Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
By August 2017, Camila Cabello had released two solo singles since leaving Fifth Harmony in December 2016: A bouncy banger called “Crying in the Club” and an impassioned ballad titled “I Have Questions.” The former, her official debut single, barely cracked the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100; the latter never reached the chart. The arrival of “Havana,” a mid-tempo piano-driven track with Latin flair, on Aug. 3 marked a pivotal moment for Cabello in proving her potential as a solo star.
The flirty song was released in conjunction with a hip-hop inspired track titled “OMG,” partly because Cabello’s label, Epic/Syco, felt “Havana” was too slow to be a hit. But the song’s sultry rhythm was exactly what caught attention, particularly because it fused Latin with pop and urban at a time when all three were dominating. “Havana” arrived as Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” was in the middle of its 16-week No. 1 run on the Hot 100, the start of a Latin boom in top 40 that many had underestimated.
What made “Havana” special, though, was that it wasn’t just following a trend: Cabello was born in Havana, and up until that point, hadn’t released any music reflecting her Latina roots.
“What people didn’t understand at the time was that Camila is not Fifth Harmony,” says Sandra Afloarei, SVP Promotion at Epic Records/Sony Music. “She didn’t really have a true voice, or at least a spotlight on her true voice, until ‘Havana.’ Even ‘Crying in the Club’ — she’s not a club girl, she’ll tell you that. ‘Havana’ was her stamp on the music industry.”
“Havana” initially began during a three-day session among Cabello, Ali Tamposi, Frank Dukes and Andrew Watt; the four crafted the song’s hook off of the undulating piano loop Dukes created after a conversation with Cabello about bringing her Cuban-American identity into her music. Dukes, who also produced the track, enlisted the help of Brittany Hazzard (a.k.a. Starrah), Brian Lee, Pharrell Williams, Louis Bell and Kaan Gunesberk to get the track to the finish line.
Perhaps Dukes’ best idea was recruiting East Atlanta native Young Thug as the song’s featured artist — not only for the authenticity (“Havana” is a love story between a girl from Havana and a bad boy from East Atlanta), but also because of his musicality. “It was a perfect sonic collaboration,” Tamposi suggests. “There’s a lot of similarities between Camila and Young Thug melodically too — their ranges grab you in the same way, the way they bounce all over the scale.”
Though “Havana” wasn’t an instant smash on the Hot 100 — the song debuted at No. 99 in August 2017 and took 10 weeks to crack the top 20 – the arrival of its music video that October catapulted the song into the chart’s top 10, and eventually, all the way to No. 2 by early November. The telenovela-inspired, nearly 7-minute video (an eventual video of the year winner at the MTV Video Music Awards) further saw Cabello lean into her Latin background.
“‘Havana’ doesn’t feel like it’s a representation of trend by any means,” Tamposi says. “Everything [in the song] spoke to [Camila’s] soul. She felt really empowered by the record.”
While Afloarei remembers “Havana” having strong streaming numbers pretty early, radio was where the song was really resonating. By the second week of January 2018, “Havana” had led the Pop Songs chart for seven weeks, marking the longest reign for a song by a solo female in a lead role in nearly five years. And in March, “Havana” became the first hit by a female artist to top the Pop Songs, Rhythmic Songs and Adult Pop Songs charts since 1996.
“Havana” seemed to alter the course of Cabello’s solo career completely. She changed the name of her debut album from The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving. to simply Camila, and her first two solo releases didn’t even make the track list. Just as the reaction to “Havana” indicated, Cabello had found her groove: Camila debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in January 2018, lifting “Havana” to No. 1 on the Hot 100, the singer’s first chart-topper of her career.
Two years later, “Havana” has more than 1.4 billion on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music. In August 2019, Cabello’s Latin-inspired sound proved to be successful once again, as her Shawn Mendes collab “Señorita” topped the Hot 100. Cabello’s subsequent 2019 releases carry the same confidence that Cabello found with “Havana,” affirming that the song wasn’t just a hit — it had created a superstar.
“She’s become this representative for young women doing things on their own,” Afloarei says. “A lot of people are looking up to her, and listening to her when she’s speaking about the DREAMERS [Act] and immigration. She put Havana in everyone’s vocabulary, and opened their minds up, like, ‘This pop star that everybody loves, she’s actually an immigrant. Maybe we [should] think about things a little differently.’”