Flamenco singer-turned-international star Rosalía opens her new album with a hymn to change. “Yo me transformo”, she chants on “Saoko” in the middle of arrangements that will make their castanets click with fury. There’s a sampled hook of “Saoco,” a 2004 reggaeton anthem by Daddy Yankee and Wisin. The bassline sounds like a pumped-up version of Cypress Hill’s “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That.” A jazz breakdown in the bridge illustrates the burning of metaphorical bridges with musical traditionalists. Meanwhile, the Spanish singer can be heard giggling to herself.
Motomami is his third album. The first, that of 2017 Los Angeles, applied a dark alt-pop glaze to the classic flamenco vocal and acoustic guitar setup. His follow-up 2018 El Mal Querer pushed modernization several steps further. Although inspired by a medieval Occitan romance, its story of a woman fleeing a dangerous relationship was a thoroughly 21st century undertaking. Flamenco handclaps were accompanied by electronic beats. The quavering vocals were given the computerized chirp of Auto-Tune.
El Mal Querer was the most listened album in the history of Spanish Spotify and won a Grammy Award in the United States. But Rosalía’s success has not gone without complaint in her homeland. There have been complaints that the singer, real name Rosalia Vila Tobella, hails from Catalonia, not the Andalusian heartland of music. Accusations of appropriation have been leveled against her, centering on the Romani roots of flamenco.
As is often the case in music, such purism sits ill with the genre itself, which is no stranger to adoption and assimilation. As Michael Denning points out in Noise uplift, his intriguing book on the internationalization of local musical styles in the 1920s, microphones altered the very sound of flamenco, allowing guitarists to play a greater role as soloists. The first flamenco record made with electrical amplification was released by a British label in 1927. Recorded in Barcelona, it featured one of Rosalía’s heroines, singer Pastora Pavón, aka La Niña de los Peines.
This process of change acquires a turbocharged character in Motomami. Its 16 tracks are nervous, constantly jumping between moods and sounds. After the provocative “Saoko”, “Candy” switches to a softer and more emotional mode. “La Fama” is a seductive duet in the Latin American bachata genre with The Weeknd (who sings fluently in Spanish). In “Bulerías”, Rosalía delivers an outspoken lead voice in traditional flamenco fashion over simple rhythms and a male chorus of background shouts, like in a 1920s cafe cantante.
Another kind of platformer comes to mind with “Chicken Teriyaki” and “Bizcochito,” whose catchy, offbeat energies have distinctly TikTok reach. “Genís” is a heavily sung electronic ballad that bears the influence of another of his inspirations, James Blake. He arrives in person on “Diablo”, a track that ingeniously makes the difference between Radiohead and reggaeton. Ending with an old-school torch song, “Sakura,” Rosalía charts a bold course through these volatile musical coordinates, holding it all together with a set of engaged, theatrical performances. The archetype of the intrepid flamenco singer lives on.
‘Motomami‘ is published by Columbia