Closing out Kali Uchis’ 2015 EP Por Vida is an airy ballad called “Loner.” The preceding eight songs find her oscillating from wide-eyed infatuation to lovesickness and pain, but “Loner” seems like a firm resolution of those turbulent emotions.
Uchis has spoken about the impact of a past abusive relationship on her music, and it’s tough not to see Por Vida as a reflection of the extreme highs and lows that often accompany a manipulative partner.
As such, “Loner” feels like the moment she decides to move on for good. “I’d rather be a loner / Yeah I’d rather be alone,” she sings, tired of all the “mind games” and “headaches.” On her correspondingly-titled new album, Isolation, Uchis appears to detail the struggles that come as a result of that decision.
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“Body Language” picks up where “Loner” left off. Uchis, backed by bossa nova rhythms and a grooving Thundercat bassline, is “packing all [her] bags, and … leaving it behind.” Soon after on “Miami,” she makes a stop in South Florida, “the land of opportunity and palm trees.”
Pedal steel guitar riffs and an impetuous hook (“Live fast and never die”) evoke the restless ambling of a road movie. Here guest rapper BIA plays the Louise to Kali’s Thelma, the two of them “split fast in the two-seat … always on the run.”
“Flight 22” sees her take to the skies with a new lover, only to realize that they may not make it wherever they’re going, their “baggage might just be too full for Flight 22.” Uchis is struggling still to escape her past traumas.
“Just A Stranger,” performed with Steve Lacy, is an empathetic twist on the gold digger trope, pairing well with her equally danceable vampiric characterization of industry exploitation, “Your Teeth In My Neck,” a few tracks later. Her songs paint a portrait of a woman struggling for money, for success and to flee her past.
Nine songs in, Uchis seems to have reached her breaking point. The only way she can live free of her burden is to escape reality entirely. Isolation is impressively varied in its influences, but the lo-fi indie pop of “In My Dreams” sticks out.
The Damon Albarn-assisted song is made up mostly of layered Casiotone bleeps, striking a sharp contrast to the broad neo-soul coursing through everything else. What better way to telegraph a departure from reality?
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She sings, “Everything is just wonderful here in my dreams / Everyday is a holiday when you’re living inside your dreams.” She finally finds bliss, if only for a moment.
Eventually, Uchis’ sugary fantasy ends, and she comes crashing down to Earth. “Gotta Get Up” is languorous, its hazy synths and lilting bassline evoking perfectly the cruel confrontation of a dream disrupted. “Gotta get up and get me something real,” she admits, reluctantly.
Uchis makes one final attempt at escape with “Tomorrow.” “Let’s get out of this hopeless town … We’ll think about it tomorrow,” she pleads, but to no avail. The following track, “Coming Home,” represents a major turning point.
All the way back on “Body Language” she packed her bags and left home, and now she makes her return. “I’m looking back now, thinking I was wrong … think I made a billion songs / But nothing would ever heal the wound.” She realizes that she cannot outrun her pain, instead, she must address it head-on. She continues her steady march forward, but now on her own terms.
Uchis enlists long-time collaborator Tyler, The Creator and long-time idol Bootsy Collins for “After The Storm,” a laid-back funk number that reflects on her hardship and finds comfort in the flowers that inevitably follow the storm. Finally, she leaves us with “Killer”, a definitive kiss-off to her ex and perhaps the catchiest hook on the entire album.
Uchis is remarkably comfortable juggling a diverse array of genres, from Amy Winehouse-indebted soul (“Feel Like A Fool”), to reggaeton (“Nuestro Planeta”). The hodgepodge of styles is held together by her undeniable musical chops and the surprising coherency of the album’s emotional arc. To listen to her journey is to experience all of its highs and lows — and to be able to dance along regardless.