Switching Lanes: Camila Cabello Complex Cover (2024)

Switching Lanes: Camila Cabello Complex Cover (1)


Despite what the internet says, pop star Camila Cabello asserts she isn’t trying to be something she’s not. The 27-year-old has spent the last year and a half morphing into the woman she actually is and documenting that shift on her new hip-hop inspired project C,XOXO.

Written by Ecleen Luzmila Caraballo

Photography by Elizabeth De La Piedra

There’s something to be said about flight landings always feeling rockier than departures.

It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday in June and the Blue Hour has finally arrived: The Miami sky mirrors the crystal water below it, creating the perfect shade of the primary color. Despite it sometimes being associated with sadness, blue is alsoa symbol of serenity, balance, and self-expression. And, as it turns out, it also inspired the visual throughline for Camila Cabello’s c,xoxo—an album where Cabello is showing up in a new, more exploratory form, as evidenced by the project’s first single, “I Luv It” with Playboi Carti.

Since its release, the inescapable hyperpop track has caused much conversation amongst fans and critics discussing Cabello’s new era of experimentation and whether or not it’s authentic to her.

“I feel like it was met with this kind of puzzlement, and people not knowing how to digest it because ‘I Luv It’ is almost like the prologue to the book that is c,xoxo,” Cabello explains. “And it can be really frustrating as an artist to be like, ‘Oh, they're judging the book based off the prologue but like… this is the intro.”

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It’s exactly three weeks ahead of her fourth solo album release when we meet at Key Biscayne Dog Beach for the cover shoot, and it would initially appear that Cabello is light as ever, sporting a platinum blonde do and a sheer azurite Jean Paul Gaultier by Shayne Oliver dress with a metallic bathing suit underneath. It’s a humid 85 degrees, but the Miami native is unfazed as she climbs a bright yellow Mazda M5 draped in billowing black fabric to strike her first pose of the day.

Cabello has been through some changes. In 2016, at age 19, she departed from the group that earned her global fame and bet on herself—despite not really knowing who she was yet. The Cuban-born, Miami-raised singer gained initial recognition as a member of the girl group Fifth Harmony, formed on the American version of The X Factor in 2012. Over the next four years, the group—which included members Lauren Jauregui, Ally Brooke, Dinah Jane, and Normani—released hits like "Work From Home" and "Worth It." They went through what Cabello calls a “bubbling teapot of strenuous circ*mstances,” but still established themselves as a prominent force in pop music. In 2016, Cabello left the group to pursue a solo career. A year later, she made her official debut as a solo artist with an R&B- and Latin-influenced pop album, named Camila, which included standout tracks like “Never Be the Same.”

Once her playful and rather approachable pop foundation was laid, Cabello followed up with her 2019 sophom*ore album, Romance. Reflective of the project’s name, that era was characterized by songs that explored themes of love and relationships, such as "Señorita," which featured her then partner Shawn Mendes, "Liar," and "My Oh My" featuring DaBaby. The latter song parlayed her into hip-hop-adjacent territories, where she'd previously explored on tracks like “Havana” with Young Thug, and “OMG” with Quavo in 2017.

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Camila Cabello wears swimsuit by ALT Swim and shoes by Sarah Ashley courtesy of Lidow Archive.

Up until her last album, Cabello’s stylistic choices reflected who she and the majority of her OG fans were at the time: blooming, late-teen-to-early-20s girls (of all genders) who just wanted to have fun and largely acquiesce to what they knew—palatable norms. Her music choices were largely safe. The decision to now center hip-hop and more of her Miamian sonic inclinations is a riskier, more unexpected pivot, but a seemingly natural one.

