It’s been all of 16 days since the release of Kali Uchis’ debut album, Isolation, yet it feels like she’s been the music media’s favorite R&B child for much longer. This is partially true, as few artists were poised for a breakout year like Kali. She scored major guest spots on multiple acclaimed projects in 2017, including releases from Tyler, the Creator, Gorillaz, Daniel Caesar, Miguel and more.
All this momentum figured to add up to a superb first LP. Enlisting the likes of DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Damon Albarn and other producer extraordinaires, Kali and her stacked line up of collaborators came through to make Isolation a stellar round up of neo-soul grooves and R&B jams.
It doesn’t take long for the magic of this album to set in. Musically, it has a very distinct direction, quickly immersing the listener in a mix of summery synthesizers and hip-shaking drum breaks. As “After the Storm,” one of the album’s lead singles, foreshadowed, Kali finds her comfort zone in the balance of lush rhythms and funky jazz instrumentation. Her seductive nature fits right in with the colorful and smooth beats that her producers crafted for her, creating an organic vibe, almost as if a live band was in the studio for each recording.
The overall sound of this album makes a stunning first impression, but the quality that makes a lasting one is the songwriting. Kali’s hazy voice hovers in a mode between sleepy, sexy and charming; when it works, it’s great, but as a single entity, it is rarely the most compelling feature of a song. This inconsistency, however, is overshadowed by the creative, sticky nature of each song throughout the project. After only a few listens through, it’s hard not to find yourself singing or at least humming one of Isolation‘s many catchy choruses and refrains.
This aspect of the album steals the show on a number of tracks, most notably the chorus on “Just A Stranger,” a funky tune with contributions from Steve Lacy, who is quickly becoming one of the most sought after producers in the game. The same can be said for the horn-infused ditty, “Feel Like A Fool.” Kali’s performance here hits on all cylinders, featuring lovely double-track harmonies and unforgiving lyrics aimed at double-timing lovers.
On “Flight 22,” she sings throwback soul with a modern flair, reaching into lower vocal registers to paint a love fantasy over swooning strings and watery guitar accents. It’s perhaps the most serene moment on the album, and a contrast to the upbeat smoothness of “Your Teeth In My Neck.” Some of the best beats on the album belong to the briefest cuts: “Gotta Get Up – Interlude” recalls a ‘90s gangster vibe and “Coming Home – Interlude,” blessed by producers Sounwave and Greg Kurstin, features crisp drums and a whirlwind of jazzy synths.
These shorter cuts are part of the reason Isolation goes by without realizing there is 15 tracks on the album. Even the weaker songs, which run fairly scarce, sustain the project’s sonic cohesiveness. Where these tracks falter, is that they lack the excitement of the stronger singles, mainly because of Kali’s limitations as a vocalist. The repetitive nature of “Dead to Me” is a far cry from the mesmerizing grooves on “Tomorrow,” while “Killer” lacks the punch one would ideally want from a closing track. Even then, these songs are decent for the first few listens, they just don’t strike me as having great replay value, like so many other songs on the album.
Isolation leaves little doubt in Kali’s aspirations of being the next big R&B songstress. Her album is appropriately titled as an ode to her coming up as a multicultural singer and as a strong display of her individual ambition. She tackles common themes like love and independence head on, identifying with them in a very personal way, and yet, performing them mighty accessibly. With this album, not only does she fulfill her promise as a creative contemporary artist, she also proves she has the audacity to take on varied song palettes that range from feel-good jazz to reggaeton. As a result, her next move just turned into a ‘can’t miss.’