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Rosalía's 'Motomami' is a complex treatise on fame — and her place in Latin pop

Rosalía's album <em>Motomami</em> comes out March 18.
Daniel Sannwald
Rosalía's album <em>Motomami</em> comes out March 18.

On a warm night in Miami last December, Rosalía sang at a private Art Basel event celebrating the 100th anniversary for the perfume Chanel No. 5. In a black Chanel jacket and jodhpurs, the Catalan pop star sang some of her popular singles including "La Fama." But she also sang Fania All-Stars and La Sonora Matancera alum Justo Betancourt's "Delirio de Grandeza," ⁠a 1968 bolero about a cruel woman whose rejection debased her lover's ambitions. In low-res videos of the performance, when the sharp horns of the sample cut the lights do too, and she thrashes to a sped-up version of Soulja Boy's verse from Vistoso Bosses' "Delirious," which floats into the song as if from an adjacent room in 2009. It's an arresting fragment of an artist whose colossal impact on pop has outlived his own prominence.

This performance, in this cradle of wealth and art, first soft launched the most salient, tangled thread that comprises Rosalía's third album Motomami: that fame is ephemeral, intoxicating, at times arbitrary and often dealing in ill-gotten gold. The record is an experiment that at times considers its subject and the relationships it threatens with startling honesty and innovative musical turns, and at others loses itself in the stake it claims in Latin pop and reggaeton.

Rosalía's 2018 album El Mal Querer, which began as her thesis at Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, experimented with reggaeton, trap, R&B, and electronic music through the prism of flamenco, subverting traditional Catholic and secular Spanish imageries through a female gaze. El Mal Querer won four Latin Grammys — including album of the year — with an Andalusian genre often read by the West as Spanish but that is the product of various cultures and migrations over centuries, and whose recent history has seen an examination of the disparities that exist between Romani cantaores (flamenco singers) and white ones. In the years since the album's release, with just a handful of acclaimed pop-flamenco and pop-reggaeton singles accompanying it, Rosalía has become possibly the most celebrated female artist currently working in Latin pop, and has already accepted the laurels that the industry has eagerly given her. So what happens when she organizes around reggaeton, invoking Tego Calderón among her forebears?

Motomami attempts a similar subversion as El Mal Querer, changing the arch concept of the first for a dualism of a woman in transformation and approaching reggaeton this time as its starting line. Half of the album can be divided as "moto" — harder, faster, Rosalía on a motorcycle — and the other "mami," vulnerable, at times quiet and self-aware. Its first three singles leaned only "moto," which doesn't feel like an accident. She uses Caribbean slang like pámpara, gata and piquete. With "Saoko," a bass-heavy redux of the 2004 Wisin and Daddy Yankee reggaeton classic, she confirmed that this shift would be intentional and studied in its sources.

"La Fama," an inexplicable bachata with The Weeknd, arrived first. The song's production, elsewhere incisive on much of the album, reads clinical, attempting an authenticity it can't achieve. As journalist Jennifer Mota told the outlet PopSugar upon its release, "[bachata] is a Black, Dominican-made genre that was scorned by society," one that "hasn't received proper recognition . . . in mainstream industry places." Rosalía works on Motomami to not be defined by one genre, but it's her privilege as a white artist that has allowed her global visibility in bachata and reggaeton, two genres whose Black origins carry a history of criminalization and erasure. Mota asks: "Who gets that visibility? It's never the Black Latine creators and residents of that culture."

Across Motomami, Rosalía often acknowledges a lineage she's operating in, but its parameters — which appear to be simply Spanish-language music — remain unclear. "Yo quiero una cadena / Que me arruine toda la cuenta / Como Julio en los setenta," ("I want a chain / That'll break the bank / Like Julio [Iglesias] in the '70s,") she brags on "Chicken Teriyaki." "Bulerías" is a reminder of her monstrous dexterity in flamenco, while nodding to the constellation of influences that inform her work now: cantaores Manolo Caracol, Niña Pastori, and José Mercé alongside Lil' Kim, Tego Calderón and M.I.A. She shouts out the Fania Records gang several times. "La Combi Versace," with previous "Linda" collaborator and Dominican dembowsera Tokischa, is a glinting, alt-inflected wink to "la combi completa" and high fashion that shouts out an "OG party con La Fania (Jerry Masucci) / Hangueando con salseros (Tito, Willie)," ("OG party with La Fania (Jerry Masucci) / Hanging out with salseros (Tito, Willie)." She places all these artists in her pantheon, like a student showing her work on a math test.

Among her arsenal of producers: Michael Uzowuru, Pharrell, longtime collaborator El Guincho, Tainy, herself. Q-Tip even has a writing credit on "Chicken Teriyaki." But the knifing production and rev of the brash Motomami persona don't help its singles pass more than a vibe check. In their dust are plenty of glimpses into the reflective and grounded artistic vision the album could have organized around, but their obfuscation feels intentional. "Hentai" — one of various strange references to Japanese ephemera across the album — went viral when she teased a snippet on TikTok, her melismatic, delicate vocals confusing a whole swath of English-speakers searching for a deeper meaning in the melody and lyrics other than wanting to ride someone like a motorbike. A similar surprise shows up in more experimental moments: On "CUUUUUuuuuuute," the bass-driven main event gives way to her isolated voice as the production literally clicks up the volume.

She's incredibly effective in these contrasts, but doesn't always escape the gimmick. And sometimes, she really does. In the churchlike fugue of "G3 N15," the whiplash is powerful, a calculated contradiction. As she apologizes to an estranged, struggling loved one from the distance of her gilded sphere now, her voice ricochets with dynamic control, the volatile interplay between power and total consumption by it: "Y me toca estar donde no quiero estar / Esto no es El Mal Querer, es el mal desear." ("And I have to be where I don't wanna be / This isn't El Mal Querer, it's the bad desire.") It's in these quiet subversions where the record reaches its highest stakes with beautiful, visceral honesty. These are moments where she considers the pain of loved ones she hasn't seen in years, reflecting on whether her world has become too large and unwieldy to fit in theirs anymore. And yet these moments are the most obscured; the album and its marketing frontloaded the "moto," the reggaeton experiment, relegating these admissions to the role of sidekick in favor of more aesthetic choices that have the potential to solidify her dominance in Latin pop. "What a complicated world is the one Rosalía has gotten into," her grandmother notes in Catalan on the outro.

Motomami closes on "Sakura," a simulation of a live performance using an audio snippet from her tour of El Mal Querer. "Flor de sakura / Flor de sakura / Ser una popstar / Nunca te dura," she sings in the record's most stripped moment, a mercurial performance without the weird antics. ("Being a pop star / Never lasts.") Motomami's two halves have very different aims: One half seeks to take that pop stardom as high as it will go, dutifully pledging its allegiance to the pathbreakers this music might outplay globally; the other half looks back to its two predecessors musically and thematically. By the album's closing track, it commits to the goals of the first half without regret, aware of its potential to break her. On the other side of adventurous experimentation is always a reckless potential for harm. She says as much, with all the power in her instrument: "Las llamas son bonitas porque no tienen orden / Y el fuego es bonito porque todo lo rompe." ("Flames are pretty because they're riotous / And fire is pretty because it breaks everything.") The cheers that close the album are all too brief, cutting out before they can die down.

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