“There’s no tracking where I’m going/There’s no me for them to find.” The riddle-like words drift in covered in mist. The sounds of Tropicalia and bossa nova surround your ears with humidity. Are you dreaming? Are you flying? This is “Body Language,” the lush intro that transports you to the world of Kali Uchis, a world the Colombian-American songstress invites you deeply into her world, as she compellingly keeps herself a mystery.
Uchis comes hard with her vibe (take a look at any of her succulent videos), a heady, ultra-feminine mixture of retro-pinup meets East LA, all gold vermeil, neon Madonnas, white orchids, marabou-trimmed silk robes and sharp, manicured nails around a cigarillo. It’s an aesthetic that’s as much about pastel-pink milkshakes as it is about aguardiente and curls of smoke.
It’s a mixture she plays with throughout the album, raising and lowering the levels of vintage soul, hip-hop, Reggaeton, and torch R&B from track to track. From the all-Spanish, dancehall romance of “Nuestro Planeta” to the boss-ass-bitch anthem ”Miami”—as sexy and diverse as the city in the title—Uchis gives ample nods to her Latin roots, while asserting herself as a strong, independent woman. “Why would I be Kim?/I could be Kanye,” she sings on “Miami,” never content to be anywhere but the driver’s seat. The other side of Uchis’ sound is represented by cuts like the neo-soul “Teeth In My Neck” and “Feel Like A Fool,” which cuts through the sax-punches and retro sugar with lines like “Loved you for being sick and twisted/But pussy is a hell of an addiction.” It’s a subversive twist on a classic sound, one that’s sure to draw inevitable comparisons to Amy Winehouse.
Even when she boldly steps outside this pattern with the Damon Albarn co-written “In My Dreams,” it becomes a highlight; a Klonopin-like boost about avoiding the real world by living in your own head. “My momma’s never on coke/This isn’t my way to cope/Washin’ my mind out with soap,” Uchis sings over a pinched 808 beat and ‘80s synths that sound like an unearthed gem from The Cure’s back catalog.
Thematically, there’s a heavy throughline of travel and dreaming—perpetual motion and running away to other places—physically or in her mind. Besides the tracks already mentioned, There’s the flight attendant “Welcome aboard” announcement at the beginning of the melty, neo-soul “Flight 22,” the escape plan of “Tomorrow” and the descending chant of the dreamy “Gotta Get Up,” that makes it feel like the world’s sexiest alarm clock. So what exactly is Uchis running from? Everything on this album points to one answer: herself.
Where Winehouse was always falling apart, Uchis keeps it cooly together. Her vocals always contained, always effortless and always unaffected, maintaining a composed, “Sorry, sweetie” tone throughout the hater-blocker anthem “Dead To Me,” which only makes it cut deeper. On the Reggaeton highlight, “Tyrant,” she’s pondering the question of whether or not to give her man any power, the slightest control only hers to hand over, even when she’s head-over-heels in love. For this self-preservation she sacrifices never being truly known—perhaps even to herself—a trade she seems eager to make, holding back to avoid being hurt on her road to ruling the world. “You never knew me then/And you’ll never know me now,” she sings on “Just A Stranger,” which infectiously glides over a bouncy groove courtesy of whiz-kid Steve Lacy, one of several promises she makes throughout the album to be untouchable.
It’s not until the final track, the ultra-smooth “Killer,” where she finally shows a chink in her bulletproof armor: admitting she’s been wounded by an unfaithful lover. After an album full of nearly impenetrable invulnerability, it’s disarming and affecting, a tantalizing peek at what we hope is the real Uchis.
For an album that’s 15 tracks to be this consistently good is a rarity, an anomaly, and an artistic triumph that should place it on every Best Of list at the end of the year. For Uchis to accomplish this while still holding on to seemingly all the cards, is even more rare, perhaps signaling a legend in the making.