If the younger members of your family have started taking an unusually precocious interest in Cuban immigration and visa policy, there’s a reason for that: Camila Cabello’s “Havana” became the fluke hit of late 2017 and is looking to continue its run well into the año nuevo. There aren’t many other flourishes from the land of Cabello’s birth on “Camila,” her first solo album, so it was a stroke of possibly accidental genius to sense a huge hit in a blithely tropical song about a gal who left her heart in a less easily retrievable place than San Francisco. It’s a savvy enough Latin pastiche to make perfect sense in the “Despacito” age, even if the Cuban-born upstart’s ode to her homeland has her sounding less like Celia Cruz than Selena Gomez, the singer she’s most primed to compete against.
Did we use the word “fluke” for the massive success of “Havana”? Wasn’t Cabello’s breakthrough preordained, ever since she made headlines by scandalously shaking herself free from her former girl group, Fifth Harmony? Well, yes and no. Both she and her exes have enjoyed a level of fame not always commensurate with their actual chart successes, and three of the songs that Cabello put out as radio or promo singles in 2017 (including the tune that was pegged as her debutant anthem, “Crying in the Club”) were received so tepidly that they didn’t even make the cut for “Camila.” It’s not surprising that it was the most unique song in her arsenal that made her a star for her music, not famous for being part of a purported feud.
What’s maybe most unexpected about “Camila,” beyond its outlier single, is how the overarching tone doesn’t match up with the narrative we’ve all constructed for Cabello in our heads — the one where we’ve been primed to think of her as the alpha female of the Fifth Harmony story. Isn’t it the prima donna who breaks off from the pack? Looking at her from that point of view, the middle-aged biography to come almost writes itself: “Call Her Miss Cabello.” There’s just one problem with her place in this template, and it’s that, on the new album, she actually sounds like kind of a sweetheart — or at least doesn’t come off as a diva, in either the belter or the queen-bee sense of the word. There’s a good-natured guilelessness to a lot of “Camila” (and compared with the album Fifth Harmony recently put out, a lack of aggressive sexuality) that kind of makes you believe she’s more normal gal than steely careerist. Maybe the meek will inherit the earth, or at least the post-split mantle, after all.
Through most of last year, “Camila” was supposed to carry the unwieldy title “The Hurting, the Healing, the Loving” and bear much more sad material. It’d be interesting to hear that version of an album that’s clearly been through a lot of tinkering and sequencing, especially if some of what got chucked was more autobiographical about her recent career turns. But it doesn’t feel like she and executive producer Frank Dukes made the wrong decision to jettison some of the dark stuff and bookend the release with more carefree material. In the middle, you still get some encouragingly reflective songs, most notably the acoustic guitar-accompanied “Real Friends,” which lets her get just enough woe out of her system about how you can’t trust anyone in the music business. (Any correlation to real people or events is undoubtedly coincidental.) As a listener, you may be grateful for those future growth markers, but also glad for tracks as unpretentiously chipper as “Into It,” the saucy one of the bunch, or “Never Be the Same,” which has been set as the next single.
“Never Be the Same” proves that Cabello doesn’t need a mammoth voice. The love-is-a-drug lyric she’s singing is dumb, but she sells it so joyfully that you don’t even notice, and its wonderfully breathy, high-register hook ensures “Havana” won’t be her last solo hit. If Cabello hasn’t turned out to be the domineering force of nature we imagined when she shook up Fifth Harmony, there’s as much to be said for a relatable sense of delight as a knack for disruption.