Kali Uchis revitalizes femme pop in debut album ‘Isolation’

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

In her debut EP Por Vida, Kali Uchis spent most of her release defining who she is as an artist. After breaking into the scene, she made a name for herself as a modern-day soul singer with a cheeky vintage edge. Three years later, with a solid base of collaborators and fans under her acrylic fingertip, she ventures off into more experimental territory, fully establishing her dynamic power.

Isolation is incredibly multifaceted — at every turn, a new side of Uchis glitters. Uchis plays with different narratives in a way that adds dimensionality to her body of work. Although she is known for her glamorous, pinup aesthetic, this album demonstrates that there is so much more underneath the glittery sunglasses and the monochromatic ensembles. Through the eyes of the dizzy-in-love girl in “Tyrant,” of the gold digger in “Just A Stranger” and of the performer who beat all odds in “Miami,” Uchis shows off the complexity of her lyrical talents. It’s the faces of all these personas that ultimately make up the diamond that is Kali Uchis.

Often when guest artists are featured on albums, the sound of the title artist is sacrificed to highlight the presence of the features. In Isolation, Uchis and her star-studded list of collaborators — including Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Jorja Smith and Bootsy Collins —  strike a perfect balance between her trademark retro sound and the unique production value of each guest. Within “In My Dreams,” a track produced with Damon Albarn of Gorillaz fame, Uchis’ voice floats through a beat that sounds like it flowed right from the shores of Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach. This isn’t the first time the two artists have worked together — in 2017, Uchis appeared on the Humanz track “She’s My Collar.” “In My Dreams” brings a distinctly Gorillaz flavor to Uchis’ optimistic, upbeat tune. Albarn’s production, combined with Uchis’ vocals, makes for an ethereal bop that blends seamlessly in Isolation’s tracklist.

Although it’s Uchis’ girlish charm that grounds her music, there are points in the album at which she falls into the femme fatale trope that dream-girl pop artists tend to take on. When listening to the candy-coated soprano rolling over the bright piano riffs in “Nuestro Planeta,” one can’t help but be reminded of the Lolita persona that Lana Del Rey thrived on in her earlier albums. By taking on this ingénue persona, artists run the risk of creating music that becomes unintentionally naive and infantile.

Yet Uchis uses her position of hyperfemininity to her advantage — the style of her vocals gives a mystifying edge to her genre-defying lyrics. Her voice keeps her listeners enamored with her every note, creating a captivating persona that ultimately strengthens and unifies her album.

While there are points at which Uchis’ girlish flavor become overly saccharine, it’s the realness that she brings to her lyrics that balances out the album’s flavor. Her songs are poems that speak rawly about her rise to fame, her experiences with heartbreak and love. In “Your Teeth in My Neck,” Uchis doesn’t shy away from calling out the people who have taken advantage of her. But it’s her swirling, girly choruses and seductive bridges that keep her audience captivated, even in the album’s grittiest moments.

In her newest album, Kali Uchis exudes a hyperfeminine mystique that allows her music to talk about love and fame in a manner that’s unexpected and evocative while always catchy. Combined with a killer vocal ability and the backing of some of the biggest names in music, Isolation is a force to be reckoned with.

Annalise Kamegawa covers music. Contact her at [email protected].