What does pop stardom look like in 2018? The supernovas are mostly busy doing other things: Beyoncé nesting with her babies in Malibu; Lady Gaga touring European sports arenas and shooting movies with Bradley Cooper; Rihanna building her cosmetics empire, one lip luminizer at a time. Even Taylor Swift, who emerged from self-imposed exile at the tail end of 2017 with the blockbuster reputation, seems determined to swerve from her lane.
But every varsity team has a JV squad waiting in the wings, and so goes the music industry too: the Selenas and Halseys and Cardi Bs who keep the Hot 100 churning. At 20, Camila Cabello is already an industry veteran; as a member of Fifth Harmony, the made-for-TV girl group formed in front of America’s eyes on The X Factor circa 2012 (they finished third), she racked up a series of bright, bouncy singles: “Worth It,” “BO$$,” “Work From Home.” Then came the inevitable reports of infighting and social-media discord, a very public exit from the band in late 2016, and the immediate announcement of a solo debut to follow.
If the Harmony era ended with a bang, Camila lands with something much more like a whisper. Not because it’s not hyped — her record label, Epic, has hardly failed to promote it — but because it feels like a much smaller, more intimate album than you might expect from last year’s high-gloss collaborations with the likes of Pitbull, Shawn Mendes, and Machine Gun Kelly and the shuddering early single “Crying in the Club.” (Tellingly, that song doesn’t even make the final cut.) Instead, the Cuban-born, Miami-bred singer trades strobe lights for a warmer glow: swooning over an addictive lover on the airily falsettoed opener “Never Be the Same,” yearning for the one who got away on the stripped-back “All These Years,” dipping into lite reggaeton on the drum-dusted “She Loves Control.” The ubiquitous radio single “Havana,” with its hypnotic piano thump, gruff Young Thug cameo, and hip-swaying na-na-nas, may be the closest Camila comes to a banger, and it hardly bothers sashaying all the way onto the dance floor.
Cabello’s voice isn’t especially distinctive, but it’s instinctually pretty: effortless and warm, with an edge of morning-after rasp. When she slips in and out of Spanish on songs like the breezy tropical promise “Inside Out,” it feels organic, not market-tested — even as the album’s back half slides into resting-heart-rate tempo with a series of shimmery ballads (it begins to make sense why the original title was The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving). Reportedly, Cabello spent extended time in the studio with topline hitmakers like Stargate, Max Martin, and Diplo. The decision to leave nearly all of them off the final roster might not be shrewd career planning, but at least it makes Camila sweetly, defiantly her own. B+