Rosalía reserves the right to transform
By Joe Coscarelli
Rosalía, an experimental Spanish pop phenom with a reputation for hyperspeed reinvention, often finds herself solving intricate musical problems of her own making. How, for instance, might she blend reggaeton with jazz? Or flamenco with Auto-Tune?
How could she possibly slam machine-gun digital drums programmed by Tayhana, an Argentine producer in Mexico City, into a torch song meant to resemble Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”? Or warp a traditional Cuban ballad known as a bolero using an obscure Soulja Boy sample?
“Almost like a joke, right?” Rosalía said recently of her once-abstract propositions, during an afternoon at the North Hollywood studio where she recorded much of her new album, “Motomami,” which manages to include all of the above.
By now, three full-length releases into a career built on these kinds of cultural collisions, she is used to her collaborators looking at her with some confusion.
But Rosalía, 29, is not the type to embrace open-ended creative noodling, confident that something fresh will reveal itself. Instead, she tends to work from concrete daydreams, imagining in detail a finished product that combines as many of her artistic touchstones as possible while still feeling true to herself and original enough to transcend mere homage.
“I love all styles,” she said, in a generalization that also seemed like an understatement. “For me, it’s all at the same level.” Or put another way: “The context is everything” — foundational influences reanimated by a personal point of view. “I just want to hear something I haven’t heard before. That’s the intention always.”
Even when Rosalía is not literally using a sample — or a sample of a sample, as on her new song “Candy,” built upon Burial’s chopped-up deployment of a Ray J track — she is still borrowing. “It’s been forever that we, as humans, when we create, we sample,” she said. “From ideas comes another idea. When I see that Francis Bacon does a painting based on a Velázquez one, I think that’s sampling.
“As long as you do it with respect — and with love — I think it always makes sense,” she added.
This breadth of creative ambition has made Rosalía one of the most watched, worshipped, scrutinized, copied and counted on young artists in the world, despite the fact that she has never had a Top 40 hit in the United States. She has billions of plays on YouTube and Spotify, including those from collaborations with The Weeknd, Travis Scott and Billie Eilish. She has hung with the Kardashian-Jenners, made cameos in both a Pedro Almodóvar film and Cardi B’s “WAP” video, and covered fashion magazines across continents.
In the run-up to “Motomami,” out Friday, Rosalía appeared with Jimmy Fallon — teaching him how to roll the R in her name — and also on “Saturday Night Live,” where she performed alone and entirely in Spanish.
“Ultimately, her impact in culture is so much bigger than the cumulative of her streams,” said Rebeca León, Rosalía’s manager. “I see all the girls copying her in such a literal way. Not just girls in the Latin world — everywhere.”
The singer’s previous album, “El Mal Querer,” arrived fully formed in 2018, introducing Rosalía as a confident vanguardist updating the flamenco music she studied as a teenager in Catalonia for a globalized, digital era. (“Los Ángeles,” her 2017 debut, was a more traditional flamenco collection, although it ended with a cover of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See a Darkness.”)
But Rosalía’s widespread anointing as a world-building pop icon, a la Beyoncé or Rihanna — plus the commercial explosion worldwide of genre-pushing music in Spanish — meant that “Motomami” was being dissected before it even existed. A column that ran this year in “El País” included concerns that she had “pulled a ‘Miley Cyrus,’” going from lyrical Federico Garcia Lorca allusions to simplistic, dirty rhymes and oversharing on social media.
The truth is, Rosalía wants it all: to be erudite and avant-garde, sexy, silly and absurdist. In intense yet giggle-heavy Spanglish conversation, she drops references to Carl Jung’s “el inconsciente colectivo” — the collective unconscious — and her obsession with TikTok; in lyrics, she pledges allegiance to Niña Pastori, José Mercé and Willie Colón but also to Tego Calderón, Lil’ Kim and MIA.
On “Saoko,” a tribute to reggaeton pioneers Daddy Yankee and Wisin that opens “Motomami,” the singer is direct about her collagist, shape-shifting aims: “Yo me transformo,” she snarls — I transform. “I contradict myself,” she adds in Spanish. “I’m everything.” Elsewhere, Rosalía raps, “I think I’m Dapper Dan,” high fashion’s onetime bootlegging remixer.
While Rosalía released an album’s worth of one-off singles in the four years since “El Mal Querer,” she intricately plotted “Motomami” as a complete body of work with a distinct palette: no guitars (dominant as they were in her earlier music), “super aggressive” drums, and lots of keys but minimal vocal harmonies. Irony and humor were new additions to her thematic arsenal, the sex and swagger turned up.
“Almost frenetico,” she said of her vision — a roller coaster that swoops through the peaks and lows of love, fame and family, especially during the isolation of the pandemic. “That’s exactly how it feels all the time, being in this context, doing this work.”
And it is work. As chief singer, songwriter, producer, performer and art director of her project, Rosalía is at once a broad collaborator and an auteur overseeing every deliberate detail.
“I don’t care how small your contribution was to the song; I’m going to put it in the credits. That’s how confident I am as a musician,” she said. “But I know it’s detrimental to putting light on me as a producer. Because the moment people see men and a woman on a list, they assume — you know how it is.
“I’ve seen what happens to Björk. I’ve seen other women that have been through that. But the time I spend — 16 hours a day for months — that’s crazy.”
She tutted at the audacity of doubting “feminine creative forces.”
“How? Is this? Still? Happening?”
But her belief in the fruits of that labor — her knowledge that there is no opportunistic machine, no string-puller just out of frame — means that she will gamely take whatever licks and praise might come with being in charge and trying to stay on the cutting edge.
“I wish it was easier for me, that I just go to the studio, I sing a little bit, and I go,” Rosalía said. “But time will tell.”
She scoffed again, sounding increasingly sure of herself. “Time will tell.”