One way to start a conversation about the promising young pop star Camila Cabello’s second solo album, Romance, is to remind you of the existence of this March 2019 photo of Pete Davidson and Kate Beckinsale smooching at a New York Rangers game whilst Antoni Porowski, the guacamole-hawking food expert on Queer Eye, looks away in muted existential terror.
Expectation: Pete Davidson and Kate Beckinsale.— Taylor Banks (@MsTaylorBanks) March 4, 2019
Reality: Antoni. pic.twitter.com/AbG8PxDH6f
Nothing beats a good Bad Celebrity Kiss. Stars, they’re just like us: awkward and inappropriate and gross. Your leaders in the BCK 2019 clubhouse are Timothée Chalamet and Lily-Rose Depp, who in September cosplayed as a terrible Lana Del Rey B-side on a boat. Don’t click on that. Don’t read too much into it either. Romance is hard, not to mention inherently awkward, inappropriate, and gross, which makes romance in the public eye—and especially the public performance of romance in the public eye—quadruply so. Cabello’s Romance is a pretty good and only slightly wobbly rising-pop-star album about being in love and wanting to tell everyone you’re in love, and how the telling is often much harder than the merely being.
Perhaps you are aware that Cabello is dating fellow young pop star Shawn Mendes. (A Page Six headline from Monday morning dutifully reported that the pair “spend a lot of their time ‘making out.’”) Our young lovebirds first worked together, platonically, in 2015 on a moody Mendes tune called “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” Cabello’s first solo-artist foray and, thusly, the first big crack in her longtime alliance with the saucy girl group Fifth Harmony. She left Fifth Harmony in December 2016 and put out her first solo album, the quite splendid Camila, in January 2018; it debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart and generated the even saucier Hot 100 no. 1 hit and Young Thug collab “Havana.” (The piano ballad “Consequences” was righteous, also.)
Cabello has a lithe, swooping, and surprisingly muscular voice, pulling all manner of dizzying upper-register loop-de-loops on the (also quite righteous) electro-pop torch song “Never Be the Same.” She is not as sonically adventurous as critical darlings on the order of Carly Rae Jepsen or Charli XCX, though she will settle for lately enjoying far greater chart success than either of them; she spent most of 2018 on the road (alongside Charli) as part of Taylor Swift’s Reputation stadium tour. Romance, which came out Friday, serves as her victory lap, but it needed a public narrative as pleasing and concrete as the Escape From the Girl-Group Salt Mines vibe that animated Camila.
Enter “Señorita,” a steamy duet with Mendes that hit no. 1 in August, just as the pair delivered an extra-steamy live version at the MTV Video Music Awards, complete with two extended ooh-they’re-gonna-kiss fakeouts.
They did the song again in late November at the American Music Awards, swapping out one of the extended kiss fakeouts for a vintage scandalized Taylor Swift reaction shot. (Billy Porter and Sophie Turner got it on the action, too.) Good trade.
“Señorita” is a very pleasant PG-13 pop duet that sounds ideal blaring out of a tinny boombox at a public pool, but its ascent to no. 1 felt like a return to staid normalcy after the “Old Town Road” summer of terror (plus a one-week cameo from Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”). Indeed, most of the heat the song generates is of the tabloid variety. Which is to say that somewhere between the VMAs and the AMAs, Cabello and Mendes began dating for real, and smooching in public, and inspiring lots of intense gossip about whether all that public smooching was sincere and/or gross. This criticism got so intense, in fact, that in September they licked one another’s faces in a goofy Instagram video meant to counter the charge that “we kiss like fish.” This was, at the very least, gross in a sincere way. They will never be funnier on purpose than they occasionally are on accident, but you can still appreciate the attempt.
It would be great if one could assess the value of an album like Romance without delving into all this celebrity-industrial-complex trivia, but it would also be pretty boring. Many of the best pop albums of 2019, from Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next to Swift’s own Lover, are bolstered by the boldface subtext, the real-world feuds and love affairs, the Pete Davidson of it all. Cabello’s “Easy,” a Romance highlight, is a confessional power ballad with a casually delicate and self-deprecating Julia Michaels vibe to it: “You tell me that I’m complicated / And that might be an understatement / Anything else?” Her voice darts and swoons and blossoms on the chorus—“Always thought I was hard to love / Till you made it seem so easy”—which would sound ideal blaring out of a billion-dollar sound system the size of a moon of Jupiter. But the delight, or at least the intrigue, is exponentially greater if you think you know who she’s singing to, if you’ve spent the summer perusing paparazzi photos of these lovebirds trying to climb one another at Clippers games.
“Señorita” is nowhere close to the best song on Romance, which is rife with surprisingly angry breakup songs (“Cry for Me”), surprisingly intense overwhelming-desire songs (“Shameless”), and surprisingly sweet family-values songs. (“First Man,” as in “You were the first man who really loved me,” as in her father.) As a Cuban-American singer who pairs well with rappers without pandering or overextending (see “Havana” or the Camila-era Swae Lee team-up “Real Friends”), Cabello is better positioned musically and globally than most ascendent young pop stars, though her chemistry with DaBaby on Romance’s “My Oh My” is a little too cartoonish to be real. (Earlier this year she also sang in Spanish on an Ed Sheeran–Cardi B collab called “South of the Border,” which, well, pop stars gotta network.) But she wears her dexterity lightly, content to be a bigger pop star than you thought with a bigger voice than you assumed, her potential maximized on a burbling and minimal deep cut like “Used to This,” which achieves Peak Sultriness without alerting the media. She hits hardest when she sneaks up on you.
“Onstage, it feels weird, because I know that people are expecting it,” is how Cabello explained the whole frequent Mendes kiss-fakeout business last week on Ellen. “And then that’s why I hit him with my nose.” It’s been too long since we had a good not-terribly-graceful pop star romance, which thrives in part on boring old sexiness but is ideally fueled by, well, the winsome lack of grace, the fish-lipped stumbling, the very relatable quality of trying and failing to not look ridiculous while also trying to look crazy in love. On Romance, Cabello knows how to get you talking. But she also knows how to keep you around when you run out of frivolous things to talk about.