Monday, January 15, 2018

album review: 'camila' by camila cabello

So there's an unspoken and kind of uncomfortable truth about a lot of pop music: while it helps to have talent, if you're in the right place at the right time with the right people, it doesn't matter if you do or not, you're going to find success. Hell, on average you'll probably get even more famous than folks who have talent but are lacking in either the place, timing, or people department - and thus on that note, Camila Cabello.

Okay, that's really mean, I admit it - but there's also always been some truth to it and not just about her - hell, more than I think a lot of people want to admit. I remember both of my Fifth Harmony reviews when Camila was with the group and she was always the weakest link, both as a singer and an interesting pop personality, and when she left I thought Fifth Harmony got better on their self-titled release - and yeah, I realize I'm pretty much the only one who thought that, but I stand by it. And when Camila Cabello started releasing singles and collaborations, I was fully expecting her to flame out like other girl group acts going solo - I'm not too young to forget Nicole Scherzinger and what happened to the Pussycat Dolls. 

But then 'Havana' happened - and I remember what I said when I reviewed the song on Billboard BREAKDOWN, it was the first time I actually had a hope that Camila could release something worthwhile... but when you have nine cowriters including Pharrell, you can almost hear the pop machinery muscling this into becoming a hit - as much as people don't want to admit it, the system can still do that. And thus it was only a matter of time before we got a new album - short enough that it probably didn't cost too much, even though it's not like Syco spends money on producers anyway, but also released in mid-January when there's literally no competition and if it flops they could cut their losses. Now if you can't tell, I was not expecting to like this, especially coming with the forgettable follow-up single 'Never Be The Same' - but hey, 'Havana' was a good surprise, this could be too, right?

Sadly, it really wasn't. Now don't get me wrong, I don't really think this is a bad record, but that's more because it's too abbreviated and undercooked to have all that much substance - seriously, I've heard demos and live albums that I've covered this year that have more attention to detail in production than this! I'm honestly a little taken aback how flimsy Camila sounds - I know that Syco doesn't really give their acts much of a budget, but this takes the cake - if it even could, given how frail and starved this record sounds!

And I can't stress how much this is an issue right out of the gate, because as I've said: Camila Cabello is not a very good singer: she's pitchy, her breathy falsetto sounds awful, and even at her best she's not exactly a force of personality or capable of conveying much sensuality or presence. But she's far from the first pop singer to have these issues, and the way you compensate is through multi-tracking or adding some cushion around her vocals, or coaxing her compositions into lower registers - hell, that's one of the reasons 'Havana' is a good song, it keeps her tone a little lower and lets her ride against backing vocals from Pharrell and Starrah. And if you look to the producer credits, across this record, you can probably attribute this to Matt Beckley, because while there's a shade too much pitch-correction on 'Something's Gotta Give', he clearly knows how to produce for someone like Camila Cabello - as does Kuk Harrell on 'In The Dark'. Otherwise, the primary producers on this project are Frank Dukes and Louis Bell, and while Bell has some good credits beneath his name and you can tell he's trying, Dukes has a fondness for these brittle, awkward tones that just have nowhere near the support for Camila's delivery, or come across as clipped in a way that short-circuits any organic groove this record could develop. Why, for instance, was that guitar pickup so abruptly clipped on 'All These Years' in a way in a way where the entire mix sounds like it's dropping out? It's only a little better on 'Real Friends', but here's there's no deeper foundation or bass to accentuate any sense of groove! Why was that beat that fizzy yet blubbery beat on 'She Loves Control' from Skrillex not given a fidelity that remotely matches those washed out guitars or the incredibly tinny pickup of the acoustics, trying to force a reggaeton bounce even before the overmixed incomprehensible vocal snippet gurgles through the drop? If you have steel drums on 'Inside Out' playing off the very muted piano, why is the beat so damn heavy to crush them behind it, especially if you're going place that piano melody right to the front of 'Consequences' to the point of peaking the microphone - you know, the very next song! These are slapdash, amateurish mistakes, and yet as a whole the production approach seems utterly misguided - take organic-sounding samples of melody, desaturate and bury them midway to the back, and then add a percussion or rhythm pickup so brittle and sharp to the front of the mix that not only do you not get any depth or groove, the clashing fidelity of tones becomes incredibly jarring. 

Now granted, sometimes the formula is shifted - the thicker low-end on 'In The Dark' works okay, and I had some hope with the thicker rumble of 'Into It' - at least until I realized it was a weird mishmash of 'Little Too Late' by Jojo and 'Sober' by Lorde in its melody. And even though Young Thug is sleepwalking through his verse on 'Havana', there's at least some decent swagger to that track. But then we have to get to content and I'll say this for her: she's got the same problem away from Fifth Harmony as they had on their last record: not precisely bad, but kind of thin. And what gets exasperating about this is that it doesn't really help Camila Cabello stand out as a pop singer, especially given that she does have writing credits on all of these tracks - you get the encounter with an ex who's now in a relationship on 'All These Years', and it doesn't really resonate with the same emotional complexity as, say, 'Someone Like You' by Adele, who was around Camila's age when she wrote 21, and while 'Consequences' gets a little closer, it's not like the metaphors or description of this relationship feels all that distinct or interesting. Part of that is the growing sense that Camila isn't quite sure yet what sort of pop star she wants to be - she's most convincing on songs that have a little more sultry force like 'Havana' or the breakup moment of 'Something's Gotta Give' or even the hookup of 'Into It', but there's also a lingering feeling that she can't quite fully embody this with the distinctly high school feel of 'Never Be The Same' or 'Real Friends' or the awkward central idea behind 'Inside Out' - I get the metaphor, but the execution is clumsy. And where all of this is most pronounced is 'She Loves Control' - it's a power trip of a song, but there's nothing wrong with it and it's clear that she's having a good time with it... but at the same time as a singer she doesn't quite have the presence to make it feel convincing in the same way a Rihanna or Shakira could. 

And I'd like to say some of this comes with inexperience... but Camila Cabello was with Fifth Harmony for a number of years and has shown more consistent competency on other tracks, which means for Camila as a whole I'm left underwhelmed. I've definitely heard worse pop records around this time of year, but for a record that needed production to support her as she grows into the solo act she wants to be, she was really let down here. But even then, it's more inconsistent than outright bad, and I'm still not really impressed by Camila Cabello as a singer either, especially in comparison with her contemporaries that have more presence, firepower, wit or intensity. For me, this is a light 5/10 and really just for fans, although considering how underweight it feels, I can imagine it'll be forgotten pretty quickly. Not really bad, but outside of 'Havana' and maybe 'Something's Gotta Give', I'm not sure I'll remember this.

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