LOS ANGELES — Rosalía, the experimental Spanish pop phenom with a reputation for hyper-speed reinvention, often finds herself solving intricate musical problems of her own making. How, for instance, might she blend reggaeton with jazz? Or flamenco with Auto-Tune?
How could she possibly slam machine-gun digital drums programmed by Tayhana, an Argentine producer in Mexico City, into a torch song meant to resemble Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”? Or warp a traditional Cuban ballad known as a bolero using an obscure Soulja Boy sample?
“Almost like a joke, right?” Rosalía said recently of her once-abstract propositions, during an afternoon at the North Hollywood studio where she recorded much of her new album, “Motomami,” which manages to include all of the above.
By now, three full-length releases into a career built on these kinds of cultural collisions, she is used to her collaborators looking at her with some confusion.
But Rosalía, 29, is not the type to embrace open-ended creative noodling, confident that something fresh will reveal itself. Instead, she tends to work from concrete daydreams, imagining in detail a finished product that combines as many of her artistic touchstones as possible while still feeling true to herself and original enough to transcend mere homage.
“I love all styles,” she said, in a generalization that also seemed like an understatement. “For me, it’s all at the same level.” Or put another way: “The context is everything” — foundational influences reanimated by a personal point of view. “I just want to hear something I haven’t heard before. That’s the intention always.”
Even when Rosalía is not literally using a sample — or a sample of a sample, as on her new song “Candy,” built upon Burial’s chopped-up deployment of a Ray J track — she is still borrowing. “It’s been forever that we, as humans, when we create, we sample,” she said. “From ideas comes another idea. When I see that Francis Bacon does a painting based on a Velázquez one, I think that’s sampling.”
“As long as you do it with respect — and with love — I think it always makes sense,” she added.
This breadth of creative ambition has made Rosalía one of the most watched, worshiped, scrutinized, copied and counted on young artists in the world, despite the fact that she has never had a Top 40 hit in the United States. She has billions of plays on YouTube and Spotify, including those from collaborations with the Weeknd, Travis Scott and Billie Eilish. She has hung with the Kardashian-Jenners; made cameos in both a Pedro Almodóvar film and Cardi B’s “WAP” video; and covered fashion magazines across continents.
In the run-up to “Motomami,” out on Friday, Rosalía appeared with Jimmy Fallon — teaching him how to roll the R in her name — and also on “Saturday Night Live,” where she performed alone and entirely in Spanish.
“Ultimately, her impact in culture is so much bigger than the cumulative of her streams,” said Rebeca León, Rosalía’s manager. “I see all the girls copying her in such a literal way. Not just girls in the Latin world — everywhere.”
The singer’s previous album, “El Mal Querer,” arrived fully formed in 2018, introducing Rosalía as a confident vanguardist updating the flamenco music she studied as a teenager in Catalonia for a globalized, digital era. (“Los Ángeles,” her 2017 debut, was a more traditional flamenco collection, although it ended with a cover of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See a Darkness.”)
Inside the World of Rosalia
In just a few years, the Spanish singer from Catalonia has grown into one of the most worshiped, scrutinized and counted on young artists in the world.
But Rosalía’s widespread anointing as a world-building pop icon, à la Beyoncé or Rihanna — plus the commercial explosion worldwide of genre-pushing music in Spanish — meant that “Motomami” was being dissected before it even existed. A column that ran this year in “El País” included concerns that she had “pulled a ‘Miley Cyrus,’” going from lyrical Lorca allusions to simplistic, dirty rhymes and oversharing on social media.
The truth is, Rosalía wants it all: to be erudite and avant-garde, sexy, silly and absurdist. In intense yet giggle-heavy Spanglish conversation, she drops references to Jung’s “el inconsciente colectivo” — the collective unconscious — and her obsession with TikTok; in lyrics, she pledges allegiance to Niña Pastori, José Mercé and Willie Colón but also Tego Calderón, Lil’ Kim and MIA
On “Saoko,” a tribute to the reggaeton pioneers Daddy Yankee and Wisin that opens “Motomami,” the singer is direct about her collagist, shape-shifting aims: “Yo me transformo,she snarls — I transform. “I contradict myself,” she adds in Spanish. “I’m everything.” Elsewhere, Rosalía raps, “I think I’m Dapper Dan,” high fashion’s onetime bootlegging remixer.
If there are traces of defiance — or defensiveness — in Rosalía’s delivery, it is because she has not always been praised for helping herself to an all-purpose sonic and linguistic tool kit.
