Kali Uchis Releases Versatile Debut Album ‘Isolation’

Columbian-American singer Kali Uchis created a buzz with her 2012 mixtape, “Drunken Babble,” earning accolades for her unique, genre-hopping take on R&B. In the years since, she has landed a Latin Grammy nomination, worked with such big names as Snoop Dogg and Gorillaz, and toured with Lana Del Ray. She has just released her debut album, “Isolation.”

“Isolation” is a languorous, breezy, sultry affair. Album opener, “Body Language (Intro)” is an effective statement of intent, setting the dreamy mood that prevails throughout the record. Her syrupy voice draws you in instantly, and she doesn’t sound quite like anyone else in the scene. The music is R&B of a vaguely ‘80s strain, but informed by jazz. Her phrasing evokes roaring twenties spirit, and presents her as a sort of chanteuse. There’s a bossa nova rhythm, and the track gets a bit silly, delving into “Anchorman” “jazz flute” territory, making one wonder what exactly she’s going for. Sounds from certain eras age better than others, and those that don’t age so well are typically indulged only with ironic posturing as a disclaimer. With Uchis, however, it appears to be all sincerity. She excavates sounds with a bold disregard for their retro cachet, and it makes for a refreshing, unique listen.  

On “Miami,” hip hop enters the mix. It sounds like a hit from the mid aughts, and it also sounds exactly like Miami, with its Latin flavor and laidback swagger. In “Just A Stranger,” Steve Lacy sings, “She wants my hundred dollar bills / She don’t want love” over a cheery beat with just enough discordant noise in the background to convey the idea of something not being quite right. It’s a song for nodding your head to the absurdity of everything. “Flight 22” sounds very Amy Winehouse, tapping into a Motown sound, and evoking all the romance of that era. Then, suddenly, “Teeth in My Neck” launches into a raging early ‘90s throwback, all flat-tops and Tommy Hilfiger jackets. At this point, one has to admire Uchis’s versatility. Every song is different, and each foray into a new style is handled with an effortless grace. On “Tyrant,” she ventures into dancehall and nails it. “Dead to Me” is a riot of funk, replete with wah-wah bass and comical horns, and Uchis chirpily singing the titular line. “Nuestra Planeta” is a minimal reggaeton stomp. “In My Dreams,” produced by former collaborator Damon Albarn, has a Devo feel, with tinny, mechanical drums, and silly, jubilant lyrics. “Tomorrow,” featuring Tama Impala’s Kevin Parker, is neon, sugary ‘80s pop with reverb snares and synth washes. “After The Storm” features none other than Parliament Funkadelic’s legendary Bootsy Collins, as well as Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator. It’s all pink Cadillacs, with the feel of early Outkast.

One peculiar thing about “Isolation” is how abruptly many of the songs end. It’s as if they ran out of studio time, and the power went off — or as if Uchis and crew exchanged glances after a couple verses and choruses, and just shrugged. At times, there’s also a sense of false modesty in Uchis’s singing. You can hear her running through tunes, hitting the notes but neglecting to flourish them. This is hardly an issue, however, because she consistently churns out infectious tracks. Her talent for melody is truly remarkable.

“Isolation” is a unique album for 2018. It eschews all the trends that one would expect with a commercial R&B record. There’s no trap, no EDM. Instead there’s a heavy dosage of ‘80s and ‘90s fare, old school hip hop, ‘60s soul, Caribbean touches and Latin elements. You can tell that Uchis makes exactly the type of music that she’d listen to — and her new record is a promising debut from a unique voice.

Isolation” is available April 6 on Apple Music.