“Her growing up in Miami contributed to her having very rooted references that might not sound super obvious, that she heard passively just in growing up there,” El Guincho tells me in Spanish on a call from L.A. The talented producer, originally from the Canary Islands in Spain, was mentored by Björk and is known for his range of work on experimental projects with the likes of FKA Twigs and Rosalía—and now, Cabello. In addition to producing alongside Jasper Harris, who has worked with artists like Jack Harlow and Post Malone, Guincho (born Pablo Díaz-Reixa), is also the creative director on c,xoxo. “I realized growing up in Europe that music was something you had to actively seek,” says El Guincho. “And living here I’ve realized that you hear it passively around you all the time. People have a vast knowledge of R&B and hip-hop in a way that’s very natural, just because they’re here, and so all of those textures appear on the album on a rhythmic level, including in the collaborations.”

On c,xoxo, those collabs include Carti, Drake (twice), PinkPantheress, Lil Nas X, and Yung Miami and JT, listed separately (marking their first joint feature where they aren't named as the City Girls). Beyond the relished array of collaborators, Cabello did her homework. “I’m always listening to music for pleasure and for fun. But for this album, I was listening to music as a student and going back to albums that I didn't grow up on because I come from a Latin household and we listened to a lot of Latin albums and Michael Jackson and the popular ’80s hits, and that's it.” Born in Cuba to a Mexican father and a Cuban mother, Cabello moved to Miami at age 6 and had a typical first-generation immigrant experience: “I listened to rap that I grew up with in Miami and what was popular at the time, but I didn't listen to Illmatic and I didn't listen to Dr. Dre and a lot of the classic hip-hop albums from before. I didn't listen to Pink Floyd. I didn't listen to The Beatles,” she says. She became familiar with them all while making this project, particularly spending time with Nas’ classic album and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “I think it's important to always be studying what genres kind of influenced the genres that are informing the genres now,” she says.

That study led to what is now c,xoxo, which Bryan Samaniego, who identifies as one of her greatest stans for the last 12 years, calls “the most her” album yet. From her public introduction on The X Factor in 2012 to her solo breakthrough seven years ago, every era of Cabello’s has felt distinct—and that’s intentional. “If I do one aesthetic or intention or vibe I usually don't do the same thing again,” Cabello says. “Instinct, I feel like, usually just leads me to something different.”

“I listened to rap that I grew up with in Miami and what was popular at the time, but I didn't listen to Illmatic and I didn't listen to Dr. Dre and a lot of the classic hip-hop albums from before."

Calling this era “different” is something most spectators can agree on.

Before the virality of “I Luv It,” Cabello was widely known for two songs that made her part of the billion streams club: “Havana,” released in 2018, and “Señorita,” released in 2019. Did she ever get tired of hearing them? She says that she’s grateful for them both—but yes. “More for ‘Señorita’ than ‘Havana’ to be honest,” she says. “I think there's always a worry when a song becomes so massive that it's going to be bigger than you… I obviously love that they were so massive and successful. But it does get people attached to you in a certain light.” Reflecting on the latter single alongside Mendes, her ex, she says: “I was in a really public relationship and as a woman you're like, I don't want this couple thing to be my new identity.” When it comes to the Young Thug collaboration from 2017, she says: “Using a certain aesthetic palette being the Latin girl in American pop music and using that kind of [sound] whether it's like a basic Cuban chord progression, or a bossa nova chord progression… I was like, ‘Well, I hope people aren't just expecting that from me every time because I'm just not built like that.”

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On c,xoxo Camila fluctuates between introspection and debauchery. Sonically, it goes beyond the hyperpop deflections of its lead single (reminiscent of a Charli XCX or the late SOPHIE), and into emotive ballads like “June Gloom” and potential summer heavy hitters like “Dade County Dreaming” and “Dream Girls.” The latter is one of several songs that exhibit Guincho’s knack for sampling, with The-Dream’s “Shawty is Da sh*t” ringing throughout.

On paper, this album is by definition hers as she is the sole songwriter on the project aside from the features, which is a rather new experience for her (having co-written with the likes of Ali Tamposi, Frank Dukes, and Louis Bell in the past) and a rare undertaking overall for a pop artist. It's also the first time she broke camp at what she calls an “insular” life in Miami to build relationships with other artists in the industry. While listening to the likes of Drake, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Flo Milli while creating the project, Cabello sent blind DMs to nearly everyone she featured with very little expectations.

