The Week In Pop

If Only Camila Cabello’s Romance Were As Transfixing As The Love That Inspired It

It’s one of the most exhilarating, terrifying human experiences: a friendship suddenly accelerating into an all-consuming passion. Maybe you’ve secretly fantasized about it, or maybe it hits you out of nowhere. Either way, sparks fly, hormones surge, and you give yourself over completely to this burgeoning obsession. You feel loopy and elated all the time. You throw aside caution and boundaries to an extent that will almost certainly come back to bite you later. You can’t keep your hands off each other when you’re together. You text way too much when you’re apart. It’s the kind of rush that cannot possibly last, but when you’re caught up in it, it feels like infinity.

Camila Cabello knows this feeling. She can’t stop singing about it. Romance, the former Fifth Harmony member’s second solo LP, is dedicated almost exclusively to Cabello’s relationship with Shawn Mendes, her two-time duet partner and fellow former teenage pop star. To hear Cabello tell it, theirs is an historic love affair, one of those tectonic emotional entanglements that redraws your life’s entire landscape, alters your self-perception, and makes you feel whole for the first time. “Always thought I was hard to love ’til you made it seem so easy,” she sings on one of the project’s half-dozen advance singles. “All I do since I met you is dream of you,” goes the chorus of a deep cut. There are portraits of sexual tension building and boiling over, of the rhythms that emerge once a relationship becomes the new normal, of an attraction — and then a commitment — that triumph over all the usual internal and external conflicts.

If you’re skeptical, you’re not alone. The couple took their courtship public this past summer, around the same time they released a collaborative single about bilingual flirting and fucking. Inevitably, some onlookers concluded the arrangement was a charade designed to promote “Señorita,” citing both the convenient timing of the reveal and an alleged lack of chemistry in Mendes and Cabello’s umpteen televised performances of the song. Given that Cabello has recorded an entire album about being truly, madly, deeply in love with Mendes, the attraction seems pretty genuine on her end — it’s a real sensory jolt when she sings, “Write it on my neck, why don’t ya?” — but my job is not to pass judgment on their romance. My job is to pass judgment on Romance.

So here’s my judgment: The album is solid, but not as good as I want it to be or as epic as I suspect Cabello intends it to be. Like Camila, the solo debut she released early last year, Romance is better than your average assembly-line pop album but beset by enough flaws and filler that it falls short of a grand creative statement. It’s more like a rom-com in which charismatic performances, a few memorable scenes, and some idiosyncratic flourishes outweigh a predictable plot and occasionally excruciating dialogue — often enjoyable, mostly endearing, but ultimately inessential.

Cabello’s music is informed by her girl-group background, her Cuban-Mexican roots, and multiple generations of divas, from Christina Aguilera to Ariana Grande. She’s adept at the archetypal pop-star moves — the dancing, the thousand-yard stare — and her signature hit “Havana” shows how comfortably she can interact with hip-hop when she wants to, a skill set reaffirmed on the fun new DaBaby collab “My Oh My.” Yet her sensibility owes the most to someone who followed a very different path to the pop mainstream: Taylor Swift, who took Cabello on a stadium tour last summer, and who haunts Romance more than anyone else besides Mendes.

Like Swift, Cabello presents herself as a hapless weirdo sometimes (the humorous and absurd video for flamenco/ska/Latin trap bop “Liar”) and a world-conquering badass other times (the high-drama visuals for the dark-tinged, rock-infused “Shameless”). Like Swift, she seasons a basic aesthetic with occasional bursts of authentic quirk, never more so than on “Living Proof,” with its off-kilter handclaps and halting falsetto chorus and a twisted intro that reminds me of Animal Collective’s “Who Could Win A Rabbit” of all things. Like Swift, she finds ways to make a less-than-graceful vocal presence work for her. And like Swift, she has now made her real-life love life a central factor in her music, turning her album into a diary to be dissected by her army of Camilizers (yes, that is what her stans are called).

