With “Havana,” Camila Cabello barreled past the quasi-anonymity of her girl group days to announce who she was and where she was from. The realignment felt complete by the time she sang the hit, a crackling ode to her birthplace, at the 2019 Grammys, stops making to shimmy opposite Ricky Martin and trill along to J Balvin’s “Mi Gente.” Fifth Harmony, the Simon Cowell-engineered quintet with which she’d performed girlbossy pop anthems, was in her past. Now, if not exactly carrying Martin’s torch, she was warmed by the flame he had ignited on the same stage, two decades prior, with a famous performance that heralded the so-called “Latin explosion” in the United States.
Latin pop was an energizing, though not dominant, force across Cabello’s first two solo albums. “She Loves Control,” from her 2018 debut, deploys a reggaeton beat to underscore a statement of self-determination; trumpets and flamenco handclaps adorn the taunting “Liar,” from 2019’s Romance. On her third album, Family, Cabello—who is half Cuban, half Mexican, and lived in both countries before immigrating to the US at age seven—embarks on a more immersive exploration of her musical heritage. Abandoning the revolving-door approach of previous albums, whose credits read like a directory of pop producers, Cabello locked in with a smaller group of collaborators including Latin pop veterans Cheche Alara (Thalia, Natalia Lafourcade) and Edgar Barrera (Maluma, Natti Natasha) . She ushers in the sonic revamp with the tale of a lover—a proxy for her audience, perhaps—who’s transfixed by her culture and compelled to take up salsa dancing. That song, “Celia,” is the first release of her own to be sung entirely in Spanish.
We’ve known this was coming since at least last summer, when Cabello went full Gloria Estefan on Family‘s first single. A neon-streaked entreaty to a partner threatening to bail on a night out, “Don’t Go Yet” is like an overstuffed house party: The guitarist arrives first, then the percussionists, then the brass band, and when there shouldn’t be any room to spare, the choir. The song offers a fitting introduction to an album that swings big and often hits. “La Buena Vida” is similarly maximalist, with an urgent tempo and mariachi theatrics to dramatize the hurt of being stood up: “Why am I home alone with your glass of wine?” Cabello gripes, trumpets blaring in the background.
Even when she’s mad, Camila sounds like she’s having fun. In both Spanish and English, she’s an exuberant and expressive transmitter of language, smashing up words in her mouth and bending phrases around her tongue. Hear how she treats the titular lyric of “Don’t Go Yet” like a rubber band, alternately stretching it out and snapping it back. A capable vocalist with a lightly nasal tone and a dramatic streak, Cabello rarely misses an opportunity to riff or sail into her wispy head voice. But her spoken delivery can be just as captivating: “Baby don’t go yet/’Cause I wore this dress for a little drama,” she says, slipping in a seductive rasp and showcasing her skill as a percussionist as well as a melodist . The line is tossed off like a teasing glance over the shoulder.