The Week In Pop

Welcome To Superstardom, Camila Cabello

Camila Cabello stuck the landing so emphatically that it’s easy to forget she leapt in the first place. This time last year the 20-year-old Cuban-Mexican singer from Miami was fresh out of Fifth Harmony, her generation’s most popular girl group, assembled by Simon Cowell from an array of teenage strangers on the short-lived American edition of The X Factor. Cabello’s departure was acrimonious but understandable given her rising profile and a rapidly expanding catalog of quality solo tracks that pegged her as a household name in the making.

Cabello had been the first member of Fifth Harmony to score a solo hit (with the Shawn Mendes collaboration “I Know What You Did Last Summer”) and was on her way to matching the group’s best performance on the Billboard Hot 100 (with the Machine Gun Kelly duet “Bad Things”). She was guesting on tracks by big-name producers like Cashmere Cat and Major Lazer and seeking outlets to explore her own creativity outside the restrictive confines of a girl group. Superstardom seemed inevitable.

A year later, on the eve of her debut album, it has come to pass: Cabello is now such a prominent figure in mainstream pop that her girl-group backstory is largely fading out of memory. And this is coming from someone who’s always had a lot of good things to say about the girl group in question. Fifth Harmony were never exactly Destiny’s Child, but they have quite a few bangers to their name. They made “Work From Home.” They made “Sledgehammer.” They made the criminally underrated “BO$$.” Cabello’s history with the group is not some embarrassing chapter to be erased. Yet at a time when her absence has become the only interesting storyline Fifth Harmony have left, Fifth Harmony has come to feel like a footnote in Cabello’s own narrative.

This could have gone much differently. Last May, riding high on the success of “Bad Things,” Cabello released “Crying In The Club,” the lead single from her debut album The Hurting, The Healing, The Loving. It peaked at #47 and flopped as much as a song with nearly 125 million YouTube views can be considered a flop. At the very least it was enough of a failure that eight months later the album has a different title (Camila) and “Crying In The Club” isn’t on it — not even as a bonus track.

That song, which Cabello cowrote with Sia and Benny Blanco, was an above-average bit of dark, melodramatic dancehall-pop with production that artfully nodded toward her Latin roots, but it never found an audience beyond the fiercely loyal fan base she inherited from Fifth Harmony. It didn’t much help that the video began with a lengthy prologue built around a different, less immediate track called “I Have Questions.” The tearful ballad, which wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the video’s YouTube description, may have tested viewers’ patience and caused some confusion about what her single actually sounded like — or at least that was my own experience.

Here’s where Cabello’s career path reminds us how much the music industry can function like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Had “Crying In The Club” caught fire, maybe we’d have gotten the album she originally envisioned, one defined by heartbreak and recovery. Instead, the album experienced the usual delays and revisions incurred by a failed lead single, which brought on another fork in the road: In some other timeline, such stumbles might have multiplied until Cabello’s album was released without buzz or shelved indefinitely. In this dimension, she converted what seemed like a roadblock into extra runway to continue reshaping and improving her project. It was not unlike when fellow Floridian teen-celebrity survivor Ariana Grande rolled out “Focus,” the lead single from her album Moonlight, only to watch it brick. Grande retreated to the lab and reemerged months later with the title track from her new album Dangerous Woman, essentially pretending the whole “Focus” thing never happened.

Cabello pulled a similar maneuver, but she handed over the next choice in her Choose Your Own Adventure to the fans. In August she returned with two more singles, each one an improvement over “Crying In The Club.” Although both tracks paired her with massively popular Atlanta rappers, they were markedly different exercises. The Charli XCX cowrite “OMG” was a slow-creeping trap-pop production built around the appealing chorus “Oh my God! You look good today,” featuring the suddenly ubiquitous Migos leader Quavo doing his usual Auto-Tuned ad-libs and non-sequiturs. “Havana,” meanwhile, was more like hip-hop salsa music, a sly and seductive story-song buoyed by cowriter Pharrell’s signature vibrancy and a typically weird guest verse from Young Thug. By releasing them at the same time, Cabello seemed to be crowdsourcing her next stab at a lead single.