After facing accusations of cultural appropriation for her projects based in flamenco, a style associated with the Romany people of southern Spain, Rosalía has embraced the traditionally Afro-Caribbean sounds of reggaeton, dembow, bachata and more. She has also piled up awards in Latin categories, despite her European roots, leaving her — along with artists like J Balvin, of Colombia — to answer for the music industry’s tendency to foreground white artists in black genres.
Yet Rosalía has also doubled down, declaring “Motomami” largely inspired by the Latin music she danced to with her cousins as a teenager, and encountered again traveling the world as a budding pop star. Recorded across Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Barcelona, the album is a diaristic “self portrait,” she said — and it shows a spongelike artist in constant motion.
“I was in a new environment, in a new context — how is that not going to affect my sound?” she said. “I want it to affect my sound, my pen. Because it affects me personally. So how is it not going to affect the rest?”
A willing student or teacher, fan or ambassador, depending on the audience and circumstance, Rosalía grew animated at the idea that anything should be off-limits, especially if she was openly citing her influences. “I listened to Don Omar, Ivy Queen, Lorna, Yankee, Zion & Lennox since I was at least 13,” she said. “This is part of my experience.”
“I cannot think of making music in a right or wrong way,” Rosalía continued. “For me, creativity is not about that — it’s not about proper or not proper, correct or incorrect. It’s beyond that. Does it sound free or does it not sound free? Does it sound like it has urgency and it comes from need or not?”
She added, “I understand that other people can see it in other ways, but as an artist, that’s how I see it.”
Now, as she settles into her sudden station atop international culture, Rosalía said she could really begin thinking about how best to give back to the communities that fuel her work: “I’ll find my way, for sure, because I care.”
Tokischa, a young Dominican dembow innovator, is one of the only guests on “Motomami,” alongside American stars like the Weeknd and James Blake. She’s also now a client of Rosalía’s power manager, León.
Less urgent, in a time of niche superstars speaking directly to their divided audiences, is what was once known in international music as crossing over to the English-speaking world.
“The fringe is becoming the mainstream,” said Jenifer Mallory, the executive vice president and general manager for Columbia Records, which is releasing “Motomami.” “I don’t think we’re seeing as many right-down-the-lane pop stars anymore. It all has this interesting edge to it, this unique left quality.”
Weeks of working with Pharrell Williams and his Neptunes producing partner Chad Hugo resulted in two Rosalía songs on “Motomami,” including the title track and “Hentai,” conceived of as a Disney-esque ballad but with raw, explicit lyrics. “Contrast is such a beautiful thing,” Rosalía said. But she had no designs on landing an old-fashioned smash.
Earlier, it had been Pharrell who was unsure of his place in Rosalía’s universe. “She asked me to be on one of her songs and I was so intimidated,” he said.
While Rosalía released an album’s worth of one-off singles in the four years since “El Mal Querer,” she intricately plotted “Motomami” as a complete body of work with a distinct palette: no guitars (dominant as they were in her earlier music ), “super aggressive” drums, and lots of keys but minimal vocal harmonies. Irony and humor were new additions to her thematic arsenal, the sex and swagger turned up.
“Almost frenetico,” she said of her vision — a roller coaster that swoops through the peaks and lows of love, fame and family, especially during the isolation of the pandemic. “That’s exactly how it feels all the time, being in this context, doing this work.”
And it is work. As the chief singer, songwriter, producer, performer and art director of her project, Rosalía is at once a broad collaborator and an auteur overseeing every deliberate detail.
“I don’t care how small your contribution was to the song, I’m going to put it in the credits. That’s how confident I am as a musician,” she said. “But I know it’s detrimental to putting light on me as a producer. Because the moment people see men and a woman on a list, they assume — you know how it is.”
“I’ve seen what happens to Björk. I’ve seen other women that have been through that,” Rosalía added. “But the time I spend — 16 hours a day for months — that’s crazy.” She tutted at the audacity of doubting “feminine creative forces.”
“How? Is this? Still? Happening?”
But her belief in the fruits of that labor — her knowledge that there is no opportunistic machine, no string-puller just out of frame — means that she will gamely take whatever licks and praise might come with being in charge and trying to stay on the cutting edge.
“I wish it was easier for me, that I just go to the studio, I sing a little bit and I go,” Rosalía said. “But time will tell.”
She scoffed again, sounding sure of herself. “Time will tell.”