Album Review: Camila Cabello lets her freak flag fly on the sonically exciting C, XOXO

During Camila Cabello‘s tenure on the US talent reality series The X Factor in 2012 as a member of girl collective Fifth Harmony, at-the-time judge Demi Lovato singled her out during a performance to note that only she shined on stage.

Given her mammoth success as a soloist it’s often easy to forget that Cabello was born from the manufactured music scene, but her distinct, higher registered vocal tone in such a five-piece group seemed to always paint her as someone destined for a singular run as a musician.

Lovato wasn’t wrong back then, and in the decade-plus that the Cuban-American singer has been gracing the radio waves (8 years since her departure from Fifth Harmony in 2016), she’s continually proven her star status as a main pop player, fusing her heritage and eclectic love of genres across three albums thus far; 2018’s Camila, 2019’s Romance and 2022’s Familia.

With her fourth LP, C,XOXO, she’s arguably taking her biggest risk as a creative.  Whereas her previous records were all launched off the back of Latin-tinged hits (“Havana”, “Senorita” and “Bam Bam”, respectively), this is coming to ears in the midst of an aesthetic rebrand and a hyper-pop sound that is considerably divisive and, on their own, seemingly too weird to connect with the masses; the avant-pop sound of the Playboi Carti-assisted, Gucci Mane-sampled “I Luv It” had many questioning her hyperactive shift.

And whilst the song’s colossal nature and repetitive chorus earn it praise and criticism in equal measure – and, yes, it’s not the most obvious choice as a lead single – it speaks to Cabello’s fearlessness in a pop atmosphere that so often rewards safe mediocrity.  The odd structure of “I Luv It”, however, makes sense when heard in the larger context of C, XOXO, which she has described as a love letter to Miami and the city’s melting pot of sounds.

Similarly, the Lil Nas X collaboration “He Knows”, a more house-leaning, unfiltered pop track in which she samples Ojerime’s “Give It Up 2 Me”, and the predominantly auto-tuned “Chanel No. 5“, where she exclaims she’s a “Cute girl with a sick mind, I know just how to play my cards right” over a warbled piano riff, feel sonically cohesive when surrounded by the hip-hop influences of “Dade County Dreaming”, featuring JT and Yung Miami aka City Girls, “Dream-Girls”, which interpolates “Shawty Is Da Shit” by The-Dream and Fabolous, and the reggaeton-lite “Pretty When I Cry”, which sounds like one of the album’s biggest hits-in-waiting.

If anything’s likely to garner the most attention on C, XOXO though it’s the double featuring of Drake, with the performer earning essentially his own solo spot on the interlude “Uuugly”, which sees Cabello provide backing vocals, following “Hot Uptown”, a dancehall-injected earworm that feels lifted from his own bodies of work.

Whilst many listeners from the outside looking in may see Cabello’s shift as inauthentic or “trend chasing” (the comparisons to experimental pop singer Charli XCX have been widely discussed), there’s an irony in how C, XOXO sounds like where her musicality has always been travelling.  As much as she has thrived under the guise of a popstar in a game-playing lyrical manner, there’s always been a sense of risk-taking in her music, however subtle she made it.

From Young Thug’s appearance on “Havana”, to the clapping beat of unconventional Romance ballad “Living Proof”, through the trip-pop of Familia‘s “Psychofreak”, Cabello has always indulged in a musicality that goes beyond adhering to the laws of radio-friendly accessibility.  C, XOXO is the culmination of letting her freak flag fly, and whether we like it or not, it certifies her as a star willing to take chances so many of her peers aren’t.


C, XOXO is available through Geffen and Interscope Records from June 28th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.