by Grant Foskett
Kali Uchis is a Colombian-American singer who has made a name for herself over the last few years featuring on tracks from big names like Tyler, the Creator, Gorillaz, Miguel, Daniel Caesar, Snoop Dogg, and more. Isolation is her debut full-length project, following 2015’s Por Vida EP, and it is one hell of an introduction. Uchis has crafted a beautiful tracklist of dreamy R&B and pop, with deeply personal lyrics and infuriatingly catchy hooks. Her succinct songwriting and elegant voice make Isolation not only an excellent listen, but a symbol of pop and R&B to come.
The first thing to note about Isolation is its fantastic production. Every track’s instrumental fits perfectly, always the right mix of dreamy and energetic, bouncy and smooth. That’s no surprise given the long list of acclaimed producers, though: whether it’s the the blissful synthy Gorillaz-produced ‘In My Dreams,’ or the psychedelic Kevin Parker-made (Tame Impala) ‘Tomorrow,’ or the groovy ‘Just a Stranger,’ courtesy of Steve Lacy and BROCKHAMPTON’s Romil Hemnani, the production is always so catchy and unique while still taking the back seat to Kali’s voice. Just to add on to that list, there are also tracks produced by BADBADNOTGOOD, Thundercat, Frank Ocean collaborator Om’Mas Keith, and Top Dawg’s Sounwave, who all manage to develop a cohesive blend of genres catered to accentuate Kali’s vocals.
Isolation opens with the breezy Bossa Nova style ‘Body Language,’ which lures you into the album as Kali begs you to “just come closer,” before fading out into the distance. ‘Miami’ follows up on the dreaminess with beautiful vocals from Kali, until featured rapper BIA pretty much ruins the song with a verse that sounds completely out of place on such a laid-back song, not to mention some disappointing attempts at Spanish wordplay. ‘Just a Stranger,’ however, features an excellent Steve Lacy refrain of “She don’t want love, she wants my hundred dollar bills,” and a bouncing bass line and comedic, yet oddly empowering, portrayal of the stereotypical “gold-digger” character that make it an irresistible highlight of the record.
‘Flight 22’ validates all past comparisons between Uchis, Billie Holiday, and Amy Winehouse, as she shows off her voice on a poignant, saccharine ballad comparing the pitfalls of a relationship to a plane crash. ‘Your Teeth in My Neck’ is the album’s most directly political track, criticizing how the “rich man keeps getting richer, taking from the poor,” and painting Uchis as what can only be described as queen of the Dreamers. She often sings about her upbringing and identity on Isolation, but no song compares to the bitterness with which she sings directly to those who have done her wrong: “you know better.”
‘Tyrant,’ the first single for Isolation, is one of the weaker tracks. The second verse comes off pretty cheesy when Kali compares herself to El Chapo and Brigitte Bardot, and Jorja Smith’s feature isn’t particularly jaw dropping either. ‘Dead to Me,’ on the other hand, is. With some opening vocals reminiscent of another Steve Lacy collaborator Rayvn Levnae’s recent EP, the track is ridiculously catchy and shows off Kali’s vocal range. However, this is followed by easily the worst song of the album, ‘Nuestra Planeta,’ an attempt at Latin cross-over hit of the summer. We get another incredibly weak rap feature, this time from reggaeton giant Reykon, and some of Uchis’ most surface-level lyrics. Combined with a basic summer-y beat, the song is nothing but boring, if not a bit cringy. But of course, Uchis fires right back with what is perhaps the album’s best track ‘In My Dreams,’ a beautiful bedroom pop reverie with Damon Albarn of Gorillaz. In it, she sings, “Why would anyone stay awake after being so sound asleep?” in response to her childhood described in the first verse, “I’m never stressing my bills, nobody ever gets killed / My mama’s never on coke, this isn’t my way to cope.” With a healthy dose of existentialism from Albarn’s “The moments we are happiest / Are the moments that we don’t exist,” ‘In My Dreams,’ is a beautiful example of Kali’s simplistic, yet deeply meaningful songwriting.
Isolation is a fantastic debut. Although there are a few weaker tracks, the moments that shine, really shine. It’s great production, catchy hooks, and genre-blending sound make it easily the best R&B release so far this year and Kali Uchis an artist that deserves your attention.