On ‘Red Moon in Venus,’ Kali Uchis Swoons Over Sultry Slow Jams With Sharp Edges
Kali Uchis’ third album, “Red Moon in Venus,” opens to chirping birds and languid keys, as Uchis speaks, “I just wanted to tell you, in case you forgot / I love you.” In its first 30 seconds, the parameters for the entire album are sketched out. What follows, an extended slow jam in 15 tracks, isn’t always sweet, but it’s a consistently intimate, soulful sway with occasional dizzy spells, flushes and twists. “Red Moon in Venus” kicks off with “I Wish You Roses,” which finds Uchis nearing the end of romance. What would be a tune of cloying sentimentality is contextualized by psychedelic undertones that will readily resurface over the album’s course. Uchis sings, “I wish you love, I wish you well / I wish you roses while you can still smell ’em,” in a smoky voice across echoing trails and a beat that seems ever so slightly stalled. By the end she is teasing, “You’re gonna want me back.”
At once inviting and arresting, seductive and startling, this is a “Red Moon in Venus,” a warning coloration, a high alert, amid all the yore of love and beauty, garden and spring. Such is the scale and scope of Kali Uchis’ new album. Uchis established herself as a uniquely sprightly voice in the greater R&B sphere with her 2018 debut album, “Isolation,” and embraced her Columbian-American roots on her Spanish-language follow-up, “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios),” which introduced new dimensions to her fluid expressivity. Uchis’ third album is the most thorough realization yet of Uchis’ distinctive voice and sound.
Uchis draws freely from ‘70s sounds without lapsing into full revivalist fare. In “Worth the Wait,” she sings over Fender Rhodes, a funky bassline and layered harmonies from Omar Apollo that nod to the likes of the Delfonics. The nostalgic sounds are fitting for an unabashedly gushy love song. Uchis sings in a love-drunk haze that intensifies in “Love Between…” If the use of ellipses in song titles seems excessive, it’s fitting for the expansive, suggestive sounds on display. “Love Between… ” is the closest we get to a committed retro regression — musically, that is. The refrain of “Love between two human beings / Can be so wonderful, wonderful” is an interpolation of the Temprees’ 1972 single “Love… Can Be So Wonderful,” except that the original, heteronormative lyrics were “Love between a boy and girl can be so wonderful.”
“All Mine” reworks the archetypal R&B slow jam with stylings that edge vaguely toward the trip-hop of early Portishead. Like many tracks on the album, it’s a fully-formed song with the feel of a loose, impressionistic soul sketch. The intimacy of the album at large is ironically inverted when Uchis enlists her actual partner, Don Toliver, for the following song, “Fantasy,” but filters his contributions, “I wanna dance / Throw my hands in the air,” with goofy processing. With hand drums, the music takes on an Afropop sound, and Uchis keeps up with Toliver’s revelry before abruptly declaring, “That’s it. That’s the end of the song.”
The amorous haze continues with a switch from English to Spanish. “Como Te Quiero Yo” alternates between the two languages as she admits, “I can’t be without you” and asks, “Can we make up?” Lines like, “I want you in bed” and “without further complication,” effectively cut through all the drama. On “Hasta Cuando,” however, Uchis changes her tune and uses Spanish to address a jealous former acquaintance, singing lines like, “It’s sad that you’re still obsessed,” after Uchis categorically repudiates some misinformation, spread by the target of this track, about a fictional affair between them. Setting the record straight with a direct diss and dismissal, this track follows after the designs of Aya Nakamura’s 2018 global hit, “Djadja.” Endlessly” returns to lovestruck haze with the most glittery ‘80s frivolity, balancing its ‘80s excesses with ‘90s West Coast hip-hop synths and more ‘70s full-band dynamics, as Uchis builds a song around a taunt of “You nеver can ever, еver seem to get enough.”
“Moral Conscience” begins with Uchis saying, “One thing about Karma, that bitch will find you.” From the opening chord, this song is a subtly warped, whirring affair, in which Uchis continues her taunting. The tides have turned, and this seems like an opportune moment for Uchis to be a bit more playful, while borrowing from vocal stylings of Erykah Badu. Meanwhile, psychedelic overtones are more present than ever, and the track reaches a climax when Uchis makes a gasping leap into high-register wailing.
Uchis follows up with “Not Too Late (Interlude),” in which she sings a refrain of “It’s not too late to admit you love me” in a detuned haze. Uchis makes a sole concession that she isn’t her ex-partner’s “type,” but directly declares that irrelevant. It’s when she switches to Spanish for a few lines that she turns up the intensity, considerably. Now, not being someone’s “type” becomes bragging rights. Uchis acknowledges, “Your mami said that I look like a whore,” then simply deflects, “Tell her that this body is art, I look like a painting,” and declares, “You want to eat my pussy.” “Blue” brings a return to lovelorn song fare. Lyrics like “’Cause what’s the point of all the pretty things in the world if I don’t have you?” are set to early ‘90s soulful jazz stylings, as Uchis channels her best Sade, over a lighthearted beat with sax bursts.
“Deserve Me,” featuring Summer Walker, builds on the momentum of a tropical bounce, as Uchis glances back, declaring, “You don’t deserve me,” while throwing in bits like, “but I think I just might fuck you one last time to be sure.” Come the wonky frivolity of “Moonlight,” it sounds like Uchis has had her way and is reveling in a bit of fun, again switching between Spanish and English. After all these ups and downs, Uchis gives a knowing wink in the album’s closer, “Happy Now.” The detuned haze continues, but drums take on a jokey, mechanical precision, seconded by Uchis’ vocals. She delivers a singsong refrain of “Can we be happy now?” hiccuping the word “happy,” as if mocking the absurdity of waiting for happiness to come after a frenzied amorous blur.
Kali Uchis has had a unique voice from the onset, but she has honed in on an increasingly distinctive sound and persona with each successive album and taken enormous strides with her latest. “Red Moon in Venus” embraces the idiosyncrasies that floated in the pop R&B of 2018’s “Isolation” and utilizes the pathways that emerged in the stylings of “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios).” Sultry slow jams with a psychedelic underpinning are a fine fit for an album that basks in, rebels against, and ultimately owns love. “Red Moon in Venus” embraces and exalts a decidedly feminine spirit, jutting outward, from lush atmospherics and sultry sentimentality, with a fiery relish.
“Red Moon in Venus” releases March 3 on Apple Music.