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Rosalía - El Mal Querer Music Album Reviews

The second album from the Spanish singer is a remarkable feat, seamlessly linking flamenco’s characteristic melodrama to the heart-wrenching storytelling of modern, woman-flexing R&B.

Global bass, the internet-centric underground scene that began flourishing around the world in the late 2000s, emerged when young producers took their countries’ folk traditions and updated them for a millennial dancefloor. They used new technology to connect previously collapsed musical boundaries: Cumbia became digitized (Colombia, Mexico), salsa got remixed (Puerto Rico, New York), pow wow drums went electric (Canada), and some producers even transmogrified Andean pan flutes into intellectual bangers. Global bass became a precursor to the increasingly boundless way pop music works now, even as it became flattened into limp and canned versions of what some people dreadfully termed “trop-house,” not to mention the overall poisonous creep of EDM into its bloodstream.

The concept, though, is still intriguing: As the internet homogenizes individual music cultures into a big studio-quantized mish-mash, how do musicians retain the singularity of the hyper-local, often dissipating histories of their cultures? And alternately, is it preferable to take a rigid approach to that hyperlocality—or at least a defensive stance towards cultural specificity—if it stifles the kind of musical creativity that fosters a genre’s evolution.

One approach—a very successful one—lies in El Mal Querer, the relentlessly gorgeous album from Rosalía Vila Tobella, a 25-year-old Spanish singer with one foot steeped in her Catalan history and the other hypebae-sneakered foot sidling into the future. Rooted in flamenco—the Arabic-influenced Andalusian music which she has studied since a young age—El Mal Querer is a dramatic, romantic document that seamlessly links that tradition’s characteristic melodrama to the heart-wrenching storytelling of modern, woman-flexing R&B. Flamenco music carries the sound of Spanish history within it—you can practically hear the migration patterns—and Rosalía uses it to tell the story of a doomed relationship across 11 songs, each one serving as a new chapter. It is one of the most exciting and passionately composed albums to appear not only in the global bass tradition but in the pop and experimental spheres this year.

Thrillingly, Rosalía has figured out a way to situate her classical training alongside Justin Timberlake and Arthur Russell samples, glossy synths and hip-hop swing. With co-production from the Spanish producer El Guincho, El Mal Querer’s already delivered two hits—first, the slinky, hypnotic “Malamente,” where Rosalía’s honeyed voice works in counter-rhythm to flamenco-influenced syncopated handclaps. (Her stardom was definitely aided by the song’s video, in which she executes slick choreography while wearing a fluffy fake-fur jacket and tracksuit as a kind of Spanish answer to Rihanna.)

”Malamente” and its follow-up—the yearning jealousy bop “Pienso En Tu Mirá”—might imply a more radio-friendly album, but Rosalía is true to her hybrid ethic, and keeps it folkier as she maneuvers through the album’s heartbreak narrative. Even the astonishing “De Aquí No Sales,” which replaces the handclaps with samples of revved-up motorcycle engines as a downbeat, is more in the vocal tradition she was raised in. It alludes to the pared-down instrumentation of classic flamenco—a guitar, a clap, a stomp—but the emotion is sampled and patched directly into her voice. She has a lot to say, and does so with the drama and intensity flamenco requires: On that song, she declaims powerfully about domestic abuse and the justifications abusers use, while the bad-romance arc comes to a climax. “Mucho más a mí me duele, de lo que a ti te está doliendo,” she sings: This hurts me more than it hurts you.

A studious sense of tradition pervades Rosalía’s approach on El Mal Querer. The narrative of the album is based on The Romance of Flamenca, a manuscript from the 13th century about a woman whose lover keeps her locked up in a tower—”el mal querer” can be translated to something like “the bad desire.” Perhaps this is a defiant rejoinder to those who might be resistant to a new take on a timeworn style. In “Reniego,” based on a classic flamenco melody, the production is pared down, and her soprano bursts like fireworks, electric and elastic, the agony and pull of destructive romance coursing through it. The melismas sound easy for her, as if to prove she can do it, before going down more experimental roads again, playing around with pop ballad-style synths, vocoder, and a cheeky allusion to reggaetón’s dembow pulse by way of flamenco handclaps. It’s an adventurous foray and deceptively pretty: None of this, from the way her voice sprints across her angular harmonies to the complex rhythm patterns that weave through them, is easy. With Rosalía's sense of grace, though, it sounds like it could be.

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