’s a reason she led it off with this one.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • In a Vogue cover story, Ariana Grande discusses the period of her life following the death of Mac Miller and the ending of her engagement to Pete Davidson: “I don’t remember those months of my life because I was (a) so drunk and (b) so sad. I don’t really remember how it started or how it finished, or how all of a sudden there were 10 songs on the board.” [Vogue]
  • Cardi B’s request to trademark “Okurrr” was denied. [KRON4]
  • Taylor Swift headlined Amazon’s Prime Day concert in NYC and did “You Need To Calm Down” live for the first time. Nodding to her recent label drama she apparently sang the “Shake It Off” line “liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world” extra loud. [AP]
  • The Ed Sheeran/Marvin Gaye copyright trial has been put on hold until a decision is reached in a similar trial involving “Stairway To Heaven.” [BBC]
  • Gordon Ramsay taught Lil Nas X how to make a panini. [YouTube]
  • Pharrell promised internships to a class of Harlem high school graduates. [The Hill]
  • Jay-Z’s Roc Nation has sued licensing firm Iconix Brand Group Inc over an alleged “colossal accounting scandal.” [NBC New York]
  • Lil Uzi Vert released a video for “Sanguine Paradise.” [YouTube]
  • The 1975 announced some US arena shows in the fall. [Twitter]
  • Lady Gaga teased a new beauty line, Haus Laboratories, coming to Amazon in September. [YouTube]
  • Miley Cyrus paid tribute to her pet pig, who died. [People]

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