Camila Cabello’s “Havana” is a revelation

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If you’re one of the few people on Earth who hasn’t heard it, prepare yourself for “Havana,” the latest single by young sensation Camila Cabello, and the thoughtful, intricate, hilarious, jubilant short film that comes with it. Cabello, who’s preparing the release (sometime in 2018) of her debut solo album “The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving,” has set a very high bar for her upcoming work. If the record is as good as its leading single (and its video, especially the video), then we’re looking at a coming out party for the ages.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlrYn_dZdqk

It would be wrong to call “Havana” a star-making turn for Cabello, who’s pretty clearly already a star. Her collaborations with Shawn Mendes, Machine Gun Kelly, and Pitbull and J Balvin have all climbed the Billboard charts and been watched hundreds of millions of times on YouTube. She took advantage of her years as a member of the girl group Fifth Harmony to learn how to navigate the music industry and make herself stand out, though admittedly her departure from the band was more dramatic than it should’ve been. Even though her solo career is barely a year old, she says, with “Havana” she’s beginning a new stage. In case there’s any doubt about her seriousness, she’s surprisingly decided to drop her first solo track, “Crying in the Club,” from the upcoming album and give the place of honor to “Havana.”

But what does this mean? What should we expect from Camilla Cabello 2.0? We’ll just have to wait for “The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving.” to come out to know for sure. But in the meantime, the contrast between “Havana” and her previous work provides some intriguing and very heartening clues.

There’s the song itself, of course. While Cabello’s collaborations with other artists, as well as her own “Crying in the Club,” rely on contemporary hip hop rhythms and overdone arrangements, “Havana” looks back at the mambos of pre-revolutionary Cuba. The music hypnotizes with its confident, languorous pace. The lyrics flow with ease, here confessional – “half of my heart is in Havana” – here poetic – “I’m doing forever in a minute.” The middle section is taken over by rapper Young Thug’s sexualized lyrics – “bump on her bumper like a traffic jam” – which thankfully play second fiddle to Cabello’s lead vocals.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qooQd8AA7_M

Then there’s the video, which is most certainly a break from what’s come before. At the start of her career, Cabello followed the example of female pop stars in the United States and Latin America and displayed herself and her sexuality for the world to consume. The most egregious example is Fifth Harmony’s “He Like That”, in which five young and supremely talented female performers are made to writhe, glistening with sweat, for the pleasure of the male gaze. Pitbull and J Balvin’s “Hey Ma” does a slightly better job of showcasing Cabello’s fresh-faced beauty and spectacular dancing, but in the end she’s reduced to the typical role of boot-shaking sex dream. Even in “Crying in the Club” she’s more a caricature than a real person: at times the heartbroken, pouty-lipped hottie, at others the sex-crazed vixen on the dance floor.

Not so in “Havana,” directed by Dave Meyers. Meyers has collaborated with Pink and Kendrick Lamar. And I will now be assiduously following his work. The video opens with a fictional Camila (played by Cabello) bursting into a bedroom. She wears a flouncy yellow dress and sports massive earrings and a massive hairdo. A barely-dressed couple lies on a big bed, obviously caught mid-frolic. “Juan,” exclaims Camila, “how could you? And with my best friend, María!” At that moment, a second woman’s head appears from under the linens on the floor. Camila is aghast. “And the maid?” She swoons melodramatically at this betrayal. But no! Out of the closet emerges a second man, the twin of the one on the bed. He is the real Juan, who was hiding in the closet. “So now you are out of the closet?,” Cabello deadpans.

The situation is ridiculous, of course, and very funny. It establishes the self-aware tone of the video, its fluid attitude towards gender and sexuality, and also provides an early taste of Cabello’s exquisite comic timing. The scene, it turns out, was being watched on a small television by young Karla (also Cabello). Then the image goes out. Karla’s grandmother, played by comedian LeJuan James in a bad wig and four-day stubble. What ensues is a hilarious family scene featuring Karla, her sister Bella (Lele Pons), and their Abuelita. The dialogue is pitch perfect, filled with color and slang and warmness. These are not actors with Latin roots struggling with a language they don’t really speak. There is a real understanding of the patterns and subtleties of Spanish in this scene. Real love and real craft.

What’s more, these are three well-conceived women (even if one is a man in drag) interacting in a thoroughly recognizable way. They know each other. They love and support each other. Abuelita yells at the young girls but smiles lovingly as soon as their backs are turned. When Bella sets to leave for her night out on the town, Abuelita notices she’s showing a lot of skin, but rather than berate or shame her she only chides “Put a coat on! It’s cold outside.” Abuelita sits with Karla to watch TV, but the older woman is soon fast asleep. So Karla, who’s a romantic but also afraid of love, goes out to see a movie on her own.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ0mxQXmLsk

On the big screen is shown yet another version of Cabello, this time in a short, fringed dress, entering an old-fashioned dance club. The “film” allows Cabello to show off her moves and shake her booty to her heart’s content. She is flirty, bouncy, almost unbearably sexy. But, unlike in her earlier videos, Cabello isn’t using her sexuality for cheap display. Here she owns her body and herself. She will dance a few heated steps with a hunky guy, then another, then walk away as the two men fall into each other’s arms. She engages in a steamy tug-of-war with the one who lusts for her (the equally fresh-faced and gorgeous Noah Centineo), but refuses to let herself be owned.

“You love me,” he mouths (it’s a silent film). “I do love you,” she retorts, “but I love me more.” The rebuffed suitor walks away, and we are thrown back into the perspective of Karla, sitting by herself at the movie theater, munching on her popcorn. Karla is furious that the lovers onscreen didn’t end up together. Then film Cabello turns to look at her doppelganger. “Honey,” she says, “if you don’t like my story, go write your own.”

There’s so much going on here. So much energy, so much humor, so much heart. “Havana” boasts an empowering message for women without rejecting the twin thematic pillars of pop music: love and sex. But the real love here is between Karla and her family, who want the best for each other even if they don’t see the world in the same way. I’m wild about this video, in case you haven’t noticed. If this is the level of art Cabello is planning to gift the world as she takes her place as the new queen of Latin crossover hip- hop, then I say “God save the Queen!”

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