After Camila Cabello’s publicly messy departure from Fifth Harmony in December 2016, the solo career she was hoping for seemed doomed. The girl group, pieced together on “X-Factor” like other Simon Cowell concoctions One Direction and Little Mix, had just had their most successful year yet, with their second album, “7/27,” outselling their debut and spawning the huge summer single “Work from Home.” It seemed they were only growing more popular — why leave?
Whether it was the group’s internal turmoil, Syco Entertainment’s reputation of overworking its roster of “X-Factor” discoveries or just genuinely wanting to work on her own (the Fifth Harmony members all originally auditioned as solo artists, after all), looking back now it’s hard to deny that 20-year-old Cabello made the right choice. She currently has the No. 1 pop song in America and her debut album, “Camila,” is poised to chart just as high, while Fifth Harmony’s first album as a quartet peaked at No. 4 last year, with no singles cracking the top 40.
But what’s especially impressive about Cabello avoiding the path for failure laid out for her when her exit from the group read as betrayal is the simple strategy she employed to get there: trial and error.
“Camila” follows months of experimenting with various styles to feel out what Cabello’s solo work would be, and the resulting singles came off like blindfolded dart-throwing. These songs included Sia impression “Crying in the Club,” Quavo-assisted “OMG” and, while she was still with 5H, collaborations ranging from Shawn Mendes to Machine Gun Kelly. There were a lot more darts on the surrounding wall than the actual board.
She finally hit the bull’s-eye in August 2017 with “Havana.” There’s something poetic about Cabello struggling to find her artistic voice and finally reaching success looking no further than her place of birth, but “Havana” is also a song unlike anything else on pop radio right now. It cleverly combines the trends of Latin pop with Atlanta rap, not just in featuring Young Thug, but directly addressing it lyrically. “He took me back to East Atlanta, na-na-na / Oh, but my heart is in Havana,” Cabello sings on the track.
“Havana” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, higher than any Fifth Harmony single ever did, and is the only one of the aforementioned tracks that ended up on “Camila.” The rest, along with the record’s original title of “The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving,” were abandoned once she struck gold.
That’s not to say Cabello is now as strong and confident a player in pop as the other voices dominating the genre. “Havana” is still her clear best song, and the rest of her debut record occupies a constant tension of not knowing where to commit.
“Camila” is surprisingly ballad-heavy, putting Cabello’s lyricism first, but these piano tracks are largely forgettable. She aims for Taylor Swift-isms with lines like “Counterfeit emotions only run skin-deep / Know you’re lying when you’re lying next to me” on “Something’s Gotta Give,” but she lands closer to “exclusive poem for British Vogue” than “All Too Well.” There are a few flashes of lyrical prowess, though, crooning “Something’s gotta change, but I know that it won’t / No reason to stay is a good reason to go” on the same track.
Cabello’s confusion as she navigates the world on her own, both as an artist and a 20-year-old, is not lost upon her, either, and is often addressed in the form of friendship. “Why all the switching sides? / Where do I draw the line?” she asks on “Real Friends.” “I guess I’m too naïve to read the signs.” On the Demi Lovato-esque track “In the Dark,” she urges a friends to dig deeper: “Who are you when it’s 3 a.m. and you’re all alone and L.A. doesn’t feel like home? / Who are you in the dark?” It’s refreshing to hear a pop artist reference this source of insecurity so common when entering adulthood, and the fact that we’ve seen Cabello’s fallout with former friends firsthand makes it even more powerful.
With all the changes the album went through, the production comes off rushed at times. “Real Friends” and “All These Years” sound practically unfinished, and “Inside Out” is repetitive to a fault with tacky, tropical steel drums cheapening it further. “She Loves Control” is fun, but maybe “Havana” ended up a blessing and a curse when subsequently becoming the album’s standard, leaving decent songs underwhelming in comparison.
The album’s opening track and second single, “Never Be the Same,” however, is a beautiful standout. Unlike the other ballads on the record, it feels like a true confessional by not underestimating the power of Cabello’s voice. “I’m a sucker for the way that you move, babe,” she belts. “And I could try to run but it would be useless / You’re to blame / Just one hit and you know I’ll never be the same.” The mispronunciation of the word “heroin” in the pre-chorus also adds an inexplicable charm that makes me wish other artistic quirks like that inhabited the rest of the record.
While “Camila” is not a great album, it shows promise of Cabello’s tenacity and willingness to grow that could make her a formidable pop force as she refines her skills. There’s still a lot we don’t know about her, but her gravitation toward expressive lyricism is encouraging that she wants to show us more, and her natural ear for melody will certainly give her the framework to do so. Meanwhile, managing to overcome a villain narrative stacked against her before even releasing her first album is a feat in itself.