On a blistering summer day in 1922, thousands made their way to the palatial Alhambra fortress in Spain’s Andalusian region of Granada. They took their seats in the expansive Plaza de los Aljibes and, before a sweeping view of the caves of Sacromonte, watched a parade of singers compete in the first-ever Concurso de Cante Jondo—a competition spearheaded by the poet Federico García Lorca and the composer Manuel de Falla. It was an event that cracked expressions of flamenco open, as vocalists from all over the country showcased their rawest and most ardent renditions of the folkloric tradition.
While flamenco is a blend of Moorish, Jewish, Spanish, and Roma influences, it was primarily working-class Roma communities of Andalucía that popularized the style of song, dance, and guitar-playing. But by the 1920s, watered-down versions of the sound begun seeping into taverns, operas, and theaters. Intellectuals like Lorca and Falla feared that flamenco, which had been around for close to 150 years by then, would lose its artistic gravitas. They hoped to rekindle the genre by hosting a contest for singers who understood cante jondo (or “deep song”), one of the most solemn and respected varieties of flamenco.
The concurso generated new performers and ultimately helped create an appreciation of cante jondo that resonates today. But it also underscored the challenges that plague flamenco even now: How could artists safeguard traditions in the face of ever-changing musical landscapes? Was there a commercial path via which the genre’s authenticity could be preserved? As flamenco found mainstream recognition over the ensuing decades, these questions trailed musicians who tried to strike a balance between contemporary sounds and the rigorous musical practice. To date, no one has provided answers with as much creativity as the 25-year-old Catalan singer Rosalía, a gutsy, rule-defying renegade whose latest album, El Mal Querer (The Bad Love), smashes flamenco apart without losing sight of its spirit.
Rosalía’s striking brand of Old and New World traditions has made her the breakout darling in Latin music, and easily one of the most compelling Spanish-language acts in recent years. Before she tore onto the scene, she had steeped herself in a grueling study of flamenco for nearly a decade. She encountered the style of music at 13 and remembers it blasting out of cars near her school—her memory illustrates how flamenco has connected with younger generations. Eager to immerse herself in the discipline, she trained with maestro José Miguel “El Chiqui” Vizcaya before earning her degree through a program at L’Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya that accepts only one student a year. Like Lorca and Falla, Rosalía views flamenco as a very serious art form. “To learn flamenco is to swallow your pride,” she said in a recent interview with Pitchfork.
But Rosalía isn’t a purist: Rather, she’s using her rigorous training to remake flamenco in her own image, crafting a daring strain that is firmly anchored in the 21st century. Last year, she released her debut album, Los Ángeles, which leaned on acoustic compositions by guitarist Raül Refree and showed off her skills as a classic cantaora. The songs’ structures have firm roots in flamenco, but Rosalía’s image and delivery felt refreshingly modern. She scored a Latin Grammy nomination for Best New Artist of 2017; collaborated with reggaeton’s reigning golden boy, J Balvin; and seized the attention of production maverick Pharrell Williams. Her second album, El Mal Querer, has become one of the most anticipated releases of 2018 in the Latin music world.
Rosalía’s bold proposition isn’t without controversy. Spanish critics have pointed out that the singer isn’t Andalusian or Romani in background, and they’ve accused her of appropriation, saying her songs don’t reflect “pure flamenco.” Rosalía has addressed the skeptics by saying she has tried to make her sound personal and current. “I try to do flamenco in tune with the moment that I’m living in, here and now,” she told Billboard.
That sense of “here and now” is all over El Mal Querer, an ambitious, atmospheric concept album that dropped earlier this month and sees Rosalía mining trap, R&B, and neo-soul for minimal bass lines, shadowy beats, and the occasional dip into Auto-Tune. Some of the artist’s urge to dive into new genres was the result of Rosalía’s collaboration with El Guincho, an electronic producer from Spain who has worked with Icelandic pop icon Björk, among others. But while there are spare synths and quiet loops, doled out carefully across the album, the foundation of each song is still flamenco: The percussion of nearly every track is built on palmas, flamenco’s essential style of hand-clapping.