“Once I had a group of songs that I felt confident enough to share with an artist that I really respect and love, I DM’ed Drake and I asked him if he would want to listen and give me feedback, which is something that I haven't really done before this album,” she says. Ultimately, he loved it and wanted to get involved. A couple of weeks later, he sent her an idea of his own. “Hot Uptown,” produced by Boi-1da and Yogi in addition to Guincho and Harris, will remind listeners of Honestly, Nevermind, the Canadian rapper’s house-inflected dance album. It’s reminiscent of tracks like “Falling Back”—with an added flair. The song is also sugary by way of Cabello, who ponders on something between limerence and devotion, despite summer’s smutty air.

“I literally booked a studio that day and sent him my verse on the song and recorded my hook on it, and then we kind of chopped it so it sounded like a duet,” she recalls. “Hot Uptown” is one of two contributions Drake made to the project, with the ruthless “Uuugly” as his own solo inclusion.

“It's been really fulfilling to just get to make new friendships in my industry. For example, we can go to the Met Gala and see Lil Nas there and be like, oh, I have more friends here. Just from intentionally putting energy into having more friendships,” she says. "I think it can be a really isolating industry, especially in pop where it can feel so competitive.”

Switching Lanes: Camila Cabello Complex Cover (15)

Looking back at not only the vibe, but also the aesthetic of her eras from the past decade (largely vibrant and textbook reflections of “Latinidad”) it does feel distant from the sun-kissed, hair down, more overtly sexy character sitting in the passenger seat of this white Tesla.

The sun has now fully set, it’s after 10 p.m., and Cabello is leaving as she arrived: with her mother, who is a consistent figure in the artist’s day-to-day work. Throughout the photo shoot, Estrabao borrows the DP’s bullhorn to gently coach and encourage her drained daughter through the poses. A team member smiles halfway through the first look and says, “The mom is the sleeper MVP.” Just a few days ago, the two drove to San Diego from Los Angeles to shoot content with Miami Heat superstar Jimmy Butler. Cabello, who just got her driver’s license a couple of years ago, and Estrabao take turns driving to and from events. Cabello shares they both find it to be a good way to unwind. Miami is home, and she doesn’t intend on leaving anytime soon, taking to heart the “305 ‘til I die” sentiment she further welds to her identity on the sixth track of the album.

“I was in a really public relationship and as a woman you’re like, I don’t want this couple thing to be my new identity.”

Sure, she’s toyed with the idea of other landing places—she’s currently based in L.A. part time, and toys with the idea of a stint in New York or Mexico—but we spend nearly the entirety of the 15-minute ride from Key Biscayne’s Dog Beach to South Beach speaking of Miami.

“For most of my life, everybody was kind of spread out and more and more, people are making their way here,” she says as her mom drives down the FL-913 N. “So I think more and more I see it as a place that I'll probably spend a really, really long time in and, you know, have a family here and stuff.” In that sense, the setting is the story. While the project's features, Guincho's references, and Cabello's growth as a woman (she's currently at the start of her Saturn return) all inform the project, Miami is its foundation.

“I like the way Guincho explains it where, in hip-hop, a lot of times the projects have a setting— like for example, Drake with Views, the backdrop is Toronto, and [Kendrick Lamar’s] m.A.A.d city, the backdrop is Compton. It’s like that for a lot of my favorite hip-hop albums. And for pop music it kind of belongs everywhere, there's no real setting. So this felt interesting from that perspective,” Cabello says.

Her experience in the limelight is evident in the ease with which she moves on set, but it’s later clear that the 27-year-old has been going nonstop. Her mother tells me during a small pause from the shoot that Camila is tired. “I had so much coffee. Do I seem crazy right now?” Cabello asks, breaking the fourth wall in between on-camera interviews. She’s in Miami this week fresh off of tour rehearsals in Los Angeles, and this weekend, she’ll appear at two sponsored parties to celebrate the album with fans in her hometown. The next week she’ll be in New York, and then in Europe where she’ll headline festivals in Portugal, Morocco, Denmark, and the UK.

