the ultimate guide to understanding rosalía’s references
We break down the lyrics from 'El mal querer,' which are as complex as her nail art.
Screengrab from 'Milionària'
This article originally appeared on i-D Spain.
It’s been a little over six months since Rosalía released her second album, El mal querer, in which time seemingly the whole world has fallen for it at a record pace. Beyond her fusion of multiple musical genres, the blockbuster cinematography of her videoclips, and her extravagant manicures, one of the most interesting facets of Rosalía lies in the complexity of her lyrics. Which, of course, you wouldn't know unless you spoke Spanish, thus missing out on a whole world of meaning. Her words safeguard many secrets, and are as visceral as the ancient art of flamenco that feeds them.
The album is about a toxic relationship, inspired by an anonymous Occitan novel from the 13th century called Flamenca. There are many interpretations of the album, few of which have been addressed by Rosalía herself. The timeless narrative of El mal querer ("The bad love"), however, doesn’t entirely connect with the messages found in the latest singles, precisely the ones that have skyrocketed in the international market. In tracks like “Con Altura,” “Aute Cuture," and “Milionària,” the Catalan bombards us with contemporary references and talks a lot about her quick rise to fame, along with her love of jewelry and fast cars.
In this guide, we take a tour of her lyrics, which contain everything from idioms in Caló—a dialect spoken by the gypsies of Spain, France, and Portugal—to watches that cost more than our parents’ homes, to better understand the universe of pop’s newest sensation.
“De Héctor aprendí la sabrosura / Nunca he visto una joya tan pura” from “Con Altura”
[“From Hector I learned about flavor / never seen a gem this pure”]
If you thought that the Hector named by Rosalía in her reggaeton megahit was “El Bambino” from the duo known as Hector and Tito, you were almost right. In an interview for Genius, the singer confirms that she likes him almost as much as she likes Hector Lavoe, but this reference in particular is dedicated to Lavoe, one of the most important salsa singers of all time.
“Aunque no esté bonita, la noche undivé / Voy a salir pa' la calle” from “Malamente”
[“Even though it’s not pretty, the night undivé / I’m hitting the streets”]
If you paid careful attention to the lyrics of El mal querer, you’ll find various words in Caló. In this case, Rosalía, uses the word undivé in the first part of the track. The term is used by the gypsy community to refer to God. Rosalia uses it to illustrate that she will test her luck by going out on the streets, despite a gypsy’s warning of imminent danger.
“Perquè em tanquin el Louvre així com el Macba" from “Milionària”
[“Because I close the Louvre as well as Macba”]
After the Louvre was shut down in 2018 so Beyoncé and Jay Z could record “Apeshit,” the Parisian museum reached a record high number of visits that year. According to The Guardian, the statistics indicate that 50 percent of those visitors were under the age of 30. In “Milionària” a capitalist satire and the first song that Rosalía performs in Catalan, the artist refers to her roots and shares her desire to do the same as Queen B but for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, located in the artist’s favorite plaza. Can Rosalía convince the skaters, who spend all day skating at Plaça dels Àngels, to get off their boards and admire the works of Tàpies? Sure she can, why not?
“Por la noche, la sali'a del Bagdad” from “Bagdad”
[“At night, I left Bagdad”]
Without leaving Barcelona, we find another important location that is key to understanding the inspiration behind her album. Located a few meters away from Sala Apolo, lies Bagdad: a mythical erotic club, also located in the neighborhood of Raval, where the protagonist of El mal querer descends to hell. In this track the dark haired flamenco dancer cries inconsolably when exiting the club, the artist incorporating the melody from Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”. “[Justin] heard the song and said, "yes, you can use the melody." I got really excited because he never approves anything,” she confirmed on Beats 1.
Fun fact: the music video for “Bagdad” was not filmed in the actual Bagdad but at a club in Pigalle, a Parisian neighborhood.
