When Camila Cabello announced her departure from Fifth Harmony at the end of 2016, some thought the move was ill-timed given that the "Work From Home" girl group was at the height of their success. Yet with the release of her debut album Camila—that could top the charts next week—the 20-year-old singer proved that the importance of her needing to find and embrace her identity as an artist to ultimately reach her full potential.
More than a year ago, those worries about Camila's prospects as a solo star were not unfounded. Yes, even before turning 20, the singer had scored two Top 40 hits and a No. 1 radio single, the latter accomplishment coming via singing on MGK's "Bad Things" that sampled a beloved '90s rock hit by Fastball. Yet, Camila as lead artist was still unproven.
Even when it was finally time to shine solo the results were, at first, lackluster. The Sia-penned "Crying in the Club" garnered loads of interest, but was coupled by reviews saying Cabello "followed Sia's demo a little too closely" and how it "bears a passing resemblance to Sia's 'Cheap Thrills.'" Despite high-profile performances, including its debut at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards, the track stalled on the charts at No. 47 with 5H's comeback single "Down" ultimately outperforming it on the charts. The reflective, brooding ballad "I Have Questions" was released days after "CITC" and felt more indicative of where Cam's vocals could go, but both tracks didn't have the impact necessary for a new artist to make their mark.
All that changed three months later with the release of "Havana," an effortless Latin-pop tune that doubled as an ode to her home country's capital. Released alongside the trap-heavy, confidence anthem "OMG" with Quavo—which a recent Billboard report reveals was pushed as the "big smash" by her label Sony Music in the double-single release—Spotify executive Mike Biggane said that mere days later it was clear that "'Havana' was the song that audiences were really reacting to." To date, the ubiquitous, Young Thug–featuring smash has peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, while snagging the honors of being the most-played song on Top 40 and rhythmic radio. These chart accolades ultimately outperform anything from Fifth Harmony so far. And much of that success likely came from Cabello's deeper roots into the track.
Cabello has been proud and open about her immigrant background since the start of her career, but began opening up more about her past in 2017, at a time when foreigners and Latinx people were under scrutiny and attack from the Trump administration. Camila was born in Havana, Cuba, where she and her family lived back and forth between Mexico City before she crossed the border at age seven with her mother and sister in hopes of a better life in America.
“We have home in us”
In a brilliant essay for PopSugar Latina last year, Camila opened up about her Cuban background and how her family always have their culture at the forefront of their minds in America. "Whenever we find another person from our country, we freak out," she wrote. "'¿De qué parte?' Because we have home in us. Because we brought it with us. Every Cuban brought it with them and so we have Miami...my mamá and papá did not leave everything behind, they brought it with them."
Longtime fans would add that Camila's vocals and delivery in "Havana" felt more personal, emphasizing her addictive, sassy rasp more than she had in past solo cuts too. While Latin-influenced music was the of-the-moment genre this summer (hey, "Despacito"), many artists attempted to find their fortune in the trendy music scene, but few found the success Cabello enjoyed with "Havana." In fact, had the song not become such a huge hit single, it's possible we still would not have Camila—keep in mind that we're still waiting for full solo albums from the likes of Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson who seemingly haven't found their full footing as artists.
Havana, both the song and city, was always a part of Camila and Camila has always been a part of Havana. That was what truly connected listeners with Camila the solo artist. It wasn't the Sia-penned banger, it wasn't the Migos-featuring trap anthem and it wasn't singing the hook on someone else's song. It was the song that honored her personal history while also pushing forward a bright future for Latinx artists and immigrants just like herself. When all that is baked into your single, how could the results not lead to greater things?
Take it back to the beginning of Camila's journey with this #FBF clip of her competing on X Factor: