‘Familia’ is Camila Cabello’s most personal project yet

Photo courtesy of rocor via Flickr.

Familia. Cuban-Mexican pop star and ex-Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello is back with a third studio album sonically grounded in her Latin roots, while (mostly) lyrically grounded in pop sensation, Shawn Mendes. The record features a mariachi band, rumba rhythms and Spanish lyrics that detail the beginning, middle and end of her two-year relationship and a tumultuous journey with anxiety. At first, “Familia” and its cover art of Cabello hugging her cousin feel misleading given that Mendes is the lyrical focal point in nine out of 12 tracks (one of which is instrumental). However, though the Spanish word for “family” may not be the perfect title, the project’s styles, instrumentation, stories, references and language pay so much homage to Cabello’s heritage that “Familia” does feel deserved after a few listens. The album is an extended metaphor: Latin tracks back lyrics about her love life, like in real life, where her community, family and culture are a steadfast support system when heartbreak comes around.

If there’s one song on the record that successfully marries relationship, family and Latin music, it’s “Celia,” possibly a reference to Celia Cruz, renowned Cuban-American singer and the “Queen of Salsa.” “Él se quiere mudar pa’ Miami y tomarse un tequila con papi / …Él sonríe, aunque no entiende nada,” Cabello sings coquettishly. These few lines roughly translate to “He wants to move to Miami and have a tequila with daddy /…He smiles even though he doesn’t understand anything…” 

Along with “Celia,” “Lola” feat. Yotuel and “La Buena Vida” are among the standouts on the project. “Lola” is a fresh window into a non-Cabello character: a young Cuban woman, presumably representative of the current status quo for Cuban women, stuck in a repressive regime and unable to reach her full potential. The lyrics are striking: “She coulda walked on the moon, yeah / She coulda found us a cure / But family didn’t have no food and / She had to leave school to work,” Cabello muses. “La Buena Vida” is three minutes and 17 seconds of venting about a lover (Mendes) who’s always absent, featuring a fed-up Cabello’s angry, indignant vocals, a spirited mariachi band and an artful mesh of English and Spanish. 

The latest single and earworm, “psychofreak” feat. WILLOW, walks a line between innovative and out-of-place. Sonically, the track doesn’t quite fit the album bill, but the melody is ridiculously catchy. The production centers around experimental sounds, ominous bass and low-pitched “Ba ba ba ba ba ba-da”’s. There are moments of expert pen game like “House in the hills is a house of cards / Blink and the fairytale falls apart,” mixed with less poetic lines like “On my Instagram talkin’ bout I’m healed / Worryin’ if I still got sex appeal.” Out of place or not, the songwriting is brave, the tune is addictive and the collaboration between Cabello and WILLOW makes sense vocally and thematically.

We get moments of Cabello reminiscent of her “Camila” and “Romance” eras in the Swift-esque pop track, “Quiet” and the acoustic breakup ballad, “everyone at this party.” The former is a solid pop song, structurally and lyrically, but does feel like it perhaps belongs more to “Romance” than “Familia.” The latter encapsulates a familiar, sensitive, sweet Cabello vocal elevated by revealing personal details that demonstrate her newfound maturity as a person and as a songwriter since previous records. 

“Bam Bam” would be a more promising single with the absence of Ed Sheeran’s vanilla verse. (Sheeran, who is neither a native Spanish-speaker nor a young woman going through a breakup feels like an odd choice for a “Familia” feature.) The lead single, “Don’t Go Yet,” while encapsulating the album’s subject matter and sound, is far from a “cookie-cutter” radio track like “Havana,” which unsurprisingly was worlds more successful in that regard. Cabello doesn’t seem as concerned with commercial success these days; she’d rather spotlight her culture, being gritty and vulnerable with her writing and sharing the results with the world, radio-ready or not. 

Cabello recently turned 25 and this body of work offers a glimpse into her transition from girlhood to adulthood, perhaps sped up by a long forced period of pause and reflection (COVID-19) and back-to-back serious relationships followed by being single for the first time in her twenties. In this record, she’s the most honest and wise she’s ever been. There are nuanced thoughts on gender (“Boys Don’t Cry”) and on mental health (“No Doubt,” “Quiet” and “psychofreak”). And after mostly abandoning her roots on “Romance” and “Camila” with the exception of three or four songs, she’s home again and fiercely embracing her identity, whether the mainstream pop landscape embraces it back or not. al

The non-chronological order of the record seems puzzling, but also purposeful. The choice to end with the most heartbreaking track, “everyone at this party” might suggest that “Bam Bam” isn’t all true after all: Cabello is not over the whirlwind romance. She’s still hurting, healing, human, flawed and figuring it out—that’s what the album’s all about. “Familia” is a very strong showing from an artist really beginning to come into her own with each new project.

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