It worked. “Havana” has become far and away her biggest hit, dominating at radio and lingering for weeks at #2 on the Hot 100. In retrospect it’s an obvious winner: sneakily catchy and contagiously slinky, with a central piano riff that swings like graceful hips and a casual, conversational vocal performance that occasionally darts into high drama. Even before Cabello released a remix with Daddy Yankee, “Havana” was perfectly timed to capitalize on the massive popularity of “Despacito.” In the loosest sense, here was another seamless blend of hip-hop and Latin pop, yet built from such different strains of hip-hop and Latin pop that it would always stand alone as its own thing. Furthermore, its stupendously fun video by Kendrick Lamar collaborator Dave Meyers — in which Cabello plays multiple roles including a primped telenovela actress, a geeky fangirl, and a svelte young woman gliding across a Cuban dance floor — confirmed the star power suggested by her trashy noir turn in “Bad Things.”

This time a lengthy video intro worked in her favor: a short story so delightfully immersive that it almost turned the monster single it was promoting into a secondary concern. The clip has been viewed well over 400 million times. Meanwhile “Havana” has been the most played song on pop radio for the past seven weeks, the longest such streak in five years. The groundwork is laid for Camila to be a blockbuster success. Even if the album doesn’t spin off any more hits, “Havana” alone should be enough to propel it to the top of the Billboard 200 and cement Cabello’s status as an A-list pop star. Frankly, though, the prospect of no more hits from Camila seems unlikely. Although it’s a crime she left “OMG” off the tracklist, there’s plenty of radio bait to fill the vacuum once “Havana” finally subsides.

Perhaps reflexively rejecting the grandiosity of “Crying In The Club,” Camila feels intentionally compact and small-scale, less an Event Album in the Lemonade sense than a concise portfolio of potential singles. She recently told Zane Lowe she changed the album title and left off so many of her early solo tracks because she was leaving that period of personal tumult in the past. What remains is crisp and focused, engineered for world domination at a time when the sound of pop has become decidedly thin and ephemeral. The album exists in the omnivorous but streamlined sonic environment common to top-40 radio right now, cohesive in its air-light agility but with enough leeway to lean into various genres.

That’s exemplified by the two advance tracks Cabello shared in her latest double drop: Lovestruck album opener “Never Be The Same” is surging, synth-powered festival-core that could almost pass for indie rock with the right marketing plan. On the other hand, “Real Friends” is a spare, simple guitar tune, like Justin Bieber’s Selena Gomez kiss-off “Love Yourself” re-imagined in Gomez’s own airy aesthetic. It’s one of several tracks that seem to reference Cabello’s falling out with Fifth Harmony — “I’m just looking for some real friends/ All they ever do is let me down” — and one of a few to embrace naked minimalism, along with the similarly guitar-driven “All These Years” and a wistful piano ballad called “Consequences.” Another piano-powered lament, “Something’s Gotta Give,” begins modestly before blooming into emotional theatrics.

“Havana” is sandwiched by two other Latin-tinged club tracks, the reggaeton banger “She Loves Control” (a fitting anthem for a singer who told The New York Times she chose a solo career because “if anyone wants to explore their individuality, it’s not right for people to tell you no”) and the booming, skittering Caribbean flirtation “Inside Out.” The trip-hop excursion “In The Dark” sounds bathed in the same blacklight that once illuminated Sneaker Pimps. And perhaps no song on Camila seems more earmarked to follow “Havana” into ubiquity than the brisk, rhythmically charged album closer “Into It,” an effortlessly catchy come-on built from lyrics like, “I’m not a psychic, but I see myself all over you.” Aggressive synth swells, soft neon curlicues, and a motion-compelling digital drum loop add up to a refreshing jolt of energy. It sounds, to quote Cabello’s own recent contribution to the Bright soundtrack, like someone running for the crown.

