Album Review: Camila Cabello Stumbles and Experiments on ‘Romance’

It feels like just yesterday Camila Cabello dominated the world with “Havana.” Camila’s debut album, Camila, was a solid album that shined in spite of the pressure surrounding it. Camila was the first to break from Fifth Harmony, the last major American vocal group of the 2010s. Her decision was met with scrutiny from fans and general uncertainty about the likelihood of solo success. Her debut solo single, “Crying In the Club,” was a generic pop number. Regardless, she went back to the drawing board and pulled out a monster hit in the Young Thug-assisted “Havana.” The reggaeton-infused pop track positioned Camila as the Latin-American pop princess that the pop scene was missing. She then followed with the anthemic moderate hit “Never Be the Same,” and the less successful ballad, “Consequences.” So where does all of this leave Camila as she enters her sophomore era with Romance?

For a while, “Havana” felt bigger, and arguably was bigger, than Camila herself. As she took the time cultivate a public image for herself (touring and friendship with Taylor Swift, a highly-publicized romance with Shawn Mendes, etc.), it became clear that the music for this new era had to match the celebrity status that she had achieved. On Romance, Camila struggles to find the balance between crafting undeniable smash hits and expanding her sonic and artistic palette. Unfortunately, she only reaches about half of her potential on both sides of the spectrum.

Album artwork for Romance (Source: Epic Records)

A few months ago, Camila kicked off the Romance album campaign with a dual release of “Shameless” and “Liar.” When those tracks dropped, I was a bit harsh with my evaluation of “Shameless.” The track sounds much better in the context of the full record; it’s a great album opener, but the drop is still atrocious. “Liar,” on the other hand, somehow sounds much worse now than when it was first released. The ska and reggaeton-inflected track simply feels empty. The theme of Romance is just that, romance. Camila attempts to use different subgenres of the pop music umbrella to tell a story about falling in love and the different emotions that accent that journey. The main issue with Romance is that Camila tries to cover too much ground on the record, she jumps from rock/pop and reggaeton to doo-wop and disco, but the songwriting is simply not nuanced enough to tie it all together. Beyoncé’s Lemonade, for example, was able to blend entirely different genres while still remaining cohesive. Romance needed to be more vulnerable lyrically to really sell the concept. Love is so big and wide and mysterious; if you’re going to create a concept album about such a vast concept, it has to be done with a nuanced vision. It’s unclear what the vision is with Romance. Furthermore, for every step forward Camila takes when she explores a new sound, she takes two steps backward when she folds into her comfort zone of Latin pop.

Between “Liar” and “Señorita,” the two biggest songs from Romance so far both fall into the Latin pop genre that took “Havana” to global heights. Camila does this sound well, and she’s Cuban-American, it’s in her blood. If she truly wanted to commit to expanding her sound she should have cut back on the Latin pop sound a little bit. “Should’ve Said It” blends Spanish guitar and trap elements, and the DaBaby-featuring “My Oh My” is a brazen carbon copy of “Havana” on which both artists sound like they may fall asleep at any given moment. That’s already over a quarter of the album that is stuck in a sound that Camila, and her audience, already knows she can conquer. When she does venture out of her comfort zone the results vary. “Bad Kind of Butterflies” is an alternative pop number that’s somewhere between Billie Eilish and hopeless fountain kingdom-era Halsey. This is definitely not a track for everyone, but for what it’s worth, Camila really sells the brooding electropop sound. It’s different, but it works. On “Cry for Me,” Camila blends disco, rock, and pop to create a sort of reckless anthem to an ex-lover that’s perfectly elevated by an excellent vocal performance. And then there are the less successful moments on Romance. “Living Proof,” the latest single from the album, isn’t necessarily bad. The song just relies to heavily on the sex/religion/God trope that has dominated pop music recently and the falsetto on the chorus and bridge gets very grating very easily. “Feel It Twice” and “Dream of You” are two dream-pop midtempo numbers that have unbearably noisy production that distracts from Camila’s heartfelt vocal performances. Both of these tracks are forgettable, they really offer nothing interesting to say about falling in love that hasn’t been said better already.

Romance struggles to find its footing for most of its runtime, but Camila has a secret weapon: her ballads. From “I Have Questions” to “Something’s Gotta Give,” Camila has delivered formidable ballads for a while now. But on Romance, she makes them bombastic emotional moments that are simply anthemic. “Easy” should have been a smash hit, it’s like the more tender and mature sister to “Never Be the Same.” Regardless, two tracks stuffed towards the back half of Romance are the album’s true stars: “This Love” and “First Man.” The latter is a doo-wop ballad about a toxic relationship; it’s sung with intense conviction and the timelessness of the production makes this song a career highlight. “First Man” expands the concept of love to cover how fathers are their daughters’ first love. This is a gorgeous heartfelt track that is so gloriously aware of it’s emotional heft that you just can’t help but to fall into it. Romance, if anything, is promising. Camila is mostly unafraid to experiment, but the next step is becoming less afraid of true vulnerability to really sell a concept album like this one.

Key Tracks: “This Love”; “First Man”; “Easy”; “Cry For Me”

Score: 67

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