Real Chaos Befell Camila Cabello’s Fake-Chaotic Album

Real Chaos Befell Camila Cabello’s Fake-Chaotic Album

Is chaos really chaos if you summon it on purpose? A few years ago, former Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello went about the business of being a pop ingenue with determined seriousness and as much trying-hard as possible. She gave interviews about how she’d rather go out to dinner with her mom than attend an awards-show afterparty and how she never swore in her songs because she wanted to be a good role model for her sisters. Her singles, even when they didn’t sound theatrical, nevertheless had Broadway-audition energy: lots of effortful belting and vocal runs and romantic-lead scenarios. She was cast as Cinderella, which made sense. Now Cabello is showing up to Fallon interviews with Donatella Versace hair and telegenically irreverent stories about weekslong debauchery. More shockingly to pop heads, she pureed her showy, X Factor-trained voice into hyperpop goo on a blown-out, Gucci Mane-interpolating lead single that many people found genuinely offputting. (It has yet to crack the Billboard top 80.)

Perhaps anticipating that this all might seem a little forced, Cabello insisted in Paper Magazine before any new music dropped that “there is no master plan.” (Worth noting: An exec at Interscope, Cabello’s new label, touted the artist’s heavy involvement with such plan-like matters as “What are the big looks with the [digital service provider] partners? What is the strategy with radio?”) But that hasn’t stopped people from seeing one. Her sudden Dionysian detour has been made a point of contention in stan wars against former Fifth Harmony member Normani, whose album quietly dropped this summer, and Charli XCX, whose album Brat serves similar bubblegum-bling pop with party-crashing abandon and whose Pop 2 single “I Got It” has a similar patter chorus and weirdo vibe. The ripoff accusations – which Charli acknowledged in a mildly shady video after “I Luv It” dropped – are endless, but personally, I don’t hear it. Charli XCX didn’t invent this sound.

On new album C, XOXO, out next week, Cabello expels all the hyperpop influence in one Auto-Tune-smeared interlude after “I Luv It”; nothing afterward sounds anything like it. What this album reminds me of, more than anything, is Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz: the hard pivot into aesthetic and musical goblin mode, the adopted rap flows interspersed with straightforward power ballads, the neon and gonzo and Spring Breakers comparisons, and oh yes, the controversies about racism. But imagine Bangerz without the controversy or the 2,000-word thinkpieces on appropriation (don’t worry, this isn’t that), if it were received as just a normal pop album.

And despite the gonzo marketing, C, XOXO is surprisingly normal underneath its bangerz. Even “I Luv It” is, as reviewer Hannah Jocelyn wrote, built on “a classic AABB chorus, only the AAs are iluvitiluvitiluvitiluvit and the BBs are Gucci Mane samples.” The album’s two main producers balance the somewhat outre with the extremely mainstream: El Guincho, whose credits include most of Rosalía’s recent work, FKA Twigs’ Caprisongs, and this remix of Bjork’s “Cosmogony”; and Jasper Harris, whose credits include Tate McRae and Doja Cat. They conceived of C, XOXO as a love letter to Miami, and El Guincho mentioned a specific sound, the bottom-heavy “car audio bass” records from ’90s subwoofer competitions: “You hear them driving around the city when they stop at a traffic light and there’s four different bass patterns coming out of the cars.”

But despite plenty of lyrical shoutouts, including an entire pregaming interlude called “305tillidie” (a reference to Miami’s original area code), the concept only holds up to a point. “I Luv It” is strongly Atlanta-coded, between the Gucci Mane interpolation and the fact that Cabello sounds more like Young Thug than on her actual track with Young Thug. “He Knows” samples a jazz-soul track by British artist Ojerime and sets it to the kind of pop-house beat that’s truly worldwide. Cabello explained this musical globetrotting by pointing out that Miami is “a melting pot of music and of culture” – which is true, but also a convenient explanation for exploring a lot of new genres on an album. Even Pitbull, the original Mr. 305, rebranded as Mr. Worldwide.

