Thursday, April 12, 2018

album review: 'isolation' by kali uchis

I was genuinely surprised with how many people were requesting I cover this record.

Well, okay, maybe not that surprised - many people know her most for her Grammy-nominated collaboration with Daniel Caesar, but I was familiar with her name going a little further back, mostly through her connections to Tyler, the Creator. And dig a little deeper into the featuring credits and I've seen her name come up a fair bit associated with Gorillaz and Miguel and I don't recall saying anything bad about her. And going back to those collaborations, the weakest might have been 'Caramelo Duro' with Miguel, but she did a great job on 'She's My Collar' with Gorillaz and even better opposite Tyler on 'See You Again'.

And that was enough to at least get me intrigued to do a little more research into where she was taking this debut. Reportedly her mixtapes pulled on a broader cross-section of sounds, spanning doo-wop, jazz, bossa nova, and of course reggaeton given her Columbian heritage. And considering the massive amount of critical acclaim she's received for this breakout project - and if you dig through the liner notes, you'll see names ranging from Thundercat and BADBADNOTGOOD to Damon Albarn and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, and that's before you get the who's who of big name producers from Greg Kurstin to Sounwave. Alright, I'm intrigued, what did we get on Isolation?

Oh man, I'm not going to make any fans with this review... and you know, it's funny, just a few days ago I was getting comments how I tend to over-praise debut albums to hop on the bandwagon. And if I want the most searing indictment of how that criticism doesn't hold water, it's Isolation by Kali Uchis, because I didn't really care for this much at all. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad and I understand why it's getting praise - although I can definitely see this falling in line with a lot of overpraised mainstream-adjacent R&B debuts that are forgotten very quickly - but across the board this record just did not resonate with me beyond just feeling kind of decent, and considering I gave this nearly ten listens to grip me on some level, that's a problem!

And we're going to have to start with Kali Uchis herself - and let me start by saying I get why so many critics have found her such a compelling presence, because she does at least seem like she can handle a pretty impressive breadth of styles, from the subtler cooing of R&B to the languid breathy coos of retro pop, from more assertive and sultry reggaeton to the dreamy electronic grooves you'd hear on a Gorillaz record - hell, 'In My Dreams' might as well fit in that mold and her contrast with Damon Albarn is easily the most compelling track on this record. And that's the thing, she definitely can sing, with the right delicate cushions of multi-tracking and overdubs she can sound really damn pretty and sultry doing so - but more of this record slips towards a languid swagger that might succeed in projecting more confidence if she didn't keep slipping off the note! I get that it's an affectation that calls back to old school jazz, but put away the comparisons to Billie Holiday or even Amy Winehouse here, there was a temperance of grit that gave their material an edge whereas with Kali Uchis, even if she faced conditions just as desperate growing up the gravitas doesn't come through nearly as strong.

And that's kind of a problem given the record's lyrics and themes - and again, I'll give Kali Uchis all the points in the world to rising above music industry handlers and carving out her own image and lane in careening across genres and styles, and songs like 'Miami' do a good enough job placing that in context - in a city of overblown hedonism, she wants to be the one in charge, to be Kanye instead of Kim. And this theme of chasing that hustle interweaves with her dream-like wishes for a relationship, all of which are framed as very much doomed in some variety. 'Flight 22' is probably the most straightforward love song on the record... and the flight references was from a doomed plane collision in 1967. 'Tyrant' raises the question once the honeymoon period ends whether this guy will then exploit her like the industry has tried, and even the brighter yearning of 'In My Dreams' is punctured by the acknowledgement those dreams end. Now again, I get the emotional headspace where her self-reliance and natural distrust of manipulation comes through from 'Miami' and 'Your Teeth In My Neck' juxtaposed against the yearning for true affection even if the rational part of her mind expects the worst - this makes sense. But for the final two songs this record pivots into the guy either cheating or being abusive against increasingly lush production, hitting the worst possible answer, and while the bluntness of the writing captures the severity, her delivery just doesn't sell that gravity or those deeper stakes - hell, the closest she ever gets to this territory is 'Tomorrow', but even that sense of danger feels kind of muted when you realize it's an interpolation of Sublime! And a big part of this is a lack of lyrical nuance - I get that a record like this is relying more on vocal personality to sell its points, but when you factor in how quickly she flits across styles and character, especially on the retro tones of 'Feel Like A Fool', where you'd think the Kali Uchis of 'Dead To Me' or even 'After The Storm' would have dumped his cheating ass, it feels less like intriguing diversity or complexity and more scattered inconsistencies. And when you couple it with rhyme schemes that are just dropped without any good reason, the broad strokes of the writing means that while the ending makes thematic sense, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts - just kind of shallow. 