On balance, it works. Romance is an overall stronger album than Camila, more fully realized and coherent yet musically adventurous. The singles have been mostly pretty good; beyond the aforementioned “Shameless,” “Liar,” and “Living Proof,” there’s the swooning “Easy” and “Cry For Me,” a playfully fired-up breakup anthem on an album full of love songs. These tracks are fun and catchy and full of vulnerable detail, but for whatever reason, none of them has really caught on. The one that did, “Señorita,” is among the blandest of 2019’s mega-hits — to paraphrase Mark McGrath, it may have equalled “Havana” on the charts, but never in our hearts.

Elsewhere, “Bad Kind Of Butterflies” does a decent discount version of Timbaland’s sonic cathedral “Cry Me A River” and the Rosalía song that interpolated it, and the breathy, bass-blasted ballad “Used To This” successfully evokes Swift’s latter-day sound. But “Should’ve Said It,” Romance’s other sassy breakup song, feels like a failed attempt to make that “Havana” lightning strike twice. The awkward “Feel It Twice” is a maudlin tribute to an ex who’s apparently heartbroken over Cabello’s newfound love. As the album wears on, it becomes a bit thin and repetitive, with “Dream Of You” and “This Love” hitting the same falling-for-you beats with increasingly less compelling musical backing. (The former begins with this album’s foremost head-slapper, “He’s a bad dancer/ He’s the right answer.”)

After spending its full runtime edging up to it, Romance goes full Hallmark at the end. On closing track “First Man,” Cabello sings to her father, “the first man that really loved me,” about how much she’s into her new guy. Against emotional piano chords and a spare synth glow, she moves from “You’ll like him, he’s really kind/ And he’s funny like you sometimes” to “He makes me really happy/ I think he might be the one.” Shawn Mendes, if you’re out there, I hope you are in touch with your jeweler because Cabello finishes up by envisioning her dad walking her down the aisle with tears in his eyes.

I suspect many years from now, when my daughters are grown up, “First Man” will reduce me to tears too. For now, it strikes me as treacly. Your enjoyment of Romance on the whole may depend on similar factors, whether you’re ready and willing to indulge in a head-over-heels love story on extremely sentimental terms. The project goes to some unexpected places musically, and I’m curious to see how she builds on it going forward, but for an album apparently fueled by unquenchable passion, Romance is a lot easier to like than to love.

CREDIT: Aidan Cullen

CHART WATCH

Trippie Redd scores his first career #1 album this week with A Love Letter To You 4, which tallied 104,000 equivalent album units and about 14,000 in actual sales. As Billboard reminds us, it’s the Ohio native’s fourth top 10 release in just over 15 months. This one surpassed his previous #3 peak largely through the power of streaming, with 125.9 million on-demand track streams amounting to 88,000 in streaming equivalent albums.

Entering at #2 is Jason Aldean’s 9, which accumulated 83,000 units to become the country star’s eighth top 10 album. Of that total, 68,000 comprise album sales, many of them sold as part of a bundle with concert tickets. Up to a new #3 peak with 79,000 units and 43,000 sales is the Frozen 2 soundtrack, which debuted at #15 last week and will almost certainly hit #1 at some point during the holiday doldrums.

After Post Malone, Billie Eilish, and Taylor Swift comes Coldplay with a surprisingly low #7 debut for Everyday Life — I could’ve sworn they were one of those bands that banks a #1 album every time out, but 48,000 units and 36,000 in sales won’t even put you in the conversation. In any case, this is Coldplay’s eighth top 10 album. Starting at #8 is YNW Melly’s Melly vs. Melvin thanks to 43,000 units and less than 1,000 in sales. Luke Combs and Summer Walker round out the top 10.

Over on the Hot 100, Post Malone’s “Circles” holds on to #1 for a second week, followed once again by Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” Lizzo’s “Good As Hell,” and Maroon 5’s “Memories.” Arizona Zervas’ viral hit “Roxanne” soars to #5, up from #12 last week. (Sadly, Billboard informs us the Police’s far superior “Roxanne” topped out at #32.) The rest of the top 10: “Lose You To Love Me,” “Señorita,” “10,000 Hours,” “Truth Hurts,” and “No Guidance.”

