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.
“Malamente” begins with improvised hand-clapping, flamenco’s heartbeat, layered with electronic drum patterns and chords that can recall both a Cuban dance floor and a cathedral. The sacred and profane combine as barrio banter and hip-hop toasts frame the simultaneously street smart and celestial singing voice of Rosalía — whose life, she would say a year later, was changed by the 2018 song.
“The main core of the song was made real quick,” El Guincho, who co-produced “Malamente” with the 26-year-old artist, tells Billboard. Hip hop artist C. Tangana co-wrote the lyrics of “Malamente” with Rosalía, who made her name in Spain as a millennial flamenco revivalist before being globally embraced as a Latin music star.
“It started as a handclap improv we recorded with Rose,” says El Guincho. “I came up with the chords sequence in the afternoon. I was about to leave the studio, then Rose showed up and I played her the beat. She made that really unique look she does when she is about to do something special… the song, both sonically and lyrically, really was made in a day.”
“Malamente” is the opening track of Rosalía’s album El Mal Querer, which is based on a medieval romance novel titled Flamenca. While enthusiastic critics and fans were quick to categorize “Malamente” as the latest in Latin trap, both Rosalía and El Guincho rejected that label, insisting that despite its electronic framework, the song is a 21st Century rendition of the copla, a dramatic Southern Spanish ballad style with flamenco flourishes.
“It’s a more modern take on it that draws from other genres, but that is still what it is,” says El Guincho.
While the sound of “Malamente,” which Rosalía says came out of her desire to combine flamenco and sampling, may defy easy definition, the impact of the song is undebatable. In Spain, it spent 72 weeks on the Top 100 songs chart and has made the expression “trá trá” part of everyday conversation. At the 2018 Latin Grammys, where it was nominated for five awards and won two, “Malamente” moved the needle in a Latin music industry stuck in what had become a repetitive reggaetón-derived groove. Even English-language media picked up on Rosalía’s unique sound and style, creating a buzz that only grew louder when she performed at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, and leading to two nominations at the 2020 Grammys, including best new artist.
Like other bold, ground-breaking music, “Malamente” attracted controversy as well as accolades. In Spain, the song’s video, an edgy mix of religious and cultural iconography and street culture, brought new appeal to tired Spanish stereotypes like the macho bullfighter and also to images identified with flamenco itself. But members of the Roma community levied claims of cultural appropriation against Rosalía, a white Catalan women who grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside of Barcelona: “She uses our symbols like false eyelashes.” Since her breakthrough with “Malamente,” she has also been accused by some Latinos of being a “colonizer” for performing songs with Latin American rhythms, since she is from Spain and not from Latin America. (Rosalía has countered that what’s reflected in the song and the images are “all part of my experience.”)
It’s actually the kind of ad-libbed mashup — in the case of “Malamente,” flamenco vocals, electronic rhythms and Latin beats, — that for centuries has been intrinsic to both flamenco and Latin music, neither of which would exist as we know them without constant reciprocity, recycling and reinventing. Together with her collaborators, Rosalía furthered that fertile evolution with a sound that she describes as “about tradition — but also about experimentation.”