The production helps fuse past and present, but it is Rosalía’s voice that ultimately does the heavy lifting. Her breathy harmonies wind through the music smoothly, yet her belting power carries forceful cante jondo songs. The album’s narrative arc is taken from Flamenca, a 13th-century, 8,095-line poem written in Occitan, one of Europe’s earliest Romance languages. In the text, a young woman is married off to a medieval lord in an extravagant, eight-day celebration. However, all-consuming jealousy overtakes the man, and he soon locks his wife in a tower, where he can keep a watchful eye on her.
The album’s story line, with its episodes of rage and sorrow and betrayal, lends itself astonishingly well to the intensity and melodrama associated with flamenco. Rosalía guides the theatrics by treating the songs like chapters. “Malamente” (“Badly”), for example, is also titled “Capitulo 1: Augurio,” or “Chapter 1: Omen.” The eerie, slightly off-kilter slice of deconstructed R&B opens the album with a premonition of how things will end in this story. Rosalía sings cryptically about stepping out alone into a strange, gloomy night, and it’s unclear where she is going until she declares, in the song’s final seconds, “I won’t waste another minute thinking about you again.” The track is a portrait of a woman who is running away from something—“bad, very bad, very bad, very bad”—and fast.
In a sudden, almost disorienting turn, the next track—“Que No Salga la Luna” (“Don’t Let the Moon Rise”)—bursts awake with a flurry of guitars and shifts the scene to an ornate wedding. Rosalía sings from the perspective of a groom who giddily admires his new bride: “What luck I had the day I found her.” A bulería form, one of flamenco’s fast rhythmic structures, makes the tempo vigorous and celebratory. Yet something foreboding lurks in the melody. In a background vocal, Rosalía begs someone—anyone, perhaps the listener—to object to the marriage. No one does.
The groom’s descent into madness begins on “Pienso en Tu Mirå” (“I Think About The Look In Your Eyes”), which is already among Rosalía’s most popular releases, having garnered over 20 million views on YouTube since July. The nimble pop anthem is punctuated by handclaps and chants from Madrid’s all-girl choir Milagros, whose upbeat, bouncy refrains provide a sharp contrast to the grim lyrics. “I dread when you go out / Smiling across the street / Because everyone can see,” she sings, marking the point at which the groom of El Mal Querer gives into destructive suspicions. As the female voices come together to chirp, “I think of your gaze, your gaze, like a bullet in the chest,” the track becomes an arresting meditation on the toxicity of the male gaze as such. The unsettling message embedded in the singsongy chorus exemplifies Rosalía’s ability to subvert the expectations of pop music.
At its core, El Mal Querer is an album dedicated to female agency, and Rosalía turns her focus to the woman suffering at the center of the story. “People passing by looked at her, but didn’t see her, alone in hell,” she sings on “Bagdad,” the haunting centerpiece of the album. Rosalía’s quavering vocal line is heartbreakingly high, illustrating the controlled melisma techniques of her flamenco training, as the sparse beat toys with the nostalgia of the early 2000s. The chorus interpolates Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” and Rosalía gives it a futuristic twist by distorting her vocals. The song is one of the clearest examples of how Rosalía pulls from the pop era she grew up in and the early days of flamenco, drawing from both worlds to create something that is new, forward-thinking, and emotionally stirring.
The last track on the album, “A Ningún Hombre” (“No Man”), is one final, formidable declaration of defiance. Through warbling Auto-Tune, Rosalía sings: “I’m going to tattoo the first letter of your name, because it is also mine, to remember what you once did.” The curtain closes, and a woman’s chilling promise to flourish while never forgetting the pain she’s endured becomes Rosalía’s last word. The song serves as a powerful reminder of Rosalía’s strength and autonomy as an artist, qualities that have positioned her to do more than just write an experimental chapter in flamenco’s history. With El Mal Querer, Rosalía pulls off an act of musical reinvention that’s nothing short of radical.