Kali Uchis Marries Nihilism & Pop Like Few Before Her

‘I invest in myself, and I love to reinvent myself.’
(Kali Uchis, Nylon Magazine, April 2018)

POP music isn’t usually associated with nihilism, and such a despondent outlook doesn’t usually happen on major label pop albums.

It’s a good thing then that Kali Uchis’ Isolation is the inverse of most major label pop albums – engaging in an original way, political in an unsentimental way and overtly feminist in a pronounced way.

There’s a fierceness and confidence to Isolation that belies the album’s status as her debut, and a comfort in cross-pollinating as many genres as she can successfully. It’s often hard to pin down exactly what Kali is influenced by, and she comes across as a genre polymath on Isolation, unafraid to meld latin rhythms with indie-rock production and her own dreamy, escapist lyricism.

While Isolation is clearly Kali’s show first and foremost, it would be remiss not to mention the stunning guest list. The Internet’s Steve Lacy, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and Damon Albarn all take turns leaving their indelible production footprint, while Tyler the Creator, Jorja Smith and reggaeton hero Reykon also show up to lend verses and hooks.

It’s a testament to Kali’s star power that she remains the most singularly compelling voice on the record, with Isolation tossing up an interesting thought experiment: which of the albums many differing guests, producers and genres fit her the best?

For me it’s ‘In My Dreams’, an 8-bit aping fantasy with an ace assist from Damon Albarn in full Casio-melancholy mode. It’s a perfect summation of the duality of Kali’s persona, the blissful idealism of the melody contrasting with the underlying nihilism of her lyrics (“Why would anyone stay awake/after being so sound asleep?”)

There’s a similar outlook on late-album highlight ‘After The Storm’, which features the album’s smoothest instrumental. However here it coalesces into a sentiment of self-affirmation and positivity (“The sun’ll come out/Nothing good ever comes easy”). ‘After The Storm’ is another example of Kali’s ability to meld disparate influences and collaborators as well as her magnetism.

How many other songs have Canadian nu-jazz crew BADBADNOTGOOD on production, the legendary Bootsy Collins on bass (plus an effortlessly cool spoken-word intro), and a Tyler the Creator guest verse, and still feature the hook as the song’s defining feature?

"Kali presents herself as a uniquely modernistic pop star, unafraid to combine her affinity for ’60s girl-groups and bossanova with forward-thinking production and an inviting wooziness."

Elsewhere, music industry takedown ‘Your Teeth In My Neck’ and the doo-wop-inspired ‘Flight 22’ exemplify the dexterity and richness of Kali’s persona.

The Amy Winehouse comparisons often come thick and fast, but she reminds me more of a post-millennial Lana Del Rey. Both successfully marry a heavily stylised aesthetic that feels both authentic and a slight put-on with a knowing self-awareness that seeps from their public persona into their music.

Between the entirely Spanish reggaeton homage ‘Neustro Planeta’ to the synthetic textures of ‘Dead To Me’, her charisma and deftly powerful voice carries Isolation throughout.

On Isolation, Kali presents herself as a uniquely modernistic pop star, unafraid to combine her affinity for ’60s girl-groups and bossanova with forward-thinking production and an inviting wooziness.

“[It’s] a welcome update that positions her as a vital non-white perspective on womanhood in 2018.”

Her sexual agency is also explored in detail, with nameless men the objects of both desire and scorn – often on the same song. The furious ‘Tyrant’ and ‘Dead To Me’ and the lovelorn ‘Feel Like A Fool’ are the most obvious examples. It’s a clever subversion of the portrayals of submissive women in Kali’s beloved Spector-ish girl-group pop, and a welcome update that positions her as a vital non-white perspective on womanhood in 2018.

If there is a through-line on Isolation, it’s the fearlessness of Kali’s voice: ‘“You never knew me then/And you’ll never know me now,” she intones on ‘Just A Stranger’, refusing to offer closure to the song’s subject.

And so Isolation stands as a triumph, a validating exercise in a debut album remaining cohesive while still flipping through disparate genres and sounds.

Here Kali’s dreams are experienced in wide-screen grandeur, painting a portrait of remaining calm in the face of adversity and managing to stay unaffected in the process.

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