Sunday, January 14, 2018

Camila | Camila Cabello

Begging for the spotlight undivided, former Fifth Harmony descant vocalist Camila Cabello wanted a hit on her own terms. But instead of running right into one a few months after leaving the girl group, she backed into another accidentally.

Last May, she released what used to be a foolproof move for any artist in search of a quick hit: ye ole Sia-penned power pop anthem. "Crying in the Club" and subsequent buzz track "I Have Questions" painted her debut album, then announced as The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving., as a promising little pop juggernaut. But as the track smacked itself only in the middle of the Billboard Hot 100 and slid down from there, Cabello learned that a Sia signature cannot guarantee the hit she craved in the current popular landscape, which rap and hip-hop currently dominate.

Then came “Havana,” the hit that wasn’t supposed to be. A humid slice of the tropics that is unfortunately outfitted with an ill-fitting Young Thug verse, the infectious little tune was released as one-half of a double-sided promo single... until she realized that it fits the bill of a 2017 hit. In an obsession with numbers and commercial success, Cabello all but abandoned anything to have been released B.H. (before "Havana") and renamed her debut album to the simpler, less inflammatory Camila. And in doing so, she also reconfigured its contents to hold the same qualities.

With a total run time that clocks in at just over half an hour, Camila is a short, inoffensive cross-sectional of Ed Sheeran’s acoustic nonevents, ever-popular trap beats, and her own humid taste of the tropics. "Havana" is blessed with younger siblings "She Loves Control," what sounds like a spiced-up outtake from Selena Gomez, and “Inside Out,” an island-lite number. Elsewhere, the album becomes more reliant on ballads than it should be: stripped acoustic instrumentation and adequate (at best) vocal stamina make for low-voltage tracks like “Consequences” and “Real Friends.” So really, it’s short-sighted commercial pop music adorned in its finest 2018 garb.

Seeing that it’s incapable of producing bangers that ignite ("Into It" really does try, though) or ballads that drive a knife to the heart (power ballad "Never Be the Same" tries just as hard), the topical mid-tempo production falls stagnant quickly and leaves Cabello’s voice to float to the forefront. Once known as the shrill shriek that pushed its way to the front of the mix in every Fifth Harmony track, her voice is revealed to be, well, still a shrill shriek that can also dip and flutter on occasion. Sure, she’s capable of leaning (just barely) into some moodier notes and maintains primary residence in her less polarizing midrange, but otherwise, it’s just business as usual. 

Business as usual certainly isn’t out of the ordinary for Camila Cabello, though. She made it quite obvious from Fifth Harmony's beginning that solo stardom was the end goal; her time with a girl group, the industry's most notorious ticking time-bomb of self-destruction, was merely the vehicle to get there. And she got what she wanted: a worldwide hit and a solo album that is the musical equivalent to vanilla ice cream, the lowest common denominator of all foods. Yes, everyone will stomach it just fine, but it would sure be a hell of a lot better if somebody would have added a little something more to it.

Camila is available now under Epic Records.

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