Album Review: Camila Cabello Examines ‘Romance’ On Sophomore LP
In many ways, an artist’s sophomore album is more important than their debut. The first time around, they just need to prove they can get the public’s attention. The stakes are higher after that. Now they need to keep the listener fully engaged. That’s a feat Camila Cabello achieves with Romance. Out December 6, the LP arrives nearly two years after the 22-year-old made her solo debut. Her second effort positions her as one of the most recognizable stars in a new class of hitmakers. Not only that, but it is also a testament to her growth as an artist since striking out on her own. As the title suggests, the project is inspired by love.
However, that doesn’t mean Camila delivers a static collection of schmaltzy ballads. Instead the “Havana” hitmaker builds out the tracklist by showcasing a variety of emotions associated with relationships. There’s passion alongside rage, and joy paired with sadness. And that’s barely scraping the surface of what she dives into across the 14 songs. Sonically, the LP is equally diverse as it shifts across a variety of pop’s sub-genres. However, there are common threads that hold it all together. Namely the hitmaker’s distinctive voice (which is strong as ever) and confessional writing style. The end result is a compelling body of work with minimal filler.
Appropriately, Romance opens with one of the two singles that introduced the album earlier this year. Produced by Andrew Watt and The Monsters & Strangerz, “Shameless” is anything but a traditional love song. Instead, it highlights the heady intoxication of falling. “Right now I’m shameless. Screaming my lungs out for you. Not afraid to face it. I need you more than I want to,” Camila openly admits as the racing beat gradually builds under her voice. Once it reaches full potency, there’s nothing to do but go along for the ride. And she clearly has no problem keeping up as she liberally sprinkles the track with signature vocal gymnastics.
2. Living Proof
In comparison, current single “Living Proof” takes a more straightforward approach to romance. Everything about this ethereal gem celebrates the euphoria of being with a partner. Co-written with a team including Justin Tranter, it comes together perfectly on the chorus. “Where did you come from baby? And were you sent to save me? Ooh, there’s God in every move. Ooh, and you’re the living proof,” Camila breathily coos. I’ve seen complaints about excessive use of filters on her voice. However, any effects are clearly purposeful and add to the overall aesthetic. Speaking of, the video, which positions the 5H alum as a fairy princess, could not be more on the nose.
3. Should’ve Said It
Frank Dukes (the producer responsible for breakout hit “Havana” and the majority of Camila) returns to the fold alongside Ricky Reed and Nate Mercereau on “Should’ve Said It.” Opening with an electrifying guitar line, the song addresses a former partner who comes back for a second chance at love. Only this time the tables are turned. In the past, his feelings burnt out. Now Camila moved on and isn’t interested in reigniting the flame. “I was crazy for you. All caught up and confused. Love was broken for me. Now it’s broken for you,” she sings without obvious remorse. Even better is her pronunciation of “said” on the chorus. Iconic.
4. My Oh My
With few exceptions, Camila typically embraces a squeaky clean image. But she tries on a different look with “My Oh My.” Another production courtesy of Dukes, this one finds the hitmaker in a fling with a boy her mama doesn’t trust. And she’s clearly enjoying the walk on the wild side. “I swear on my life that I’ve been a good girl. Tonight I don’t wanna be her,” she emphatically belts. Featured rapper DaBaby does a respectable job at playing her romantic foil, but Camila is clearly the star. This is the sort of song that is all but guaranteed crossover success. Hopefully it gets the chance at some point during the album’s campaign. And of course, I can’t talk about it without mentioning the chill-inducing laugh that turns into a scream in the opening moments. Talk about making an entrance…
With more than one billion Spotify streams, it’s hard to believe “Señorita” only spent one week on top of the Billboard Hot 100. (Damn the power of “Old Town Road” this year). Camila’s duet with real-life boyfriend Shawn Mendes is arguably one of the biggest songs of 2019. Based on the above-mentioned streaming numbers alone, it certainly earned the honorific. As an added bonus, there’s something undeniable about the sing-along chorus. However, the slinky anthem feels tacked onto the body of Romance. It pulls from similar production styles and lyrical themes but is too polished to truly belong alongside songs like “Shameless” and “Bad Kind Of Butterflies.”
Opening with a brass section and boasting a Latin flair, “Liar” feels like one of the most obvious tributes to “Havana” on Romance. But this isn’t a situation of copy and paste reproduction. Instead the deceptively breezy bop finds a rhythm of its own as Camila sings about being made a liar by love. How so? Well, she finds herself unable to resist a partner’s charms despite best intentions. “I said I won’t lose control. I don’t want it,” she sings. “I said I won’t get too close. But I can’t stop it.” It’s particularly interesting to hear those lyrics from an artist who sang about loving control less than two years ago. Clearly, she’s realizing that love doesn’t always follow a rule book and is willing to risk letting go to reap the rewards. That’s what we call growth.