CHART WATCH

The Greatest Showman had a good night at the Golden Globes, taking home the award for Best Original Song, and now Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum biopic’s week has gotten even better. The soundtrack rises to #1 on the Billboard 200 this week with 106,000 equivalent album units and 78,000 in pure album sales. Per Billboard, it’s the first movie soundtrack to hit #1 since Pitch Perfect 2 in May 2015. Also, this tidbit:

Collectively, The Greatest Showman’s Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron have been a part of four different chart-topping soundtracks. Efron performed on the companion albums to both High School Musical (2006) and High School Musical 2 (2007) and Jackman was featured on Les Miserables (2013).

The rest of the top 10 is filled with familiar titles and no debuts. Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, G-Eazy, and Kendrick Lamar comprise 2-5, while Eminem, Imagine Dragons, Post Malone, Huncho Jack (Quavo & Travis Scott), and Khalid round out the chart’s upper tier.

The Hot 100 top 10 is a bit more active. Although Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé’s “Perfect Duet” remains at #1 for a fifth straight week, as mentioned above, Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” is back up to its #2 peak largely thanks to continued radio saturation. That bumps Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” down to #3. Similarly, Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” returns to its #4 high, nudging G-Eazy, A$AP Rocky, and Cardi B’s “No Limit” to #5.

Halsey’s “Bad At Love” climbs to a new #6 peak, followed by Sam Smith’s persistent “Too Good At Goodbyes” at #7. Migos, Cardi B, and Nicki Minaj’s “MotorSport” is at #8, Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” is at #9, and Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” remains at #10, giving her two weeks straight with three songs in the top 10. Just outside the top 10 is Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” at #11. Don’t be surprised to see that one hit the top 10 next week. And with Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” remix entering at #35 based on one day’s worth of plays, that one will probably rocket to the top 10 next week too.

POP FIVE

Justin Timberlake – “Filthy”
This may qualify as a hot take, especially around these parts, but I think “Filthy” is interesting and enjoyable. It’s kind of obnoxious, yes, and it lacks a proper melody, sure, but I can’t deny my appreciation for the heaving post-dubstep future funk sound Timbaland and Danja came up with. “SexyBack” sounded weird and bad when it first dropped, too, so let’s give Timberlake’s latest awkward opening blast a little time to ingratiate itself. In the meantime, this music-critic Twitter thread offers some illuminating debate.

Liam Payne & Rita Ora – “For You (Fifty Shades Freed)”
The drop in quality from “Love Me Like You Do” to “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” to this song is like a little sonic parable about the trajectory of most blockbuster movie trilogies.

Troye Sivan – “My My My!”
Queer heartthrob Troye Sivan seems due for a breakout year, and “My My My!” might be what sets it off. It strikes a perfect balance between ’80s pop revivalism and modern-day aesthetics, and that hook is just magnificent.

Fall Out Boy – “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)”
Fall Out Boy may never have released a song this loose. Usually their music courses with an intensity that makes my whole body clench up, but “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)” just floats along. It has one of their signature humongous choruses, but even that feels so much less intrusive than usual, which is a nice change of pace. That said, LOL @ “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color.”

Steve Aoki & Lauren Jauregui – “All Night”
It seems like the music industry is eager to make Lauren Jauregui the next big solo star from Fifth Harmony, but hopefully not on the back of this garbage. (For superior Jauregui, try her turn on Halsey’s “Strangers.”)

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Jack Antonoff and Lena Dunham have broken up. [E!]
  • Ellie Goulding’s fourth album is coming this year. [Instagram]
  • Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, Little Big Town, Pink, Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, Kesha, Bruno Mars & Cardi B, and SZA are among the first performers announced for the Grammy Awards on 1/28. [Grammys]
  • Pink will also sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl next month. [Rolling Stone]
  • Dua Lipa apologized for using the n-word in a 2014 Mila J cover that recently resurfaced. [Billboard]
  • Fox’s reality competition series The Four — starring Fergie, DJ Khaled, Diddy, and Meghan Trainor — launched with modest ratings. [THR]
  • Noah Cyrus released a colorful video for her One Bit collab “My Way.” [Vevo]
  • Kygo, Marshmello, and Zedd will headline this year’s Shaky Beats festival. [Shaky Beats]
  • The Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack will have new songs from Julia Michaels, Sia, Hailee Steinfeld x BloodPop®, plus Jamie Dorman covering “Maybe I’m Amazed.” [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME