Rosalía Continues to Steer Left-Field and Into the Future on ‘Motomami’

Spanish sensation Rosalía broke through internationally with her 2018 sophomore effort, “El Mal Querer,” by branching out beyond her novel spin on the folkloric traditions of Flamenco that defined her debut album into more experimental territory, and went on to win the Latin Grammy for Album of the Year. Her reggaeton-influenced single with J. Balvin the following year began a stretch of high-profile, and more mainstream, collaborations with Travis Scott, the Weeknd, and Latin artists Bad Bunny and Ozuna, as well as more avant-garde works with auteurs Arca and James Blake. After the release of an album worth of singles over the past few years, Rosalía has returned with an entirely new body of work, her highly anticipated third album, “Motomami,” where she continues to dabble in the experimental Flamenco stylings she is known for, but within an even broader sonic context, at once more experimental and more commercial. Lyrically too, the album attacks on two fronts. The cryptic concept at the heart of the record, as Rosalía describes, involves a duality of contrasting energies, represented in its title. The album’s content divides into the exploratory and otherworldly (“Moto”) and the personal and vulnerable (“Mami”). Rosalía co-produced the album with major contributions from Noah Goldstein, known for his work with Frank Ocean and Kanye West, and enlisted varied talent for individual tracks, among them longtime collaborator El Guincho and Pharell Williams. Drawing heavily from reggaeton, surveying various other styles of Latin dance music, and abounding with sonic surprises, “Motomami” marks another bold step forward for Rosalía.

The album’s opener, “Saoko,” samples Wisin and Daddy Yankee’s 2004 hit “Saoco,” over a reggaeton beat and a minimal distorted bassline that hits hard. The track meanders whimsically, cutting midway to free jazz for a flash, then returning to an elemental stomp. Distorted synths amplify and swell, as Rosalía sings sinuous, entrancing vocals, full of hype man exclamations. There’s a primal, exhilarating physicality to the music from the onset. Lyrically, the song is a celebration of transformation. Rosalía’s bold evolution has naturally comes with a share of criticism from both Flamenco purists and those who find her recent turns too eccentric or scattered. To Rosalía, however, we are most ourselves when we are evolving, a view that she professes in this song. The celebration of people as dynamic entities is indeed ever-present in the shifting, fluid structures and blurring aesthetics throughout the album.

The self-validation implicit in “Saoko” seems to emerge, at least partly, in response to the complexities of a steep ascent to fame, a theme that makes its way prominently into the content. “La Fama,” which ventures into Dominican Bachata stylings and features the Weeknd, personifies fame, and cautions against it, with such blunt lyrics as “If I want I’ll sleep with her, but I’ll never marry her.” The Weeknd stuns on this track, sounding poised and featherlight, while Rosalia here sounds full-bodied and raw. The pairing of sensibilities gives a sensation of being in between worlds, consistent with the duality explored elsewhere. “Diablo” explores similar subject matter, touching upon the corrupting influence of money. Rosalía’s moves from fluttery soprano singing to subtly Auto-tuned baby voicings, while a skeletal Reggaeton pulse gradually opens and closes, sharpens and blurs. Midway, a thrilling display of whirling synthworks announces James Blake, who offers some haunting, shapeshifting vocals, and, as usual, makes his every minimal gesture count.

Rosalía goes so far as to remind us explicitly that she is as much of a “cantaora” or Flamenco singer, in a “Versace tracksuit” as in the traditional garb. This comes in “Bulerías,” the sole pure Flamenco number on the album. The style’s Eastern-inspired, melismatic melodies are here on display in all their dramatic flair, in a raucous environment of loosely coordinated exclamations and chatter. The vocals gradually gather reverb, then ditch the processing, and pick up Auto-tune at a strategic moment, while the rhythm splinters into a propulsive chorus of splattering handclaps. Elsewhere, Rosalía’s embrace of dynamism yields enough forms to literally fill the alphabet. On spoken word interlude “Abcdefg,” she runs through the letters, fancying herself an alpha, a bandit, a coquette, an enigma, and more. 