But hey, surely with how lush and diverse the production is, that'd be enough to elevate this record, right? Well, aside from surrendering any consistent feeling of flow - and songs like the 'Coming Home' interlude blatantly clash for little apparent reason, it sounds like two fragments smashed together - I found myself really wishing I could dig into more of these tracks. Again, I like old-school vibes, I like the elements of retro pop and jazz and funk and R&B this record is pulling on, but in nearly all of these pieces there just that one instrumental element that doesn't help the cohesive sound, especially when it's paired with bass grooves and organic elements that deserve a lot better. 'Just A Stranger' is probably the catchiest song here featuring Steve Lacey from The Internet - that's what you get when you get a producer from BROCKHAMPTON behind the boards - but like with most mid-tier BROCKHAMPTON the atonal synth and guitar just didn't click. 'Dead To Me' almost reminds me of a Janelle Monae cut in the vocal layering and elegant funk, but the flat synth choices just completely neutered the vibe. A wonky synth choice doesn't help the by-the-numbers reggaeton of 'Nuestro Planeta', and when you get Kevin Parker's blocky, moaning keyboards against the painfully thin guitars on 'Tomorrow'... for a song explicitly referencing teen girls forced into prostitution, the tone might be playing for that darker territory but none of that weight comes through in the misty crooning! And that tonal discordance between the content, delivery, and instrumentation is sadly pretty consistent across this project and seems to be intentional to emphasize some of the sarcastic vibe in the writing... a sarcasm rarely delivered all that effectively in the vocal line and never in the production, especially when all the retro tones fit better with genuine sincerity. I'm still not at all a fan of the drippy textures across this record or how the rickety skitter of the percussion on 'Miami' sounded so damn cheap, but when this record has its more earnest moments, even if shaded by darkness like the elegance assisted by the Dap-Kings on 'Flight 22' or the excellent synth interplay on 'In My Dreams', we get tunes I really dig. It's one reason I liked the flute-touched bassy funk on 'Body Language' assisted by Thundercat, as well as 'After The Storm' which plays into empowerment with the loose funk, incredibly charming Bootsy Collins ad-libs and a great balanced verse from Tyler, The Creator.

But as a whole... look, Kali Uchis has said in interviews the reason this debut took so long is that she made the record she wanted, not succumbing to label direction. And you can definitely tell, and while she's clearly won over an audience and critics with this, I'm not all that convinced. The writing is average at best, her vocals while varied to fit her production don't always reflect her strengths, and said production seemed to keep compromising its promising foundational elements for a languid, gauzy vibe that does nothing for momentum or deeper organic presence. In short, with many of these rough edges it feels very much like a debut - maybe if she was willing to tighten things up I'd be more willing to go back, but for me this is an extremely light 6/10 and a tentative recommendation - if it wasn't for 'In My Dreams', that score would be a fair bit lower. Look, I can respect Kali Uchis' hustle to get this made her way, and while it didn't resonate much with me, she's got an audience that'll probably enjoy it. So if you're curious... eh, it's worth a listen, but don't be surprised if you don't hear much from her in the next couple years if she doesn't get that big crossover smash - just warning you.

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