By Eóin Donnelly
Amidst all the hype surrounding Cardi B’s long-awaited debut album Invasion of Privacy, it was easy to forget that the RnB world was welcoming its own newest megastar in the making in Kali Uchis. Remember the name- and especially how to spell it- because you might need it for your next letter to Santa. I mean concert tickets of course… if you could get RnB singers for Christmas I’d have ran out of room at the inn long ago. As the standout feature on my second favourite album of the whole of 2017- not to mention one of my top 20 songs– I was always going to keep an eye out for Kali Uchis’ debut album, but I’d be lying if I said I was struggling with the wait. In the lead-up to Uchis’ debut album Isolation, I checked out her earlier mixtapes, and while there was no denying her talent nothing quite stuck in the same way as Flower Boy’s ‘See You Again.’
Like collaborator Tyler, The Creator, in the best possible way Kali Uchis is a weirdo. On Isolation she shatters even unreasonable expectations and the glass ceiling to boot, merging an amalgamation of genres through the prism of unorthodox summer grooves with an undeniably effortless pop charisma that virtually guarantees mainstream success. Beginning with the mysteriously alluring ‘Body Language’, which sounds part-Blaxploitation homage and part-LSD trip, Isolation lures you into a wonderland that is entirely Uchis’ making. With every song, you feel you have been here before, yet everything is nameless and indescribably strange, like the first moments after waking from a lucid dream. This blend of amiable familiarity and idiosyncratic psychedelia is difficult to pull off on one song let alone replicate across an entire album, yet it is this consistent feeling of déjà vu in wonderland that ties this excellent and diverse collection of fifteen songs together.
In this sense, it is fitting that Uchis devotes two songs to conveying this exact experience. Firstly, there is ‘In My Dreams’, a suitably ethereal, delicate and imaginative bop that beautifully captures the feeling of blissful solitude that can oftentimes only be found when we are sleeping: “Everything is just wonderful here in my dreams/Here in my dreams/Every day is a holiday when you’re living inside your dreams/Why would anyone stay awake after being so sound asleep?/Everything is just wonderful in my dreams.” A true standout, its impactful genius is only amplified by the following ‘Gotta Get Up (Interlude)’, with its initially dreamlike and slowly transitioning production expressing the disappointed feeling of waking up from imagination’s heaven into mundane reality as well as I’ve ever heard. It is just one example of how perfectly Uchis has sequenced her debut.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that an artist this sophisticated probably hasn’t got much to offer the average listener, in fact Isolation is full of incredibly addictive RnB that could become radio mainstays despite not pertaining to any standard formula. In directorial terms, Uchis has the meticulous eye for detail of a Stanley Kubrick, the artsy summer aesthetic of a Wes Anderson and the popular appeal of a Steven Spielberg. Moreover, Uchis is a gifted songwriter, executing familiar tropes in her own exciting way with a versatile array of impressive melodies that keep the album enjoyable from start to finish. For a potential hit look no further than ‘Dead To Me’, with its 80’s-esque synthetic production and a hook that will have any woman who has ever had to put up with a creep who can’t take no for an answer- so basically every woman that ever existed- singing along emphatically: “You’re dead to me/You’re obsessed, just let me go/You’re dead to me/I’m not somebody you know/You’re dead to me/Could you just leave me alone?” Relative inexperience is never a factor on Isolation, with Uchis’ malleable pen also exploring the classic trope of the gold-digger on my personal favourite ‘Just A Stranger’: “She wants my hundred dollar bills/She don’t want love.” Steve Lacy absolutely kills this hook. If you can listen to ‘Just A Stranger’ once and not have it stuck in your head all day you have no soul.
To call the album diverse is an understatement, with Uchis excelling over genres as wide-ranging as reggaeton (‘Nuestro Planeta’), neo-soul (‘Killer’), psychedelic RnB (‘Tomorrow’), bossa nova (‘Body Language’), RnB (‘Your Teeth In My Neck’) and funk (‘After The Storm’). That’s merely scratching the surface, with Isolation serving up a buffet of delectable musical treats that only become more appetising as the gorgeous instrumental subtleties reveal themselves one-by-one after each listen. A trained jazz pianist and saxophonist, Uchis clearly knows her musical history, drawing influence from Motown-era torch ballads and doo-wop (‘Flight 22’), 70’s funk (‘After The Storm’), 80’s synth-pop (‘Dead To Me’) and perhaps even some of The Neptunes’ productions that dominated the 2000’s. Speaking of which, Uchis couldn’t have chosen any better than Neptunes-loving Tyler for the one rap verse on the album (‘After The Storm’), where the duo pick up where they left off on Flower Boy with another soulful and languid sunshine anthem.
All in all, Isolation earmarks Kali Uchis as one of the hottest emerging talents in music. You only need look at Uchis’ music videos to perceive an artist that knows exactly what she is trying to execute, a pop auteur with visual flamboyance that slots in nicely as the final piece of Isolation’s polychromatic, cosmic funk jigsaw. Earlier this week, I was gobsmacked to discover that another Latin-American popstar in Camila Cabello is the fifth most popular artist on Spotify worldwide. By comparison, Cabello’s eponymous debut released earlier this year is a tepid amalgam of mainstream radio fodder that fails to match Isolation’s vibrant production or Uchis’ charismatic presence in front of a microphone. With that in mind, it is surely a matter of when and not if Uchis becomes a household name in her own right. She has all the tools required. Her spectacular vocals are capable of scorching simmering dancefloor bangers or hushing you into placid, poolside reverie. An instant pick for one of 2018’s greatest albums, Isolation could well go down as one of this decade’s finest RnB projects from a singer who is well-positioned to dominate the next one. With so many different styles on show, one could perhaps accuse Uchis of vainglorious exhibitionism. But when you’re this fucking talented, who’s complaining?