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After several days in the same orbit, it’s clear that Cabello’s animated air is a genuine, core part of her personality, albeit heightened by the day’s caffeine intake. But at the end of the night, she’s reflective and admits she didn’t realize the first interview would be enveloped with the shoot, admitting it takes a totally different part of her brain to show up in that way.

“I’m trying to get that therapy in,” she giggles and blurts on the car ride later, thinking about her mental health. “It's interesting just being a girl in the middle of all this because you f*cking like, get your period and your mental health is f*cked up and you're going through stuff… But this has felt really rewarding. In a sense I don't think my fans have gotten this much, we haven't connected this much in a minute, so that is very energizing for me because nobody's making me work this hard. Right?”

Right? Or is there in fact a sea of expectations making her work this hard?

C,xoxo will be Camila’s first project since the pandemic and first under Interscope, who she signed to in 2022 after departing from her prior house (Epic Records). It’s also her first album since ending a public relationship. For weeks, the narrative around this project has been whether or not it’s an authentic one. But authentic to what, or to whom? And why is this under particular scrutiny? Very online, but allegedly not a reader of comments, Cabello is aware of the commentary, not by her own accord, she claims—but rather because everyone keeps asking her about it.

“It's so ironic,” she says on a Zoom call the morning after her Jimmy Fallon performance. “I feel like the inauthentic thing to do would be to give the public what you know is gonna work for you, or what they're already expecting from you. That's the easy way to keep going like, ‘Oh, you like “Havana,” I'll give you five more of those.’ But, it's so much more risky and comes from a place of artistic integrity to be like, ‘Well, I'm actually going to depart from the thing that everybody knows and likes about me in order to try things and experiment and evolve as an artist.’”

Superfan Samaniego, 28, has both a conclusion and a theory. “People grow up, people evolve, we're not always going to be the same person. And it is her, she is from Miami. She is Latina, she is part of the culture.”

“Once I had a group of songs that I felt confident enough to share with an artist that I really respect and love, I DM’ed Drake and I asked him if he would want to listen and give me feedback.”

Love, across languages and exploration of genres, has been a consistent theme in Cabello’s work. On the pared back, guitar-guided fifth track of her new project, “Twentysomethings,” the Cuban artist, who was inspired by SZA, honors that stage of life with an airy freestyle track made to release bottled-up feelings.

“You’re so tall, you just made me feel even more little,” she sighs at one point on the track. “That's one of my favorite lyrics I've ever written,” she shares, reflecting on the day that line came together. It is the only track that wasn’t Miami-made. As she struggled with a relationship, she arrived in tears at New York’s Electric Lady and freestyled the dejected lyrics that came from a deflated place, but exhibited her confident pen. “It was really a stream of consciousness of what I was feeling that day. It was not the first time that I felt like that in that relationship. But it felt like the first time I really articulated me feeling like ‘what the hell am I doing?’ I’m trying to make it work so badly while feeling so terrible. Like, it just makes absolutely no sense. So it feels like it really contributed to the soul of the c,xoxo, too, because it felt to me and to my friends, when I would show them the songs I was writing, like a coming-of-age album.”

Growing up is messy and if our lives were divided into acts, this would be Cabello’s transformation phase. Yes, “Miami baddie energy” era has been her banner of choice, but what baddie hasn’t overcome heartbreak, remorse, rage, and the raves that follow it in order to land at her true self?

In departing from the familiar (whether relationship or sound or expectation), Camila arrived at what is perhaps not holistically her one-all, be-all experimental magnum opus but rather the beginning of a new stage in which she finds herself exploring possibilities beyond pop and blooming right where it all began.

“It felt like this exploration of girlhood into womanhood… even the line in ‘Dream Girls,’” she says referencing the upbeat track, “where I'm like, all the girls that are learning to be women now get the album,’ I feel like it really feels like me… learning to be a woman.”

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HAIR Danielle Priano
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Switching Lanes: Camila Cabello Complex Cover (2024)
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