“Uñas de Dvine ya me las han copiao' / Que te las clavo niño ten cuidao" from “Aute Cuture”
[“Nails from Dvine have gotten copied / they’ll dig into you, boy be careful”]
Rosalía, alongside artists like Bad Gyal, have made "nail art" a fundamental pillar of their visual imagery. In “Aute Cuture,” Dvine refers to Dvine Nails, a nail shop in Barcelona that specializes in sculpted nail techniques and does Rosalía's nails, becoming a big hit with her fans, as well as a topic of much debate on social media. In this case, the nails are interpreted as a symbol of status, but also a sharp weapon.
“Como las hojas de un cuchillo / Brillaban los sacáis suyo' cuando le di el anillo" from “Que no salga la luna”
[“Like the blades of a knife / outshone ‘em when I gave ‘em the ring”]
The most flamenco track of El mal querer is clearly influenced by the tragic verse of 1931 Bodas de Sangre by Federico García Lorca, as well as the author’s obsession with knives, razors, and the moon. Both the work and the song deals with a wedding doomed by jealousy and death. In it, Rosalía returns to Caló and uses “sacáis” which means "sacks" to allude to the eyes of the bride; a term that many may have heard in the legendary track "Tú me camelas" by Niña Pastori.
“Pongo rosas sobre el Panamera / Pongo palmas sobre la Guantanamera / Llevo a Camarón en la guantera (De la Isla)” from “Con Altura”
[“I lay roses over Panamera / I lay hands over la Guantanamera / I carry Camarón in the glovebox”]
Rosalía likes to take the wheel, but since this is something she can’t legally do, in “Con Altura” she decides to place roses as a feminine gesture over the mega expensive Porsche Panamera, named after the Pan American Race, an annual drag race rally held in Mexico. On the other hand, her enthusiasm for fusing musical genres is reflected in the following phrase, where she layers her flamenco sounds over a popular Cuban song. Additionally, the artist has stated various times that her favorite singer is Camarón de la Isla, one of the most important flamenco singers of all time. In this sense, Rosalía takes advantage of her international reach to assert the artist’s legendary status.
Fun Fact: In the music video of “Malamente”, the bullfighter who Rosalía tries to ram with a motorcycle is wearing a Camarón t-shirt.
The whole chorus of “Malamente”
This is where everything started. After a few months of gaining momentum from the first single of El mal querer, Rosalía got on Instagram stories to explain the album’s themes in response to watching a Youtuber’s viral analysis of the music’s technical styles. All those “toma que tome” and “así sí” which continuously play into the song, in fact, have no significant meaning; they’re ‘jaleos’, which is the flamenco equivalent of “ad libs” (similar to those commonly found in rap—think “It’s lit” by Travis Scott or “Huh?” by Kanye West. The “tra tra” in particular are derived from the “brap brap” of Jamaican music where the “tra” is frequently shouted during a flamenco performance.
“Porto dos Audemars / Fets a mà coberts de diamants / I un Hublot Black Caviar Bang bang / Que te'l puc regalar" from “Milionària”
[I bring two Audemars / Handmade diamond covers / Me a Hublot Black Caviar Bang Bang / What can you give”]
In the first half of her mixtape "F*cking Money Man,” Rosalía makes it very clear that—unlike the rest of us mortals—she doesn’t aspire to pay off a mortgage in 20 years. All queens need a jewel that will represent them, and our queen moves past a crown to a super luxurious watch down to the nails. The Swiss company Audemars Piguet is one of the most exclusive watch companies in the world and has fans ranging from Harry Styles to Kim Kardashian, while that black Hublot that is mentioned is valued at over a million Dollars.
“Sonando en las peñas y los Hamptons / Sangría y Valentino / En el Palace y en el chino" from “Aute Cuture"
[“Playing in the rocks and the Hamptons / Sangría and Valentino / In the Palace and in Chino”]
Her cross-sectional sound and rising international fame is reflected in this verse, where Rosalía assures us that she is speaking the truth. Despite her quick trajectory, she has worked with heavily respected flamenco legends such as Los Mellis, and performed at festivals such as Coachella and Glastonbury. The comparison between sangria and the Italian designer is a wink to her favorite color, red, which appears constantly in her imagery through the styling and videoclips.