Kali Uchis – real name Karly-Marina Loaiza – has been patiently waiting her turn. Mining vintage sounds on her 2012 mixtape ‘Drunken Babble’, a DIY bedroom project fashioned from self-made visuals and retro samples, she may have got some industry heads talking but in the pantheon of Kali, it was a case of style over substance. It was her 2015 EP, ‘Por Vida’, that solidified her promise as an exciting raw talent, with songs that lingered like a smoky speakeasy, hazy and hook-laden but unencumbered by the constraints of genre.
Still, you wouldn’t be remiss in asking who the real Kali is. Therein her appeal lies: Kali is constantly in flux and transition – a Warholian pin-up that luxuriates in the finest silk, overdrawn lips and bouffant hair, to one cavorting with the seedier underbelly of East LA, to a Neo-Chola hybrid about to steal your man. ‘Isolation’, her debut LP, is the culmination of all those alter-egos. It’s the most we’ve gotten of the ‘real Kali’, but only what Kali drip-feeds us. Like with all great records, the rest is open to interpretation. It’s this propensity to contrast the overt glossiness of her looks with subversive, genre-bending music that makes ‘Isolation’ a thrilling listen.
Kali employs a veritable who’s who of artistes with distinct monikers that help augment Kali’s desire for multiplicity, but don’t detract from sounds that are distinctly her own. Thundercat, Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, Badbadnotgood, and frequent collaborator Tyler the Creator all make good on their promise, but Kali ensures her narrative is always the focal point.
Kali finds peace in there being no resolution, embracing the mistakes and dead-ends that ultimately define twentydom. Still only 24 years-old, Kali recounts leaving home, left to her own vices and she lays down some hard-fought lessons. On the woozy psychedelia of ‘Miami’, Kali upends the patriarchy with the line: “Why could I be Kim? I could be Kanye,” creative autonomy the pinnacle of existence. It’s also a perfect foil for some cross-cultural references, the city’s Latinx diaspora both aspirational and prey to xenophobic abuse, and Kali laments the second-class status. The songstress plays around with the disenchanted femme-fatale trope on the Steve Lacy-assisted ‘Just A Stranger’, threatening to take your money and leave you with nada, even if behind the veil of materialism is a young woman grappling with self-doubt and loneliness.
Yet her spirits aren’t dampened. Opener ‘Body Language’, embraces the unknown and the gift of being lonesome. On the languorous, tropical-reggaeton infused ‘Nuestra Planeta’, Kali conjures up a space odyssey, reserved only for two souls. Isolation breeds epiphany. The gossamer disco, Neptunes-sounding ‘Tomorrow’ is a spectral highlight, a tale of effervescent youth and the renewal of a new day.
Kali Uchis may have been dubbed the Latina Lana Del Rey, or the Jazz-lite, incandescent version of Amy Winehouse, but those tags are reductive and lazy. Kali Uchis is a brand unto herself. In some ways her debut record is a natural progression from the imprint of her earlier material, but this is hi-definition, retro-futurism done right. Kali has created a lucid dreamscape where you can be whatever you want to be, self-venerated and free. ‘Isolation’ is an escapist escapade of the highest order.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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