7. Bad Kind Of Butterflies
Irresistible and ill-timed romantic attraction becomes a tool for emotional warfare on “Bad Kind Of Butterflies.” Laying her voice over a murky, muffled trap production courtesy of DJ HardWerk, The Monsters & Strangerz and German, Camila cops to having feelings for two people. There’s a problem, though. She’s in a committed relationship with one and lusting after the other. “What do I do when I love you and want somebody else? What do I lose if I don’t choose and keep it to myself,” she ponders. Things get darker and her voice climbs to its upper reaches as she moves into the suitably epic chorus. The ominous soundscape feels reminiscent of Halsey, but Camila does an equally commendable job embodying the extreme tension.
One of my few complaints about Romance stems from pacing. Instead of telling a cohesive story, each song exists in its own world. This means sometimes moving from one to the next can be jarring. And one of the best examples comes as the growl of “Bad Kind of Butterflies” transitions into the slowly unfolding synths of “Easy.” Sonically and emotionally, it’s a complete 180. That being said, the latter is a clear lyrical and conceptual standout. On it Camila celebrates a love so pure it makes her more secure in herself. And in doing so she displays some of the excellent penmanship that elevated ballads like “Consequences” and “Something’s Gotta Give” on her debut. The diva is a master of stream-of-conscience writing that welcomes listeners further into her world. When used appropriately (as it is here), the end result is simply captivating.
9. Feel It Twice
“Feel It Twice” marks the second time Camila is propositioned by a former lover on the album. Only she takes a different approach on the heartrending ballad. “Should’ve Said It” is more of a musical “I told you so.” This time genuine guilt plays a role. “Kills me to kill you when I tell you that I felt it once. I can’t feel it twice. It’s more than I can take, baby. Hurts me to tell you I don’t feel the same,” she somberly admits. You can literally hear the regret in her voice. Not only that, but “I know love is the loneliest place when you’re falling alone” is a particularly powerful line. Additionally, I’d like to call out the subtle tambourine on the chorus, which is expertly utilized and adds additional flourishes without going over the top.
10. Dream Of You
After the mournful balladry of “Feel It Twice,” Camila’s head returns to the clouds on “Dream Of You.” Produced by Mattman & Robin, the whimsical mid-tempo comes to life on the chorus. “All I do the whole day through is dream of you,” the hitmaker sings as the beat drops out. “So could you stay with me. Lay with me. Talk about nothing.” Perhaps the most compelling moment though is when she looks for assurance that she’s not the only one in this predicament. “Please say you dream of me too,” the diva whispers vulnerably. To me this is more filler, but there’s still plenty to love.
11. Cry For Me
One look at the tracklist (or, really, history) should make it clear that love isn’t always uplifting. There’s a darkness that hides within the passion, and it can make us do crazy things. No song does a better job of nailing that point home than “Cry For Me.” Here, Camila is downright furious with a former partner for having the gall to move on before her. And she kindly offers up a solution to fix the unbalance. “I want you to cry for me. Cry for me. Say you’d die for me. Die for me,” she commands. It’s pure pettiness in a way that is incredibly relatable. And this leads into another minor complaint about Romance’s roll-out. Promo tracks arrived so quickly that most never got a chance to truly shine. I have a feeling this underrated gem will be one of the songs that truly got away when the era is finally over.
12. This Love
“This Love” marks Rush Hr and RØMANS’ first and only production credit on the tracklist. The duo provides the soundscape for a retro-inspired torch song that vaguely draws comparisons to Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain.” However, it never quite reaches the latter’s full potential. This is one of the rare instances that would benefit from less pop patina. Camila’s genuine frustration with a disinterested partner gets lost in a tsunami of sterilized beats. That’s doubly impressive seeing as it’s the only song on the LP that has her annoyed enough to swear.
13. Used to This
Closing out the project is a pair of tracks co-produced by FINNEAS. Billie Eilish’s brother and frequent collaborator steers us into lighter territory on his first contribution “Used To This.” The end result is a slowly unfurling love song as good as anything on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO. It finds Camila and her partner making the transition from friends to something more. “Oh, I’ve known you forever. Now I know you better. Let’s just get carried away,” she coos. “It’s gonna take me a minute, but I could get used to this.” This is a perfect exercise in restraint. There’s no overreaching in terms of production or emotional range, which makes the final result even more powerful. Of course, it’s also littered with apparent allusions to her relationship with Shawn.
14. First Man
FINNEAS’ second contribution – “First Man” – highlights a different kind of love story. In that it finds Camila singing directly to her father, the first man who loved her. The confessional includes some fairly traditional banter about visits home and the weather. However, a driving theme of conversation is the new man in her life and how he measures up to the love she learned from her dad. “I swear on my heart that he’s a good man,” she sings over keys. “You held me so tight, now someone else can. But you were the first man that really loved me.” The tender ballad reaches a pinnacle as the hitmaker pictures walking down the aisle on her wedding day. Emotional without feeling contrived, I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a popular choice for father-daughter dances.