But it’s hard to see C, XOXO as a cynical commercial move, because a cynical commercial move would make far fewer strange choices than this album does. There’s a reason “I Luv It” charted so low; on first listen I genuinely wondered whether I was being trolled. “June Gloom,” a languidly crooned other-woman ballad that heavily evokes a certain other artist who’s sung about summer melancholy, ends with a squawking outro that my logical mind knows is not a homage to Hudson Mohawke’s memetic sex music “Cbat.” But it sure sounds like one. (Maybe it’s the lyrics that draw the association; without getting too specific, the Lana Del Rey song this evokes isn’t actually “Summertime Sadness” but “Cola.”) City Girls talking shit and delivering twerk instructions on “Dade County Dreaming”? Expected. Talking shit and delivering twerk instructions over an elegiac piano loop? Less expected!

“Chanel No. 5” is introduced with an out-of-tune piano and an Auto-Tuned mumble that makes the Playboi Carti verse on “I Luv It” seem trad, as Cabello brags about spritzing the titular perfume as a twisted seduction tactic from a “sick mind.” But over 100 years after Chanel No. 5’s release and over 60 after Marilyn Monroe famously suggested that she wore it nude in bed, it is now widely considered not just an old lady perfume but the old lady perfume, and pretty much the exact fragrance opposite of this song. (For the record, C, XOXO is more like Viva La Juicy.) One track finds Cabello pining for an ex who she remembers as the GOAT. It’s called “BOAT.”

Stranger yet, three tracks on C, XOXO are credited to Cabello but entirely turned over to other musicians, with barely a backing vocal and no indication that the album was meant as a Pop 2/DJ Khaled-style showcase of different artists. (Only one of them is from Miami, too.) On the first, “Pink XOXO,” PinkPantheress muses about her paranoiac situations for less than a minute; the snippet is nice enough, but in the words of Dionne Warwick: ? The second, with as little editorializing as possible, is a soundbyte by viral “Dreidel Bop” rapper BLP Kosher about how Cabello’s music allowed him to express grief: “I think that was the first music… album that I actually shed tears to while it was playing.” The third… well, we’ll get to it.

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To be clear: I like weird choices! I like it when albums are distinctly themselves. Cabello’s made an entire career of trying very hard at music ever since being dubbed the “extra” member of Fifth Harmony; she’s gotten a lot of flak for this tendency, but it serves her well for committing to the bratty bit. There’s just one thing that keeps me from fully embracing this era. A chaotic persona is good for some marketable, controlled fun. But real chaos – destructive and unaesthetic – upends all plans. And this year, that chaos arrived in the form of several unfortunate news stories, emerging weeks apart, involving the album’s guests.

First up: The-Dream, who at one point had his name attached to C, XOXO, was recently accused of rape and assault (a decade after a prior arrest on assault charges). It’s unclear whether he’s still involved. The City Girls, the album’s appointed ambassadors of Miami, were publicly beefing this spring over an apparent history of grievances. While the rappers (equally publicly) reconciled, those underlying tensions haven’t gone away, such as JT’s unceremonious embarking upon a solo career in a way that sure seems like distancing, or Yung Miami’s ongoing enmeshment with her ex Diddy. (Yung Miami was named in producer Rodney Jones’ lawsuit against Diddy and accused of transporting drugs for the mogul, allegations that she denied.)

And then there’s Drake. You know what’s going on with Drake. By far the oddest choice on C, XOXO is the fact that it is an album released in 2024 with two back-to-back Drake tracks – one of which (“Uuugly”) is not a feature but a whole Drake song on which Cabello briefly warbles an outro. Cabello anticipated that this could seem weird: “Why does he have his own song? Because selfishly, I just want to hear Drake on my own album,” she told Billboard. “Who says I can’t do that? It’s Drake talking his shit.” Drake sure has done a lot of that this year, hasn’t he?

Of course, a few months ago, including two Drake songs on your album wouldn’t have been a strange choice at all, but ruthlessly effective hitmaking – the biggest digital service partner look of all. “Hot Uptown,” a teasing duet patterned on “Too Good,” shows all signs of having been the intended lead single. Earlier this year, HITS Daily Double reported that a Cabello/Drake collaboration was being sent to rhythmic pop stations as the album’s first official radio track. This was in April, before a #1 hit song called Drake a colonizer and a pedophile. Rumors vary as to whether Drake’s team or Cabello’s team wanted the single delayed or pulled, but the track that actually got released was Lil Nas X duet “He Knows.” The collaboration itself wasn’t new – Nas said it was his first time doing a guest verse, and since he debuted a verse on Kevin Abstract’s “Tennessee” at Coachella in April, that’d place the recording well before the Drake mess. But even if “He Knows” was always part of the album plan, it sure seems to have been rushed out as a single. The cover art appears to be based on a photo Cabello and Nas took at the Met Gala in May, and the video was recorded quickly after.

