Back in 2017, Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia opened an article with the statement that by this time, it was no longer necessary to explain “who is Rosalía Vila.” The rest of the world may have taken a bit longer to notice, but the global eye is definitely watching her now. The past year was big for Rosalía, accomplishing feats of performing at major venues, like flamenco sacred ground Plaza de Colón. The show from last October, a packed crowd in Madrid singing along with her to the biggest hits from her second studio album, was the culmination of Rosalía’s senior thesis, and really, years of work, the impeccably choreographed, visual manifestation of El Mal Querer, that celebrated the album’s release. Her story charged ahead, landing in major music and culture magazines, and her voice found space on global reggaeton artist J Balvin’s latest album, Vibras. After winning the Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2017, Rosalía’s year of dedication to her music paid off in a handful of awards in 2018: Best Alternative Song and Best Urban/Fusion Performance (beating the remix of J Balvin and Willy William’s “Mi Gente,” which featured Beyonce), for “Malamente,” which was also nominated for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
Rosalía’s unique sound bends flamenco in the hand of tight pop production, making the otherwise free-flowing style adaptable and attractive to the modern ear. Flamenco, as much a type of music as it is dance, is considered an intangible cultural heritage in Andalucía, the southern region of Spain by UNESCO. Many Spanish children grow up taking classes, learning to sing and perform flamenco, but Rosalía’s love for music turned to focus on flamenco later in life.
You have to learn the rules before you can break them, and Rosalía has earned that, studying under a flamenco master for eight years and graduating from the esteemed Catalonia School of Music. Her first album, Los Ángeles, landed closer to traditional flamenco, with little of the vocal distortion or the electronic and hip hop influences present on El Mal Querer, released in November of 2018.
A big feature of change between the albums is the move away from the Spanish guitar, a staple of typical flamenco. Vocal harmonies and choral elements, like the chorus on “Pienso en Tu Mirá,” which is sung by a group of young women from a public school in Madrid’s Ventilla neighborhood, hold the focus, which was an intentional move by Rosalía, who wanted to explore the colors and textures of layered vocal arrangements. Retention of classic rhythmic elements, like palmas (hand-clapping) and the cajon, as well as the unmistakably flamenco vocals on the majority of the tracks keep the album connected to tradition, but the minimalist production pushes it both in the direction of pop and trap.
The features that make El Mal Querer so unique are pushed further by the visual elements of Rosalía’s persona. Usually wearing a mix of avant garde street wear, styled by her sister, stylist Daikyri, Rosalía’s music videos and live performances interpret quintessentially Spanish imagery in abruptly modern contexts, like her storming through a matador’s flag on a dirtbike. This juxtaposition of tradition and boundary-breaking found in her songs is captured perfectly in the videos for “Malamente” and “Pienso en Tu Mirá,” the two singles from El Mal Querer. The narrative arc of the album is drawn from a 13th century tragedy called “Romance of Flamenca” — a love story gone wrong, in which a woman’s obsessive, jealous husband imprisons her to keep her away from the world. In the video for “Pienso en Tu Mirá,” this story plays out with Rosalía as the protagonist, but set in an industrial, trucking town, much like the one she grew up in.
A twist of progressive production and unexpected elements, like a revving motorcycle engine and a nod to a Justin Timberlake track (“Cry Me a River” on “Bagdad”), capture all the darkness and melancholy of the genre and lyrics, but place them in a completely fresh context. The production comes from El Guincho (performance name of Pablo Diez-Reixa), but under the heavy direction of Rosalía herself. “I compose, produce, arrange — I don’t just perform,” [she says.] “I’m playing keyboards, playing bass, doing everything. At the end of the day, I’m the one working my fingers to the bone” (Pitchfork). She only recently signed to Sony Music, after recording her first two albums without a label, but still controls her image and output. “Rosalía is the complete opposite of an artist designed by the industry. [She is] authentic and original. It’s her who decides every single detail.” said Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who pulled Rosalía into an upcoming film of his and also reportedly cried upon hearing her rendition of traditional flamenco ballad “La Hija de Juan Simón” (NY Times, Rolling Stone).
Flamenco is passionate and arresting, communicating depth and longing in a way that at once strikes the audience as the same loss and desire humans throughout history have been searching for. Rosalía’s powerful voice and presence make that history shine through, even as her respect for tradition and her pursuit of authenticity push the genre forward. “I learned the tradition. I learned all the rules,” she says. “But I have to be transparent with how I understand flamenco here and now, with who I am, with my references, with my age, with the moment I am living.”
“I love flamenco…But I think of any genre as a snow globe — you don’t admire it for its stillness. You have to shake it up and see how it explodes” (Rolling Stone).
In the words of Pitchfork: “More than any other artist, Rosalía is asking what it means to be young and Spanish in a country pulled in two directions at once, split between regional identity and globalization’s siren song.” But she’s not the only one coming up on the surface of Spain’s wave of identity exploration via music.
Recommended Tracks: Malamente, Pienso en Tu Mirá, Bagdad, De Aquí No Sales
Originally published at www.theintersection.co.