The album demonstrates a shift from the more, say, academic nature of previous efforts to a levity apparent in the colloquialism of the lyrics. Of course, this is essentially required when one dabbles in such sounds as dembow and reggaeton. “Chicken Teriyaki” is a designedly playful track and an instant banger. The most minimal number of the album, it’s an elemental triumph. Lyrically, it’s simply slang and swag, with lines like “I want a chain that’ll break the bank / Like Naomi in the nineties.” Despite the complexity that Rosalía has attributed to the album’s title, the title track is another lighthearted affair. “Motomami” is haphazardly rhymed with various Japanese words like “Origami” and “Tatami,” with no ostensible purpose, while the music is a delightfully offbeat, minimal grind. With a sole snare keeping the beat, and signatures of Pharell Williams everywhere, it is the closest track on the album to a hip-hop song.

A recurrent sonic experiment on the album is the juxtaposition of high and low fidelity, of heavy processing and untreated audio. On “G3 N15,” Auto-tuned lines elegantly unravel beneath Rosalia’s candid central melody. On “Como Un G,” a threadbare piano evokes grainy home recordings, distant and removed, while Rosalía’s vocal lies sharp, front and center. The dembow beat of “Candy,” which samples Burial’s “Archangel,” reduces to a spectral pulse and fleshes gradually back into full form. Rosalía’s cover of Cuban salsero Justo Betancourt’s “Delirio de Grandeza” makes a radical move and samples a Soulja Boy remix of the Vistoso Bosses’ 2009 single “Delirious,” placing Rosalía’s crystalline vocal over the muffled loop.

A feminist streak runs through the album. On “Bizcochito,” a camp cut assembled from two-bit video game melodies, with a chorus of female voices engaged in a call and response, Rosalía asks, “Are you the pimp or the one being pimped?,” and insists, “I’m not and I won’t be your biscuit.” On “Hentai,” she adopts the type of raunchy, overt sexuality that is typically brandished by male personalities in hip-hop and reggaeton, subverting gender roles with bawdy lyrics like, “I want to ride you like my bike” and “I’m in love with your gun.” Oddly, these words aren’t fit to a dembow beat, but to sentimental piano balladry. One of the album’s most thrilling moments comes in the song’s final third, with an eruption into madcap machinegun percussion that wouldn’t be out of place in an Arca production. The closing number, “Sakura,” is another ballad, recorded live, with Rosalía’s voice soaring and resonating, filling out a hall, and building to a dramatic, belting conclusion that brings a surge of applause. Ironically, this comes with a reminder to be wary of fame, as Rosalía sdmits, “Being a popstar never lasts.” It’s notable that the “Sakura,” or cherry blossom, which signifies fleeting beauty in Japanese culture, is also a symbol of specifically feminine beauty. 

“Motomami” is an intoxicating album that captures Rosalía’s eclectic vision and singular voice more strikingly than her previous bodies of work. As if the electronic-informed update on Flamenco styles that characterized her sophomore album weren’t already entirely unprecedented, Rosalía has gone far left-field. No recent mainstream Spanish-language release has been nearly this groundbreaking, save for perhaps Xenia Rubinos’ “Una Rosa” last year. Flamenco elements are still woven into the songs, and delivered with the same consummate craft of previous work. Meanwhile, there is a punky spirit to Rosalía’s ventures into the dancefloor, and a new levity that comes with the foray into the various Latin styles she explores — dembow, reggaetown, bachata. Of course, this comes hand-in-hand with Rosalía’s most personal content yet — weightier lyrics with feminist undertones, reflections on love, and darts at spirituality. There is a bold eccentricity to the sound design and song structures that never ceases to surprise. Perhaps, all the vague conceptual threads can compromise some degree of cohesion. Yet, for an album that celebrates the dynamic nature of art and humanity, the music could hardly better serve its purpose. 

Motomami” releases March 18 on Apple Music.