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The Breakdown: Rosalía Takes Us Through the Process of Recording Her Erotic Ballad ‘Hentai’

Rolling Stone’s January cover star Rosalía sat down to discuss her ballad “Hentai” for the latest episode of “The Breakdown.”

Rosalía had been in the studio with Pharrell, working on what would become her acclaimed third album Motomami. She set out to make a ballad, but she didn’t want to make one with typical emotional themes. She wanted hers to be more sexual and erotic, inspired by the daring careers of Madonna and Björk. Pharrell and Rosalía first began working on the song in Miami and finished it in New York at the iconic Electric Lady Studios, where Rosalía recently sat down with Rolling Stone and shared exactly how they came up with the track.

Early on, Pharrell played her the chord progression that immediately interested Rosalía — she says she was struck by how “delicate” and “very tasteful” it sounded. It reminded her of Disney and Frank Sinatra, which offered a stark contrast to the song’s explicit lyricism. Those chords went on to become song’s the chorus.

Rosalía sings the verses in Spanish and English, a tribute to the collaborative process of making the track with Pharrell. While she had composed the verses, she gives credit to the iconic producer and artist for crafting the chorus and wanted to keep the way he wrote it in there. “If he expresses himself like that, it makes sense to keep it like that,” she explains.

She goes on to describe the lyrics as almost a half-poem, chopped up to prioritize phonetics and punchlines. She was also very intentional about keeping the sound of “Hentai” quite bare: Most of the song is just her voice, Pharrell’s top line vocals on the chorus, and the piano. The lines intersect sex and spirituality, something Rosalía didn’t want to drown out. She cut many of the original harmonies and only used one moment of vocal reverb. “The emotion is a priority,” she explains. 

The delicate nature of the song takes a surprising turn towards the end when it introduces a reggaeton drum roll. Rosalía got the sample from a friend’s expansive archive and collection of reggaeton sounds that he had generously shared with her to use on the album. She still has more she would like to try in the future.

For Rosalía, “Hentai” is emblematic of what making Motomami meant to her: absolute freedom. “The whole project was about that,” she continues. “It was about how far can I push to get as much freedom as possible.”

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