Rosalía + Paul Jacobs

Rosalía works in a rough continuum of popular singers—Beyoncé, with the same concentrated charm, the kind that fights perception; Missy Elliot, for whom every piece of sound and movement is part of a kinetic machine; and M.I.A., who barks through genres on a breeze that suggests history itself rustling awake—without feeling like anyone else right now, not even slightly.

(Photo by Nicole Fara Silver/Red Bull Content Pool)

Her presentation at Webster Hall in April was reduced—one rectangular block set slightly upstage. Her three singers were standing way upstage in the corner, largely obscured from view. El Guincho—the musician/DJ who worked with Rosalía as co-producer on her second album, last year’s El Mal Querer—was visible, standing at a laptop and a floor tom. The focus was on Rosalía, dressed in blue latex matador pants, and her six dancers, in gauzy white pants and tops worn over white leotards. All of them had their dark hair pulled back, a mark that called Barcelona into the room. Rosalía brought Spain and refracted a dozen other countries. 

(Photo by Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool)

Her show was tight as a plastic bag twisting around a bike handle. She has the kinetic speed of flamenco on the downstroke and the lightness of Paul Jacobs on the upstroke.

A screen behind the performers occasionally flashed ROSALÍA, later morphing into a Vantablack sky. Rosalía moved through the set in an hour, no slack. The audience felt more genuinely connected and happy than any live crowd I’ve seen in a minute. It was a homecoming, years ahead of schedule. 

“It's hard to pinpoint without it sounding like you're down to join a cult, but Rosalia exudes a life force that is completely rare,” Dan Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, told me. “The artistry lures you in but you stay for the realness of it, the good feeling you get from it. Pop music hasn’t been that in a long time, we don't realize how malnourished we are.”

(Photo by Nicole Fara Silver/Red Bull Content Pool)

Pop is a field, a place through which people pass. There are maybe a dozen modalities of pop, or more. They’re fun to map – I’m not interested in the predictive or oracular power of these types. There are two that I’ve been thinking about. Rosalía is part of a blended, condensed, intensified mode we’ll call bouillon. You’d find Missy and Beyoncé and M.I.A. in there. Genres flow through them. Each single song lays bare all of its origin points. Then, in this temporary dyad, there is the ballad, which does the inverse of bouillon. Bouillon enfolds various practices and lets them occur and unfold in one place at one time. Ballads melt their insides. Every ballad is the same – bouillon is not even the same within itself. Ballads are the least fashionable songs because they don’t admit the ingress of style. A ballad from an unfamiliar culture will be instantly familiar. 

Rosalía is the rare performer, skilled in both bouillon and ballad, like Beyoncé. (Missy and M.I.A. have no ballads.) As Dexter Gordon said, the ballad is the test of the player. There is no hiding there, because the ballad is the form of the single individual. Bouillon is a collective form, triggering the dance while reproducing a temporary identity derived from a collection of permanent styles. 

At Webster Hall, the dance numbers were spaced out with flamenco ballads that Rosalía cut through in less than three minutes. (Almost everything on El Mal Querer is three minutes or less.) Rosalía ballads have an iron core, her voice attacking and decaying so gently that the beginnings and endings of words seemed not to exist. Flamenco melodies descend in pitch, over the course of a phrase, leading away from the triumphal. The meat is the carefully sustained dance in the middle of the sung range, skating up only a few times into high, pure sustain. 

Rosalía is a killer with grace, and grace is weird. Someone who wanders into the pop cohort generally has an excess of something like power or charisma. Rosalía has extra control, almost invisible in its sweep. She rarely barks or yells or flaps about. Rosalía walks in the elastic, where gestures fall without landing. Her movements—a low kick, spidered down, legs in triangles—feel like tiny rails that curl. She is a centered wind.