‘Camila’: Cabello’s debut album is less spicy than bitter (review)

No one was surprised when Camila Cabello quit Fifth Harmony in December 2016 to become a solo artist. The then-19 year old was the X Factor girl group’s most talked-about star, and she had even recorded hit singles with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly as a featured solo artist.

But the Cuban American starlet maintains that it wasn’t fame that led to her decision to quit. The singer-songwriter was dying to unleash her artistry within, and it eventually amounted to her self-titled debut album Camila, which was released in January this year.

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Repressed in a manufactured girl group that for four years crooned formulaic pop melodies written by other songwriters, Camila initially set out to create an album the complete opposite of that Fifth Harmony sound. Even before it was finished, she already had a tragically emotional longwinded title: The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving., one she went around plugging in almost every interview.

Her first solo single, “Crying in the Club” dropped in May last year to kick-start the album. The Sia-penned midtempo dance song, produced in the vein of Ed Sheeran’s tropical smash hit “Shape of You”, was grim and foreboding, setting the initial tone of her darkly-titled debut album. Its extended music video even attaches another album track as an interlude: “I Have Questions”, a sorrowful ballad on violin.

But when “Crying in the Club” failed to catch onto pop radio, it was mayday back in the office for Camila’s record label, Syco, which was also representing the remainder of Fifth Harmony. Clearly Camila was no Beyoncé or Cheryl Cole, who left their girl groups with a chart-destroying solo debut.

In August, Camila issued a pair of promotional singles to test the waters and find her sound. Released together were “OMG”, a hip hop collaboration with Quavo, and “Havana”, an upbeat Latin pop song featuring Young Thug. “OMG” was intended as the next full-fledged single, but when radio embraced its spicy sister, Camila and Syco channeled their energy to the Latin bop.

You could say it was an accidental success, but “Havana” was always going to be a success. While “Crying in the Club”‘s tropical sound kept up with the trend, it was too brooding to blast on repeat. On the flip side, “Havana” was fun and authentic to Camila’s heritage (she was born in East Havana in 1997.) It’s not my favorite song, but I get why people love it.

Conveniently, another Latin pop song had conquered the charts earlier in 2017: Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”, which tied Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” as the longest-running number-one single of all-time. “Havana” wasn’t half as big, but it shot to #2 in December and eventually secured the top spot in January this year. Like Beyoncé and Cheryl, the girl’s

“Havana” also laid the groundwork for a major overhaul on Camila’s debut album. The island sound had worked where the moody, dark one didn’t, so half those tracks were tossed out the window to make room for new ones. “Crying in the Club”, “I Have Questions”, “OMG” and a few songs she’d teased over the year were sacrificed, including collaborations with Charli XCX and Ryan Tedder. Not spared was the album’s depressing title, which was renamed simply to Camila.

As a result, some of the songs on her debut album, which went to #1 in the quiet month of January this year, have traces of “Havana”‘s acoustic flavour.

It’s most obvious on the spicy “She Loves Control”, where Camila sings about an unbroken woman to a reggae production (“she doesn’t cry anymore, no looking back.”) “Inside Out”, the Caribbean pop song with calypso-influenced steel drums, is melodic but generic. It could’ve been easily a leftover track from a Fifth Harmony album.

That said, Camila remains the now-21 year old’s first autobiographic record. The songwriter still kept a few songs that capture the tribulation she’s experienced so far, except their productions now align to the acoustic island genre.

On the album’s second track “All These Years”, sung mostly to simple guitar strums, Camila recalls a former lover she recently encountered again: “‘couldn’t help but overhear you. Sounds like you’re happy with her.” Its style takes a leaf from Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”.

The song is sonically similar similar to “Real Friends”, easily the best track on the album by a mile (and then some). Also minimalist, with an acoustic guitar and hand claps, Camila sings about the loneliness in her life (“I’m just looking for some real friends. All they ever do is let me down.”)

The song was the last written for Camila, which was well past the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards. That night, her former bandmates dissed her with a performance that ejected off the stage what had appeared to be their fifth member. “It definitely hurt my feelings,” Camila told Billboard. No wonder she wrote a song about it, even though she’s openly denied it.

“Consequences” and “Something’s Gotta Give” are piano ballads with varying orchestration, but I’m more perturbed by the singer’s unpolished vocals. Camila has always been the most nasal and piercing singer in Fifth Harmony. On her solo records, the climactic lines unveil the amount of work she needs to put in to avoid assaulting our ears.

There are only three urban tracks on the album, perhaps the only survivors of when the album used to be The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving, and none of them play to Camila’s strengths.

“In The Dark” is whiny and forgettable (“who are you in the dark?”). And singing “ooh” has never sounded this bad until “Into It”, a dance-R&B song that otherwise sounds alright.

But the worst of the three, or any song on Camila’s debut album, is the opening track “Never Be The Same”, the deadliest possible manifestation of Camila’s original desolate sound.

The song, which bizarrely became the album’s second single, begins with a groggy, synthesized piano key that drags through the verses. Things turn cancerous at the annoying pre-chorus sung in falsetto, where Camila name checks various narcotics: “nicotiiine! Heroiiin! Morphiiine!”

Overall, Camila is a debut album that needs refinement. Its sonic overhaul catalyzed by “Havana”‘s unprecedented success split the album into two major sounds and moods, the spicier of which greatly triumphs the bleaker, introspective other half. Only “Real Friends”, the song’s best songwriter-y offering is an indisputable gem.

The singer’s vocals also need tremendous work if she wants to continue recording more ballads. Her pitch is striking, and not in a good way.

In the future, we can look back at Camila as a lucky record led by one big jam. And this future isn’t too far away. There’s no doubt 2019 will see a sophomore album, one which will hopefully be stronger.

Rating: 2½/5

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