How to Get Into Spanish Flamenco-Pop Phenom Rosalía

She broke out making flamenco music popular again, and now she's back with her third album 'Motomami.'

Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist / Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images
Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist / Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images

Not many artists can feel as if they're of the past and the future all at once. That may seem mutually exclusive, but it's exactly how Spanish singer Rosalía sounds. Hailing from Catalonia, the recording artist has been praised for the artful way that she takes flamenco and partners it in a dance with modern music—be it reggaeton or American pop—to create something unique. With her cherubic voice, flamenco-inspired guitars and signature claps, and contemporary production, she's reintroduced folk music that many considered a thing of the past to millions in a few years—and it seems as though she's just getting started.

Born Rosalia Vila Tobella, the 29-year-old singer grew up in a suburb of Barcelona with an admiration for Spanish folk music and an ambition to write her own music, inspiring her to immerse herself in studies to learn flamenco from masters of the craft. Eventually, she studied at Catalonia College of Music, where she worked on some of her now-released records as university projects. Despite having only released her debut Los Ángeles, a collection of flamenco covers, in 2017, her inventive sophomore release El Mal Querer caught critics' and fans' attention just a year later—propelling her to mainstream success with a handful of Grammy and Latin Grammy wins. In the four short years since, she's carved out her own lane of international stardom by dropping singles and becoming a fashion starlet, while also collaborating with the likes of Bad Bunny, Billie Eilish, J Balvin, James Blake, and The Weeknd—each release helping her to explore a new sound, find a new audience, and elevate her global stardom.

Cultural cross-pollination has been a thrilling movement in the music industry since it began taking the charts by storm in the mid-2010s, and Rosalía has been a recent contributor to that. By being trilingual (speaking Catalan, English, and Spanish), she's found collaborators and fans in Latin America, helped bring attention to music coming out of her home country, and, again, revitalized a genre that's near and dear to her culture. Because she's become such a force at the international level, her third album Motomami, out today via Columbia Records, is one of the year's most highly anticipated releases, and it will presumably see her become even more of a household name. To help you ease into the new record and understand who Rosalía is as an artist, we're breaking down her most essential releases. As she once told Rolling Stone, "I think of any genre as a snow globe—you don’t admire it for its stillness. You have to shake it up and see how it explodes," these records are sure to help you to see what a colorful, inventive explosion she's burst onto the scene with.

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"MALAMENTE" (2018)

The first, perhaps most accessible introduction to Rosalía is "Malamente," the lead single off her sophomore album El Mal Querer. Because her first album Los Ángeles doesn't feature any original songs and is largely a tribute to flamenco's traditional sound, "MALAMENTE" feels like a true introduction to contemporary Rosalía. The track is carried by a rhythm of palmas, or the claps essential to flamenco, but it's as if she and producer El Guincho liquidize the genre—bringing in 808s and a dreamy echoic, R&B quality. The lyrics makes references to Romani and Andalusian culture, the southern, diaspora region of Spain where many believe flamenco to have originated, as she sings about needing to channel the sun, moon, and stars to save her from the bad relationship in her life. It altogether sounds like a hymn—one that will have convinced that her take on flamenco can cleanse your spirit.

El Mal Querer (2018)

Concept albums can be a daring feat—running the risk of the concept not quite landing or the songs never standing on their own. But with El Mal Querer, which is loosely a musical interpretation of the 13th century romantic tragedy Romance of Flamenca, you can feel all of Rosalía's heart as she paints a portrait of the "expressive colors," or emotions, that she feels flamenco captures best. Co-produced with Spanish electronic music El Guincho and originally crafted on an independent budget, the project originally served as her baccalaureate at Catalonia College of Music and nearly sent the singer into bankruptcy at the time. While it's astounding in retrospect that that is how such a career-defining album that went on to win Grammys originated, it ultimately speaks to Rosalía's commitment to her vision.

The album chronicles a toxic relationship, with each song essentially acting as a different chapter in the story. She uses the melodrama of flamenco to do so, but makes it sonically fascinating to contemporary listeners by supporting those elements with electronic music. As a whole, it illustrates how malleable her interpretation of flamenco can be—with stand-outs like "BAGDAD" opening to an incredible sample of Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" and "PIENSO EN TU MIRÁ" featuring R&B production. And not only is it an already iconic album sonically, the accompanying visuals pay homage to Spain, including the industrial suburb she's from. After the album was released, she said to The Fader, "I understand that a lot of people can't connect with my music, because it's a radical proposal and a personal proposal … I understand the risk I take in making these decisions with my music." While it may be a radical what she's doing, El Mal Querer proves it was a risk worth taking. How could you not listen to it and feel all of the reds, blacks, blues, and golds of feeling that she aims to capture?

