Camila Cabello is healing, growing, and learning from her past — that’s the message of her third solo album. At first glance, the title Familia appears to be a misnomer, as many of its songs are inspired by heartbreak. But listen closer and you’ll hear a relatable journey into what it’s like to make a lover a part of your family, only to have to say goodbye to them. Musically, the album is an imperfect yet revealing mosaic of Cabello’s Cuban-Mexican heritage–of growing up on cumbia, salsa, and mariachi, while embracing modern pop and experimental sounds.
The record comes nearly three years since Cabello released her moody LP Romance; five years since “Crying in the Club,” her now-ignored debut single, and mere months after she started a new era of introspection, following a very public breakup with Shawn Mendes, her boyfriend of two years.
“Celia,” the first track on Familia, opens with trumpets that evoke her Cuban roots, as she sings about a lover who’s “fascinado embobado” with the beauty of her culture, and is ready to drink “tequila con papi.” As with her hit “Havana,” this album’s Latin-pop banger “Hasta los Dientes,” and lead single “Don’t Go Yet” showcase Cabello’s natural ability to make the sounds of her culture accessible to any audience, regardless of language. At times, the stylistic shifts can give the record a bit of a mod-podge feel, but the artist holds it together by keeping us engaged with her story.
Aided by haunting vocals from Willow, “Psycho Freak” offers a welcome twist on the relationship-focused theme of the record; it’s a vulnerable rock and R&B-leaning track that offers a look under Cabello’s emotional scar tissue. “Everybody says they miss the old me/I been on this ride since I was 15,” she sings. “I don’t blame the girls for how it went down, down.” For the first time since going solo, Cabello shares her truth about her heated exit from the girl group that catapulted her career, Fifth Harmony. (Is the lyric also a reference to “Down,” 5H’s first song as a four piece?) With just that line, she provides some closure for herself, and for the group’s fervent fans, who still have more questions than answers about her departure in 2016.
On “La Buena Vida,” with its mariachi instrumentation, Cabello pays a beautiful homage to her Mexican roots. She’s accompanied by the traditional guitar and trumpet sounds, but instead of hitting the notes in Spanish, she sing-raps lyrics about longing for an absent lover completely in English. “And I thought we’d be traveling the world together/Making love in the afternoon/But I’m forgetting what it’s like to wake up next to you.”
Much of the album is directly inspired by her personal bout with heartache. “I’m paranoid there’s something I don’t know/Got my demons creepin’ on the low,” she sings on “No Doubt.” And on ”Boys Don’t Cry,” she gets even realer: “Hate it when you/Shut me out/Acting like it’s your shit to figure out.”
Meanwhile, “Quiet,” and its immersive synth whirr and catchy lyrics about automatic sexual chemistry despite the passage of time, will likely do very well with the same pop fans (and radio programmers) who fell for her insta-classic “Never Be the Same.” Highlights like “No Doubt” and the salsa-tinged “Bam Bam,” with Ed Sheeran, will make her Latin crossover predecessors (read: Ricky Martin and Shakira) proud. And album closers, the acoustic “Everyone at this Party” and “Lola,” about “a Havana girl” who doesn’t have the resources or the environment to fulfill her dreams, feature storytelling reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s lyrical beginnings.
Familia is as raw as Cabello has ever been. She successfully laces the sounds of her Latina roots into a record that lyrically rips out the pages of her life’s diary — all its heartbreak, drama, and self-doubt — for the entire world to see. From a bird’s-eye view, the record is complicated, confusing almost. But deep down, it’s a look inside a young artist who is still finding her voice but is willing to take risks to make the music she wants to create.