Looking at any commercial music chart currently, the presence of Spanish-speaking artists is a strong one - a great example of a cultural takeover that is proving itself to be a long-lasting one. The huge successes of artists including Cardi B, J. Balvin and of course, Daddy Yankee with Despacito, over the last few years is testament to the irresistible nature of this fusion of trap, hip-hop and reggaeton, but coming in hot on their heels is a young Catalan singer who is bringing with her a fiery virtuosity from the south of Spain - her name is Rosalía.
At only 25, the singer has propelled herself onto a global radar as not simply a dynamic force in Spanish pop, but as a formidable artist who has crossed international language boundaries with her vibrant auteurism, and experimental representations of flamenco music.
Particularly with her latest record El mal querer, Rosalía approaches her craft inquisitively and boldly; the foundation of the album stretches back centuries, the material a conceptual exploration inspired by a 13th century romance text, Flamenca. Themes of toxic relationships abound in the text and the record, however Rosalía’s head-turning work with El mal querer demands attention for its intricate and nuanced visuals as it does its sharply addictive musicality.
The album’s artwork is an immediate example of Rosalía’s delve into Spanish iconography - portrayed by Filip Custic as a heavenly figure; indeed the purity depicted in the imagery is one that is further explored and contrasted further on El mal querer with great effect.
The first single from El mal querer, Malamente, opens the record and in doing so, kicks the door open on an album of passionate music. It’s the music video, though, that captures the strength and charisma of Rosalía’s unique vision. A man in a traditional capirote (a hood worn during Spanish Holy Week) rides a skateboard with nails. Rosalía herself rides a motorbike as a man - a modern bullfighter - taunts her as if she was the bull.
Where Malamente represents omens and predictions, the third ‘chapter’ of El mal querer also had a bombastic visual delivered alongside - PIENSO EN TU MIRá - a chapter that details infatuation and jealousy. As a follow up to Malamente, PIENSO EN TU MIRá continues Rosalía’s contrasts of the delicate with the abrasive: a plastic flamenco doll swings from the rearview mirror of a truck, which eventually crashes into a brick wall.
Truck drivers are depicted with their metal beasts, blood spreading out from their chests, referencing the song’s chorus (translated to English, ‘I think of your gaze/Your gaze/Is a bullet stuck in my chest’). Further on, Rosalía is in front of these trucks with her squad of dancers. As she sings, decked out in gorgeous streetwear, Rosalía is followed closely and surrounded by men pointing guns and machetes at her.
By contrasting provocative imagery with strong pop choreography that Rihanna would be proud of, Rosalía positions herself within an interesting space. There has been opposition to her use of Gitano culture and religious imagery while at the same time, Spanish media has also lauded her as an innovator, bringing flamenco into a whole new era.
What Rosalía has done is prove the enduring passionate nature of her Catalan history in bringing it, side-stepping and body-rolling, into 2019. With El mal querer, she tells the same story of a doomed relationship and studies the effects of jealousy as was told in the 13th century, but in doing so, Rosalía applies 2019 flair to it. The heartbreak chapter, Bagdad, has Rosalía (portraying a stripper), in a grimy toilet cubicle filling up with her own tears. Di mi nombre (Say My Name) incorporates Spanish gypsy culture into its hook, while the delicate clapping backing it is another example of Rosalía’s flamenco roots never being too far from the modern R&B surface.
Rosalía’s artistry is one built on taking roads less travelled. Her hybrid of pop balladry, downbeat R&B and almost syncopated flamenco beats is matched by layered and visually striking companion pieces that can stand strong on their own. She demonstrates curiosity, ambition and a bold desire to lean back into the musical and cultural traditions that formed her upbringing and training, in bringing such beautiful complexities to an audience more eager than before to catch a vibe on a new flavour not available in their own backyard.