POP FIVE

The Weeknd – “Heartless” & “Blinding Lights”
The Weeknd is smart to launch his new era by tweaking both of his predominant archetypes. With “Heartless” we get bleak, stylish Abel gone full-fledged trap with assistance from Metro Boomin himself. With “Blinding Lights” we get ultra-poppy but still sleazy “Can’t Feel My Face” Abel doing his best Twin Shadow impression. Both songs are good, so I’m curious to see where this goes.


Louis Tomlinson – “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart”
This is one of those post-One Direction singles that could have easily been a One Direction single — in this case, a very good One Direction single. Those big gang choruses always do me in.

Christina Aguilera & A Great Big World – “Fall On Me”
Christina Aguilera hasn’t had a hit since “Say Something,” the sad and sappy ballad she released with A Great Big World in 2014. It’s been five years, and everything else she has attempted has flopped, even if some of it was damn good. So I understand why she’s doing this, even if I’d prefer her to keep making weird dance-pop songs like “Accelerate.” Fortunately, “Fall On Me” is not nearly as annoying as “Say Something” — just a big, boilerplate power ballad you can immerse yourself if need be and otherwise ignore.

Ally Brooke – “No Good”
With a disco jam so instantly winsome I’m surprised it’s not on the new Dua Lipa album, Ally Brooke seems bound to rise in the post-Fifth Harmony power rankings. “No Good” is just exceptional.

Kacey Musgraves – “Christmas Makes Me Cry”
I haven’t really engaged with Kacey Musgraves’ Christmas special yet, but after watching her play this song on Ellen I need the Emoji Mashup Bot to create a sobbing Santa Claus for me.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Offset got hacked — or pretended he got hacked — after Tekashi 6ix9ine’s girlfriend shared a flirty DM allegedly sent from his account, and Cardi B is defending him. [TMZ]
  • Pussycat Dolls reunited for the first time in a decade on The X Factor: Celebrity. [YouTube]
  • Harry Styles, Alicia Keys, and Chance The Rapper are among the guest hosts for The Late Late Show With James Corden beginning next week. [Deadline]
  • Dua Lipa revealed her new album title via tattoo: Future Nostalgia. [Instagram]
  • Rihanna ran into her “FourFiveSeconds” collaborator Paul McCartney on a flight and shared a cute video. [Twitter]
  • On Jimmy Kimmel Billie Eilish asked kids what happens when we go to sleep. [YouTube]
  • Eilish’s acoustic set at Third Man Records will be available exclusively at TMR stores on Friday. [TMR]
  • A burglar stole over $366k in jewelry from Iggy Azalea and Playboi Carti. [Reuters]
  • Azalea also released her Wicked Lips EP. [Spotify]
  • Diplo, Anderson .Paak, and Fall Out Boy will appear on music-themed episodes of The Price Is Right next month. [Billboard]
  • Halsey shared her Manic tracklist which includes Alanis Morissette and Suga of BTS. [Twitter]
  • Taylor Swift released a “First Dance Remix” of “Lover” featuring the orchestration heard in her AMAs medley. [YouTube]
  • Bastille covered REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” in the Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • On Thanksgiving Sia paid for various strangers’ groceries at Walmart. [Twitter]
  • Liam Payne released a video for “All I Want (For Christmas).” [YouTube]
  • Payne also got into an altercation with bouncers at a San Antonio bar when he visited his girlfriend’s family over Thanksgiving. [TMZ]
  • Katy Perry shared a video for “Cozy Little Christmas.” [YouTube]
  • Sam Smith and Normani did “Dancing With A Stranger” live together for the first time at 93.3-FLZ’s Jingle Ball in Tampa. [YouTube]
  • Ellie Goulding released a video for her Joni Mitchell cover “River.” [YouTube]
  • The upcoming album from the Weeknd is good, says Adam Sandler. [Vulture]

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