Camila Cabello hasn’t had it easy with her latest album C, XOXO. Since dropping the lead single “I Luv It” in March, she’s been criticized for “trying too hard” to go against the radio pop identity that she built with her hits  “Havana” and Señorita” — two songs, by the way, that stan Twitter already hates. She was accused of copying her contemporaries, straining to be edgy, and embracing an aesthetic that seemed to contradict the picture-perfect pop star manufactured for her when she was in Fifth Harmony. But all along, this Cabello — a fried-blonde, anime and rap-referencing wild child she’s presented on C, XOXO — was always there. Many of us just hadn’t met her yet.

Cabello’s fourth album follows the “rebrand” model set by the pop stan cycle. These expectations around reinvention are placed almost exclusively on women, and demand that artists change their aesthetics and style for every single album. Take Taylor Swift going from snakes and revenge on Reputation to rainbows and Lisa Frank on Lover. Or Katy Perry, who went from frolicking among flowers on Prism to edgy Nicki Minaj collabs and an infamous pixie cut on Witness. Women in pop are asked constantly to peel a layer of themselves for the consumer and present a new “version” of their artistry, often for fans, like in Cabello’s case, to pick apart. It creates an unsustainable, never-ending loop for pop queens and sets artists up for an inevitable flop era.

But the thing is, we should be letting the pop girlies try what they want without so much scrutiny and pressure. And in this case, there’s reason to believe Cabello is actually tapping into a real side of herself, rather than just making this whole aesthetic up for commercial gains. She’s always been the weirdo she shows us on C, XOXO: During Fifth Harmony’s Reflection and 7/27 eras, she was known for putting fans onto experimental pop music such as Jon Bellion’s Human Condition and Stromae’s Racine Carrée — two albums known for their eccentric, boundary-pushing production styles. Cabello was always up to something that didn’t align with the sugary pop cuteness she’s known for, even if it wasn’t apparent to the casual listener. 

This C, XOXO Cabello, who wears ski masks onstage and samples Gucci Mane, is not that far of a cry from the one she showed us on the often-forgotten, and truly underrated, “Love Incredible,” the Cashmere Cat collaboration co-produced by… checks notes… the incomparable Sophie. On “Love Incredible,” Cabello’s voice-filtered high-notes danced over hip-hop drum beats that had C, XOXO’s experimental heart written all over it. Cabello simply may not have been given the chance to show this side before, given label pressures and her girl group past. As she told The Line of Best Fit, this album finally sees her “carrying out what my intentions have actually been from the beginning of my career: to make pop music that feels left-of-center. To be on the inside, while still being a little bit on the outside.” 

Artists are always digging deeper to find more to their artistry, and it’s often met with backlash. See, for example, Becky G, who allowed herself to go from teenage rap star to reggeaeton reina to música mexicana singer in the span of three albums. Though some fans accused her of pandering to Latin trends, she ultimately found the space to embrace all sides of her Latinidad on Esquemas and Esquinas. Or take Rosalía, who transitioned from the avant-garde, flamenco-focused Mal Querer to the helmet-wearing, reggaeton-infused Motomami — and faced immediate pushback. Paired with a stunning live show, the Motomami era proved to become a fan-favorite and earned her four Latin Grammys, including Album of the Year. It takes courage to try something left-field — eventually, the recognition follows suit. (C, XOXO and Motomami share production mastermind El Guincho in common.)


Aside from the rebrand, Cabello’s rollout has been plagued by a series of unfortunate events outside of her. Charli XCX arrived with the generation-defining album Brat, which many tried comparing C, XOXO to; seemingly every other pop girl — Dua, Billie, Ariana, Normani, Tyla — dropped seminal albums around the same time. City Girls’ JT and Yung Miami beefed online as it was announced they’d join her on a Dade County ode and Drake, who’s featured prominently on an interlude and an album standout “Hot Uptown,” suddenly became rap’s most-hated villain; and to top things off, The-Dream, whom Cabello samples (and originally featured) on standout “Dream-Girls,” faced a rape accusation a week before Cabello announced her LP’s tracklist. All of this pulled attention from and clouded the kooky experimentation Cabello embraced on the album. Unfortunately for Cabello, her music simply doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

Regardless of the perception of her fourth album at this point in time, C, XOXO will be an exciting album to revisit once we’re far away from the pop oversaturation that’s been 2024. The album captured Cabello departing from the single-focused album era that defined her in the past and sees her instead embracing a new aesthetic and musical energy that pushed her out of her comfort zone. C, XOXO was made to subvert expectations, to stretch her songwriting muscles, and will, perhaps, be more of a cult classic than a generally embraced record. And that’s OK. As Rolling Stone’s review described, Cabello presented a “feisty, hungry album that feels fearless even as it grapples with the unknown.” She’s a better artist for giving it a stab.

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