‘To Feel Alive’: Kali Uchis Rechannels Her Eccentricities With Understated EP

Ever since Kali Uchis first demonstrated her versatile, idiosyncratic strain of R&B on her 2012 mixtape, “Drunken Babble,” she has been on a steep rise, touring with the likes of Lana del Rey, recording with Snoop Dogg, and finally releasing her 2018 debut album, “Isolation.” That record found Uchis traversing genres and eras ambitiously, collaborating with colorful artists like Bootsy Collins and Steve Lacy, and dipping into kitsch jazz stylings, ‘80s synth pop, reggaeton, doo-wop and more. For her latest release, “To Feel Alive,” Uchis is more focused, settling into a specific niche, and concentrating all her energy on a more fine-tuned sound. While the four-song EP has a running time of only ten minutes, every minute counts.

Opener “Honey Baby (SPOILED!) immediately sets a tone that remains consistent throughout the EP. Soft bells create a dreamy, hazy atmosphere, and a flangey, barebones beat of splattering snares takes off. Uchis sings with the type of effortless command that she usually demands attention with, ebbing and flowing, her voices mutating into various forms sporadically. There are moments when her inflections particularly recall those of Mariah Carey. Other times, she puts on a type of fiery display all of her own, her tone wavering between nasal and throat. She bends her notes with plenty of verve, falling immediately into an entranced zone, flowing relentlessly. She adds some humor, throwing out lines like “say you love my hair and shit,” then sings “I’m your little angel,” only to unanticipatedly switch the power dynamic, ending the song repeating, “You’re mine” with gusto.

“Angel” is a natural extension of the previous track, with Uchis continuing to sing, “I’m your little angel,” riffing off the central theme. On that particular line, she affects a rather strident, cloying voice, then promptly switches back to normal, as if to make extra clear that there’s some level of irony in what she’s doing. The beat takes a more old school direction, with a clean, decluttered drum track, and some psychedelic noise filling out the space. Uchis sinks deeper into something she already teased, singing in sinuous, overly rounded, serpentine lines, with a twinkle in her eye. Next comes “I Want War (But I Need Peace,)” with the type of title that calls for a classic song. This time the stylings take a decidedly throwback turn, with ‘80s sonics that create an off white, smoothed-out environment with delicate keys, world percussion, and all the works. Uchis dons her huskiest voice for some bold overdubs, and even takes up melodies that recall ‘80s content. She drops some graphic lines in proper, contemporary R&B style, and sounds passionate as ever delivering the titular line. 

The sounds stay spacious on the titular track, and Uchis is up front, with backing vocals cloaked in reverb, adding impactful accents here and there. There are such priceless lyrics as “I love the smell of you burning your last bridge with me,”and she keeps these lines coming, taunting away, but as if she’s offering sweet nothings, with gospel choir flourishes over the gentle, percussion-less backdrop in a way that makes the whole affair quite surreal. By the end, her falsetto has reached glass-shattering levels, and it’s an altogether intense display. She ends upon the eponymous line, and it all comes to an abrupt halt, short and sweet.

Contemporary R&B is not exactly the most varied scene, as innumerable singers belt away histrionically over hip-hop beats, alternating between lascivious and elevated themes. While Uchis is not radically different from the template, she certainly brings a spark and poise that makes her stand out, in a flash. The new EP is strikingly different from “Isolation,” but it’s easy to see how it came from the same artist. The same bold disregard that showed itself in Uchis’s relative eschewal of popular, current sounds in favor of erratic sonic excursions on her debut, now finds a new outlet in the tongue-in-cheek, soft but deadly stylings of the new songs. Spacious, smooth, consummate, and feisty, the four new songs reveal a newly pointed side of Uchis.

To Feel Alive” is available April 24 on Apple Music.