Live Fast and Never Die: Kali Uchis’ songs of solitude

isolation

“Body Language,” the opening song on Kali Uchis’ Isolation, takes a mere two verses to move from the thrill of infatuation to the regret of a breakup. When the track opens, the singer is flush with excitement, ready to fall headlong into the arms of her lover; when it ends, she’s alone. The song—a cool Jobim breeze—captures that elusive bosa nova melancholy, the way Brazilian music can feel so light and effervescent, so sad and wistful at the same time. Though Isolation never returns to that sound, it’s a fitting introduction to a record that’s cocksure and easygoing, but also melancholy and aloof. Throughout the record, Uchis projects steely resolve and self-assurance; “Live fast and never die/ I’m moving at the speed of light,” she declares on “Miami,” and while the song is empowering, it’s also vaguely regretful: Uchis constantly pushes forward, she scrapes and she swaggers, she lays claim to what’s hers and doesn’t accept compromise; and she is almost always alone, solitude the cost of her freedom and mobility. The album is a full-length meditation on how autonomy can make true intimacy impossible; to give yourself over to another person, meanwhile, requires the sacrifice of personal freedom, a truth Joni Mitchell’s been singing about at least as far back as “Help Me.” And so these declarations of independence are also hymns of isolation.

There’s some irony, then, that Isolation is an album of blissful collaboration. Uchis, a Colombian-American soul singer, labored on the album for years, and by her own account killed off a number of pop trifles in favor of something richer, bolder, and more idiosyncratic. Her uncompromising vision won her many noteworthy co-conspirators: Isolation has cameos from Tyler the Creator and BIA, production assistance from Thundercat and David Sitek, support from Bootsy Collins and the Dap-Kings, and a co-writing credit from Damon Albarn. The record is audacious in its eclecticism, casually moving from the gentle caress of “Body Language” to the clenched and claustrophobic “Miami” and then never letting up from its freewheeling sprawl. (“When you fast forward you don’t ever look back,” BIA raps, in what might as well be the album’s mission statement.) It’s an album of thrilling juxtapositions: “Your Teeth in My Neck” is an acoustic thumper, recalling both the gnarled jazz of To Pimp a Butterfly and the analog allure of Mama’s Gun, while “Dead to Me” is a steely club jam, clothed in colorful, state-of-the-art synths. “Nuestro Planeta,” the album’s lone non-English language track, captures the pulse of contemporary Latin pop, and is immediately followed by the dingy, lived-in New Wave of “In My Dreams.” Uchis pulls it all together without letting the seams show, uniting the album around her unique aesthetic—one that’s conversant with hip-hop and keenly aware of the current pop charts, but also well-studied in indie rock studio craft and in classic soul constructions. Indeed, a couple of tracks here—including the swaying, sighing ballad “Flight 22” and the album-ending “Killer”—are unashamedly retro, the kinds of songs that could have fit on an Amy Winehouse record. Uchis could have made an entire career off of them were she not such a restless spirit, yet she hardly treats them as nostalgia trips: The throwback numbers feature some of her most playful vocals, as she clearly revels in the chance to engage with vintage tropes and lilting melodies.

The album is littered with dysfunctional relationships; in one song after another, Uchis stands in triumph, but also in solitude. One ex-lover is written off as a “Tyrant” while another—the one who stole her heart and broke it—is a “Killer.” “Dead to Me” waves goodbye to a hanger-on who mistakes obsession for commitment, and “Your Teeth in My Neck” takes on toxic relationships of another kind—the relationship between art and commerce. When Uchis allows herself moments of joy, there are strings attached: “Flight 22” is punchdrunk in love, but it’s set in an airport; its protagonists are both on the run, and their love is transient from the start. It may be telling that the album’s most unabashed love song is also its most retro-sounding, as though true union is just a story we’ve passed down—a theory that’s strengthened by “In My Dreams,” where Uchis is happy only in her interior world of fantasy. She is a tough-talker and a hard-boiled songwriter, generally eschewing sentiment and softness in songs that twist the knife: With the casual self-mythologizing of Cardi B, “Just a Stranger” flips the gold digger archetype on its head, portraying a woman who prefers money to love as a hero in her own outlaw anthem. It’s a ruthless and effective song of empowerment, but elsewhere, Uchis reveals some chinks in the armor. “Miami” is a song about how she moved to South Florida to make a go of professional singing, but when the money started rolling in, her family back home just assumed she’d become a prostitute. For women, even success comes with stigma, and the song’s flinty arrangement, head-bobbing but tightly-coiled, mirrors the ways in which the Promised Land can be a hidden trap. Both in its visionary execution and in its subject matter, Isolation casts Kali Uchis as a woman adverse to compromise; it celebrates her iconoclasm but also hints at the cost. “Just come closer,” she coos at the end of “Body Language,” reaching out for intimacy and connection. If only it were so simple.

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