Soft, seductive vocals, an abundance of soul and a dreamy atmosphere are just a few of the characteristics of Kali Uchis’ debut album “Isolation.” The Colombian-American singer has been making waves ever since her introduction to the world on the Tyler, the Creator single “FUCKING YOUNG / PERFECT,” where her trance-like vocals and seductive persona were the highlight of the track. This performance, along with a 2015 EP “Por Vida” and feature contributions on some scattered singles, have amassed a following for Uchis and led to high anticipation for her debut full-length.
Now, almost a full year after the release of the album’s leading single “Tyrant,” “Isolation” has arrived to deliver a diverse anthology of genre-bending tracks that invite listeners into the world of Kali Uchis. While the album relies heavily on its neo-soul and poppy R&B influences, we also see glimpses of reggaeton and jazz on tracks like “Nuestro Planeta” and “Your Teeth in My Neck,” which add more variety and character to the album’s repertoire.
And while “Isolation” is significantly better at executing style and presentation than “Por Vida” was, a clear shift in styles is definitely noticeable. The over the top, glitzy, lo-fi production and some of the more pillowy lyrics and vocal performances that were prominent throughout “Por Vida” definitely take a back seat on “Isolation” in favor of a more organic and sensual atmosphere. While this is not a detriment to the album, listeners seeking out a direct successor to “Por Vida” might be disappointed.
However, this is by no means a step in the wrong direction for Kali’s career; in fact it’s quite the opposite. Despite the attachment that fans may have to her earlier work, Uchis is showing that she is willing to experiment and grow as an artist on this new album.
Most of the songs in the tracklist are very enjoyable listens, which are carried by a solid creative direction throughout the album. No track ever feels unnecessary, even “Nuestro Planeta,” one of the weaker tracks, which finds itself in between two of the album’s strongest, “Dead to Me” and “In My Dreams.” The tighter and more rhythmic reggaeton and dancehall infused beat serves as a nice change up from the more echoey “Dead to Me” and sets up nicely for next lighter and softer track, “In My Dreams.”
One concerning aspect of “Isolation” is Kali’s vocals, which haven’t grown much in the years since “Por Vida.” Despite years of experience refining her vocals, there are a few times on this album where she comes across as flat and emotionless. The track “Tyrant,” which is highlighted by its excellent production and vintage sound, is a perfect example of her vocals being drowned out by the instrumental set before her. On “Tyrant,” Uchis seems to lack either the confidence or vocal register to fully perform. This is accentuated by Jorja Smith’s stellar vocal contribution, which is much more expressive than Uchis’. However, the gripes with this track could be due to a lack of chemistry between Uchis and the instrumental than her own shortcomings as a vocalist — thankfully, this lack of expression is not exemplified on the entire album, and is isolated to just a few tracks.
On tracks like “After the Storm,” with its skillful contributions from the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, Kali sounds like she’s in her element: These slower, melodic grooves really compliment Uchis’ lower pitch and allow her vocals to shine through. On “In My Dreams,” we get a dreamy, pop beat that enables Kali to give the most standout and beautiful vocal performance of the entire album. The high notes and harmonizing preceding Damon Albarn’s bridge are near flawless and serves as an excellent showcase of Uchis’ vocal talents.
“Isolation” reminds of Adele’s “19” in that they are both studio debuts of a young, inexperienced voice that show some clear flaws, while still showcasing a plethora of raw potential and willingness to experiment. As we saw in Adele’s case, her debut album “19” showed aspects of jazz, pop and of course soul. However, with its breakout tracks being the symphonic “Chasing Pavements” and the somber piano ballad “Hometown Glory,” the decision was made to double down and improve upon these styles in her next project, which was the phenomenal “21.” With time, experience and a more refined focus, Kali has the potential to build upon the foundation of this debut and master her craft. If “Isolation” is any indication of what’s to come, the future is bright.
Verdict: “Isolation” is by no means Kali Uchis at her fullest potential, but it shows sparks of brilliance that fans and newcomers alike will enjoy as she experiments with diverse sounds and vocals. The potential displayed here should draw attention, as it shows the components of an artist on the verge of huge mainstream success.
Best Tracks: “Dead to Me,” “In My Dreams,” “After the Storm”