It is difficult to ignore the increasing influence of Latin America on contemporary pop music. From the all-conquering Despacito to J Galvin & Willy Williams’s Mi Gente, reggaeton has truly captured the mainstream.
Its ubiquity isn’t new however. It has engulfed our airwaves steadily over the last decade. Going back further, Latin America has also played a big part in the advancement of jazz and hip-hop-the latter spawning out of the post-disco era and carried through by several Latino DJ-led radio stations.
Colombian-American 24-year-old, Kali Uchis laid a marker with her genre-bending early work, channelling all three. Mixtape, ‘Drunken Babble’ and EP, ‘Por Vida’ and later notable features on the likes of Tyler, the Creator’s ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘Flower Boy’ albums as well as Gorillaz’s ‘Humanz’ cemented her as one to watch
Drawing comparisons to Amy Winehouse with her raw yet sophisticated take on soul, they contained all the eclectic exuberance of someone determined enough to set up camp in her car after being kicked out of her house, and still try to make it as not just a key collaborator but a sterling pop star in her own right. It’s significant that she wrote Killer, ‘Isolation’’s closing track and oldest to make the cut, during that time-frame aged just 17.
Killer’s simply-put yet no less poignant tale of resentment towards a former partner provides the backdrop to an album that is full of coming to terms with being wronged and enough age-defying worldliness and insight to remain confident and focused on the mission.
‘Isolation’ actually begins teasingly as smooth Brazillian jazz slides in alongside Uchis’ beautiful intonations of “come closer”, inviting the listener in and getting them to consider the two-part story of allowing somebody in and pursuing a relationship before having to leave it all behind in search of a new life.
The scoundrel in question is best tackled on lead single, Tyrant, one of several tracks from the album to showcase Uchis’ polyglot abilities in song. It also reinforces the buzz around rising British RnB singer, Jorja Smith.
There is a dichotomy here that perfectly encapsulates the tug of war of emotions that surrounds the I word. From the blind happiness of the chorus and the Loud Places-adjacent lyric, “When everything’s a riot/You’re my peace and quiet” on the first verse to the examinations of power struggles and vulnerability elsewhere, Tyrant is powerful.
It’s important to stress that ‘Isolation’ is not just a breakup album. It’s a personal exploration. Not just of her experience with boys but a wider look at her position in society in general, not just as a gifted young singer/songwriter but as a South American immigrant living in 21st century America.
This is best dealt with on Miami and Your Teeth in My Neck. Miami, a seedy popular destination for Latin American immigrants is the scene for where Uchis speaks about female empowerment and quashing rumours back home that she must be involved in prostitution because she was making a living for herself.
Propulsive yet laidback, Miami is just one example of how expertly this album was produced and woven together. A firm earworm, it finds her going toe to toe with guest rapper, BIA and is an early highlight. Your Teeth in My Neck meanwhile would at first listen have you think it’s a seductive caper. Quite the contrary. Another infectious number no less, it deals with corporations’ vampire-like grip on us.
Of the aforementioned Latin-American flavour, this is most prevalent on the reggaeton-awashed Nuestro Planeta where Uchis teams up with her fellow Colombian, Reykon. Arguably the best song on here, Nuestro Planeta will have you wish you were from somewhere a little more exotic if not for a moment.
Elsewhere, isolation and escapism are explored in the hazy interlude, Gotta Get Up and the jolting Damon Albarn-featuring In My Dreams. There’s a typically psychedelic feel too on the Kevin Parker-produced leaving-this-town anthem, Tomorrow.
In truth, there are star production turns all over the album, not least from TDE resident, Sounwave and Brainfeeder alumnus, Thundercat. It’s all about Kali though, as her performance at Longitude will undoubtedly attest come July. An outstanding debut from an outstanding musician.