None of this is exactly Cabello’s fault. (Well, the Drake rumors were around for years, but that hadn’t stopped most of the R&B and rap music industry from collaborating with him.) It’s just bad timing atop bad timing. But bad timing has real consequences. It was always going to be a little uncomfortable hearing Drake complaining about a girl trying his patience while ostensibly flirting with her, or warning someone not to make him leak their credit card statements or else things’ll get uuugly. But hearing it now? The vibes are truly rancid. Far, far better to have a verse where Lil Nas X gets cockily horny enough that he had to clarify in a Genius interview that he wasn’t actually singing “bussy hair.” That’s the sort of partying that fits the spirit of the times.


Normani - "Little Secrets"

Speaking of Normani, her long-delayed album Dopamine is surprisingly low-key considering its title. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – my favorite Normani single remains slow-jam “Waves” – but sometimes one needs a jolt of those brain chemicals. “Little Secrets,” the second-to-last track, provides that with its stuttery rhythm, martial-leaning beat, and unexpected guitar solo. I’m sure Normani has by now heard this thousands of times, but this really does have an ANTI feel – likely due to songwriter Starrah, who wrote “Needed Me.”

Sabrina Carpenter - "Please Please Please"

The second Main Pop Girl this cohort, after Olivia Rodrigo, to share her single’s name with a Fiona Apple song it sounds nothing like. Sabrina rolls out wry, almost spoken-word voices reminiscent of Selena Gomez and Julia Michaels’ (still amazing) “Bad Liar” and a lower register that sounds both country-fried and ABBAfied.

Billie Eilish - "Birds Of A Feather"

The greatest Haim single that Haim had nothing to do with.

MAX - "Pinkberry"

Perpetual pop B-lister MAX’s singles have been pretty ignorable up until now. “Pinkberry” just happens to catch a wave of light disco tracks about summer treats and totally not about sex, and surfs that wave well. This could have been strawberry bubblegum, but instead it’s me espresso.

aespa - "Supernova"

This K-pop girl group brings back the apocalyptic electropop of the early 2010s: “Till The World Ends,” “Blow,” and bangers of similar scale. (Bonus: No Dr. Luke involvement this go-round!) If your song about a dying star does not sound this huge, it’s unfit for purpose.

Maria Becerra - "IMAN"

This Argentine singer, unlike all those TikTok stars, came to fame the old-fashioned way, dammit – through YouTube vlogs featuring her singing. The funk stabs on “IMAN” sound more Y2K than many other Y2K-styled songs; specifically, the track sounds like Kelly Clarkson collaborating with the Neptunes. (No, that’s not technically Y2K; sadly Y2003 has yet to catch on.) But there are enough little tricks – breakdowns on the verses, a stratospheric soprano note – to elevate this far out of mid.

Magdalena Bay - "Death & Romance"

The extremely online pop duo returns with a characteristically high-concept track that sounds like an extended prog remix of Madonna’s “Lucky Star” – something I bet you didn’t know you needed this much.

Orville Peck - "Midnight Ride" (Feat. Kylie Minogue & Diplo)

Gloriously melodramatic country-adjacent camp that evokes Jim Steinman in spirit, if maybe not in intensity. (Almost no music evokes Jim Steinman in intensity.) I’m pretending Diplo isn’t involved in this.

Isabel LaRosa - "Favorite"

A Cuban-American songwriter zooming through the pipeline from TikTok to pop radio, “Favorite” is a deceptively sinuous bit of ByteDance emo, where LaRosa hits the yandere trifecta of breathy, doomy, and obsessed.

Nelly Furtado - "Love Bites" (Feat. Tove Lo)

What would life be without the indulgent glory of obnoxious bangers?


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