“Life is like sex. Sometimes you have to change your position.” These words appear in Kali Uchis’s handwriting on an art poster inserted in every physical copy of her debut album Isolation. On the poster, Uchis is sprawled across a sea of sapphire satin, strikingly contrasted by her revealing ruby attire. This scene is pictured from a more intimidating angle on the album cover, but still remains a visual vignette of the music contained within, a flaring heat and eclectic heartbeat subdued by the essentially blue themes espoused right from the title.
Uchis has always operated from the sidelines. To the public, her name was only noticed when it was preceded by a more renowned one, like Tyler, the Creator on his two latest records, 2015’s Cherry Bomb and last year’s Flower Boy, or Daniel Caesar on his Grammy-nominated single “Get You.” However, while not discounting her stellar collaborative work, Uchis’s solo output has far outclassed her features yet received a fraction of the love. Deciding to release a debut album on a weekend dominated by Cardi B’s own Invasion of Privacy and another chart-topping Drake single may seem a poor bet, but the premiere of Kali Uchis in her entirety is a statement. With Isolation, the magically subtle new-age pop star seduces attention under a kaleidoscope limelight.
The album’s colorfully filtered mood lighting is set right from the opening track, where Uchis croons, “I’m sick and tired of talking, told you everything you need to know / The rest is in the body language,” over a bossa nova-inspired Thundercat bassline. That selfsame body is consistently profound in its language over the next 45 minutes, melodically narrating the story of a woman long manipulated, slighted and tossed aside. Uchis is insistent on leaving a regretful lover behind on “Dead to Me,” the harsh realities of cheating are almost happily recounted on the Amy Winehouse-esque “Feel Like A Fool,” and she juxtaposes her tiresome life making ends meet with the destructively glamorous image of “Miami.” The latter track is actually one of the few moments on the album where Kali is in control of her body, above the unrelenting detractors and unfaithful heartbreakers, reiterating her fierce attitude towards fame with one of the best self-assured lines in recent memory: “Why could I be Kim? I could be Kanye.”
By portraying this tested and tempestuous version of herself, Uchis speaks to “the people who feel trapped in their position” in hopes “the music will enable (them) to change it,” like the poster cursively declares. Her music is capable of change, wonderfully inviting and artfully hypnotic. The silky, mellifluous blanket that Uchis dons with poise is interwoven with threads of soul, funk, hip hop and Latin grooves, as Isolation has enlisted a veritable team of wide-ranging musicians to soundtrack its spirit. Steve Lacy’s uniquely youthful bass is layered over a beat produced by Romil Hemnani (of BROCKHAMPTON fame) on “Just A Stranger.” Damon Albarn chimes in not only vocally but with Gorillaz’s bleeps and bloops on “In My Dreams” and Kevin Parker galvanizes “Tomorrow” with his signature psychedelic flair. British R&B phenom Jorja Smith and Colombian reggaeton leader Reykon round out the impressive and international list of features.
While it would be easy for Uchis’s voice to be drowned in such an ocean of talent, Isolation remains distinctly hers. Even on the album’s most star-studded single “After the Storm,” where Tyler, the Creator, Bootsy Collins and BadBadNotGood all pour in, Uchis harnesses those contributions to intensify her essence. The track manages to furtively bear the central weight of the album while staying sonically warm as sunshine. In the music video, Uchis appears to be longing for love (which she finds by literally and humorously growing Tyler from a packet of seeds), but her nuanced movements and unflinching eyes tell another story.
The person who Uchis addresses throughout the song is the listener, not some sweetheart of her dreams. This person is anyone who has ever experienced the isolation she has, left to face their demons alone. The title of the album does not refer to absolute solitude — instead, it embodies loneliness in the face of others, masked by self-deception and empty sentiment. Uchis is too familiar with the endless days of struggle yet still she knows “times are rough but winners don’t quit / So don’t you give up, the sun’ll come out.” Even though Isolation is rooted in empathy, it is aware it doesn’t quite have all the answers. After all, “everybody’s gotta go on, don’t they?”