From Girl Group Veteran to Solo Star: How Camila Cabello Scored Her Biggest Hit Yet With 'Havana'

Camila Cabello, 2017
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Camila Cabello attends the 2017 Latin American Music Awards - press room held at Dolby Theatre on Oct. 26, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif.

Camila Cabello, solo star, has arrived.

With "Havana" ft. Young Thug surging to the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, the 20-year-old pop star has not only achieved the highest Hot 100 ranking of her solo outings, but she bests the previous peak she reached with Fifth Harmony (both Fifth Harmony's "Work From Home" and Machine Gun Kelly's "Bad Things" ft. Camila Cabello peaked at No. 4). That means nearly 11 months after officially parting ways with 5H – and a full five years after the group reached the semi-finals on The X Factor (despite Britney Spears' confusion) -- Cabello is soaring higher than ever before. And unlike her time on Simon Cowell's reality show or in 5H, this is all on her own terms.

How did Camila go from girl group refugee to solo star with a bona fide hit in less than a year? By making a series of smart career choices, both in terms of public image and musical styles. Here's a run-through of her career savvy so far.

High Profile Features

Cabello first dipped her toes into the solo game in Nov. 2015 with the Shawn Mendes duet "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Whether that song's success (it reached No. 20 on the Hot 100 and afforded her the chance to perform on The Tonight Show and the People's Choice Awards) was a conscious testing of the waters or merely intended as a one-off diversion from her main gig, it effectively laid the groundwork for the idea of Cabello as a breakout star from 5H in the public's mind.

But it was her featured vocal turn on MGK's "Bad Things," released just two months before the split, that was the stroke of genius. While Cabello is the featured artist on that hit (whereas she shared equal billing on her Mendes duet), her turn on the Fastball-interpolating track would prove to be far more fruitful. Even though it's MGK's song, it's the vocal hook in "Bad Things" that latches onto your ears for days – and her aching, sultry delivery steals the show. Sure, she's the second-billed name, but you walk away from "Bad Things" wondering whose voice breathed new life into a 17-year-old alt-rock hit. Thus the name 'Camila Cabello' became familiar to those outside the Harmonizer realm, allowing that when she released her proper solo debut, fans outside the teen pop demographic might pay attention.

Avoiding Drama

When Camila Cabello's exit from Fifth Harmony was announced in Dec. 2016, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Harmonizer Land, with some she-said, they-said drama and plenty of fan arguing online. But when #CamilasOverParty started trending on Twitter or her former bandmates addressed her exit, Cabello opted for the most difficult -- but ultimately the wisest -- route: Doing nothing.

No one wants to be misrepresented or roasted by Twitter, but trending topics invariably fade away -- but public statements made in the heat of anger don't. For a solo singer who had yet to establish her identity in the public eye, remaining mostly quiet on the 5H front ensured that the public's first impression of Camila Cabello wouldn't be that she was a star embroiled in petty feuds. When she inevitably had to address her exit in interviews, her comments were concise and diplomatic: "It's hard for me to talk about" and "I only got love for them" she told Billboard in a Feb. 2017 cover story. So far, that approach has worked – speculation over what really happened between her and 5H has died down, and she's entering a phase in her career where articles about her have dropped "former Fifth Harmony singer" from the headlines. If she were still engaged in a war of words with the band, that likely wouldn't be the case.

Live Magic

Before we talk about "Havana," credit should be given to her on-stage prowess. That endless touring with Fifth Harmony paid off, because Cabello is captivating on stage, exuding charm, control and humility -- not unlike Bruno Mars, another pop star with a renowned live presence. Probably not coincidentally, Cabello opened for Mars on a slew of his 2017 dates, which undoubtedly earned her fresh fans and a chance to learn from one of the best in the business (he's owned the Super Bowl twice -- and one time it wasn't even his show). 

Making Radio Headway With Familiar Sounds

With a few more featured appearances helping gently bolster her public image (she's done songs with Cashmere Cat, J Balvin & Pitbull and Major Lazer) in 2017, Camila made her proper solo single debut with "Crying In the Club" in May after soft-launching her career with "Bad Things" seven months earlier. Not unlike that MGK track, her debut drew on a familiar melody that graced radio waves just before the new millennium. While "Bad Things" interpolated Fastball's ubiquitous 1999 hit "Out of My Mind," "Crying In the Club" nabbed the non-chorus hook from Christina Aguilera's 1999 smash "Genie In a Bottle." That (and the Sia co-write) ensured that the song had a melody (and flavor) familiar to listeners, which can help a song's chances at radio. (What radio programmers fear most is someone changing the channel, so delivering a song that sounds familiar to something people already love is a business-savvy way of getting a foothold in a crowded market.)

And while "Crying" was hardly a breakout solo smash for Cabello (it peaked at No. 47), you could make the argument that her debut solo single was never going to be a blockbuster release anyway. Compare her and 5H to Zayn and One Direction, for example. While 1D's unqualified industry success and the band's readily identifiable personalities ensured that Zayn's first solo single would be an unmissable pop culture event (and in fact, it topped the Hot 100), the same wasn't guaranteed for Cabello. The first solo single from the first singer to leave 5H was never teed up for across-the-board success the way the first solo single from the first singer to leave 1D was. What "Crying" did do, however, was give her just enough of a foothold on the charts and radio to ensure that what came next would have a decent shot at making a landing stick. And with "Havana," she seems to have done just that.

The Right Song at the Right Time

This year, "Despacito" became the biggest Latin smash in two decades, and "Mi Gente" demonstrated it wasn't a fluke, but rather a sign that America (minus the White House) is warming up to the mainstreaming of Latin culture. With that in mind, Cabello's "Havana" is more than a slinky, sensual mixture of Cuban flavors, radio-oriented American pop and Atlanta hip-hop courtesy of a Thugger feature – it's also a socio-politically relevant track, which the lyrics directly speak to. "Half of my heart is in Havana," Cabello sings wistfully – and unlike the Queens-born Tony Bennett singing "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" back in the day, this chorus is biographically poignant for Cabello, who was born in Eastern Havana and spent time in Mexico City before relocating to Miami at age 5. That "Havana" speaks to a multi-national personal identity is, of course, a personal topic for Cabello, but it's also a theme many Latinos living in America can identify with – especially when plenty of narrow-minded conservatives won't let them forget it. Compare that to the Quavo-assisted "OMG," a less-poignant (but nevertheless awesome) Cabello song released in Aug. 2017; both "OMG" and "Havana" were soft released, allowing her time to watch and see which song organically found an audience before throwing full promotional efforts behind it. 

So yes, "Havana" has a relevance that's probably helped bring it to No. 2 on the Hot 100 two months after its release. But its success is as much the result of the song as it's a product of Cabello's long-laid groundwork and savvy moves through the treacherous process of splitting with a beloved group. And to that end, it's hard to imagine that this will be her last trip to the Hot 100's top 10, especially with debut album The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving on the way.


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