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"Con Altura" (2019)

Rosalía may have skyrocketed to critical acclaim and widespread recognition with El Mal Querer, but she managed to reach a new level of stardom with "Con Altura." After collaborating with Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin on a track on his 2018 album Vibras, the two teamed up again, along with Rosalía's frequent collaborator El Guincho, for the single "Con Altura." With international hitmaker Balvin in her camp and jet-plane-set dance video calling back Britney Spears' "Toxic"—basically destined to go viral—the release saw Rosalía finding even more of a fanbase in Latin America. And that's not to mention what a freaking bop the song is. It's a sleek example of different cultural styles meshing, as Rosalía's flamenco flirts with Afro-Caribbean sounds, making a beat that would be a crime not to dance to. It shows what a force Rosalía has been in the recent globalization of the music industry—and how thrilling that is. 

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"Aute Cuture" (2019)

Rosalía has been dropping a steady stream of singles since 2019—each one highlighting what a chameleon she can be. Just a couple months after "Con Altura" became a surefire hit, she returned with "Aute Cuture," a critique of the exclusivity surrounding fashion masked as a playful pop song. Intentionally misspelling "haute couture" and about the industry appropriating street styles, the song illustrates Rosalía's keenness for making hits that are both fun and thoughtful forms of cultural criticism. The music video, directed by Bradley & Pablo and co-conceptualized by Rosalía, also illustrates her own affinity for style. It's one that sees her girlfriends as her fashion icons, though, as the video unfolds in a nail salon that looks like it's out of Marie Antoinette's Versailles where she and her friends don furs and acrylics worthy of their own exhibit in the Louvre.

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Fucking Money Man (2019)

Like "Aute Cuture," Rosalía's double single Fucking Money Man, made up of "Milionària" and "Dios Nos Libre del Dinero," is a subtle critique over danceable tracks. A nondescript fuck you to capitalism, "Milionària" was the singer's first release sung in Catalan, translating to be about the unrelenting grip that dollar signs can have on us. While the track sounds as shiny as a handful of change, she plays into the song's dichotomy on the equally-as-important visual component, which finds her as a contestant on a kitschy game show. When the song and game show end, she walks into a room with an awning that says "Quemando Dinero," or "burning money," where she performs the B-track "Dios Nos Libre del Dinero" (aka "God Free Us From Money") as cash falls around her. Although it may not be the most specific message, it's an example of the way Rosalía can fashion a statement, loud and clear, out of pop art.

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"A Palé" (2019)

After working with big names and churning out pop songs, Rosalía took a chance at getting weird again in late 2019 with "A Palé." With harsher production that calls back something off Yeezus, it finds her experimenting with hip-hop a bit more, and even touching on harder noise music. The title refers to the "wooden shipping pallets" that were ubiquitous to her childhood, as she grew up in an area central to the trucking industry, but the lyrics see her exploring the pressure she feels to "do it big"—both because of where she's from and her own expectations of herself. These themes play into the video, which takes place in an industrial setting, but, as she is styled similarly to Frida Kahlo, it can also be interpreted as exploring a challenge that she has faced throughout her career. Like Kahlo, Rosalía hasn't gone without facing criticism—particularly with questions surrounding whether or not she, a white Spainard from the North, is qualified to perform flamenco, which pulls from Jewish, Moorish, and Romani culture. But also like Kahlo, she intends to create art that speaks to her and to be fearless—something that a release like "A Palé" undeniably shows.

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"La Fama" (2021)

The lead single for her new record Motomami, "La Fama" is an example of how far Rosalía has come, and an indicator of where her career is going. After joining The Weeknd on a remix of his song "Blinding Lights," the two reunite for a bachata-inspired slow jam. Both singing in Spanish, they lament about how fame is like a "bad lover," as it lends itself to hurt and isolation as much as it does success. It's gorgeous, sensuous, and heartbreaking, especially because it's executed in harmonies by these two crooners, who are known for bringing melodrama to their respective lanes in music.

In many ways, though, the single continues to inspire questions surrounding appropriation in the singer's work—being that it's a bachata song and she opted to work with The Weeknd instead of a professional in the genre. It's something that Rosalía may continue to have to navigate as she continues to play with genre, even if she does so in a way that she sees as an homage and with care. 

In other ways, it's a prime example of what a star Rosalía has become and her influence. In just four short years, she went from an up-and-comer to a level of fame in which she can release a song—one that's charted across the globe—about how painful it can be to be a public figure. As the lead single for Motomami, it also feels like a full circle moment, as she yet again tries her hand at reintroducing an older genre to younger members of the mainstream. She gives you the sense that she's going to continue to be an innovator worth watching, whether she finds new ways to touch on flamenco or decides to mold something new entirely. 

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She's on Twitter and Instagram.