Boasting the effortlessly cool charisma of Gwen Stefani, similarly distinctive looks to those of Lady Gaga, and the smoky, soulful voice of Amy Winehouse, in many ways Kali Uchis already appears the complete package. Mentored by one of the rising stars of the hip hop production world, Odd Future founder Tyler, The Creator, and with a new EP co-produced by no fewer than eight collaborators (including Tyler himself along with Diplo, leader of Jamaican dancehall syndicate Major Lazer), Por Vida certainly looks like a recipe for success. Bringing with it an understated but self-assured swagger and light, breezy pop tunes that you can wager will be widely described as “sun-kissed” by the deluge of reviews to follow, the timing of the release to coincide with the onset of the American summer is unlikely to be an accident.
Her retro, sun-heavy music videos do little to dispel this theory. Rush sees the Colombian songstress reclining casually on the hood of a moving Chevrolet Camaro in between rollerblading down sun parched highways and taunting guys from the back of a pick up truck with her stylish entourage in tow, while Know What I Want features similarly coquettish posing atop American muscle vehicles.
The songs themselves are a lesson in the art of elegant, lo-fi R&B, dubbed by the singer herself as “soul wop” – an inventive crossover of hip hop and doo wop. A refreshing simplicity permeates the record, ensuring Uchis’ voice takes centre stage while understated synths and ambling beats provide a minimalist but effective backdrop.
From the moment a-cappella opener Sycamore Trees floats in on a four track layering of her seductive, tantalising vocals, it rarely sounds like there will be any great sense of urgency here. Just listening to R&B slow jam Melting will make you feel like you’re sprawled out on some Californian beach, as Uchis coos “Melting like an ice cream when you smile” to a beat so unhurried it feels as though time has slowed just to give you an extra few minutes to laze around in the sun.
The ironically titled Rush, “Time stops still, feels like it’s all going nowhere”, also finds Uchis reaffirming the need not to “fight what’s natural”. With a funky bass riff and modulating synth twangs it is perhaps the closest thing offered to an up-tempo number, resulting in music that sways irresistibly like some soporific summer breeze.
This chilled, unhurried philosophy is mirrored in the 21 year old’s approach to her career as a whole, taking it one step at a time with a series of singles and EPs and, unlike many of her peers, is evidently in no rush to produce a career defining album at this point in her life. Eminently listenable at just nine tracks and 31 minutes, Uchis clearly leans to the ‘less is more’ mixtape mentality of Tyler, whom she cites as a key influence both in and out of the studio, describing him as “a musical genius”.
Many of the hallmarks from his alt-hip hop background are writ large across this collection of music; the syncopated synths and abrupt tempo changes of programmed percussion tracks always mange to sound pleasantly off beat rather than chaotic or disorganised. It is a formula popularised by other former members of the Odd Future collective including cocksure upstart Earl Sweatshirt and chart-troubling golden boy Frank Ocean, and used by Uchis to great effect here; the Tyler-produced Speed is built on the same trancy hooks as fellow R&B auteur FKA Twigs, interspersed with gentle keyboards and sparse percussion.
Filling the gaps between off-jazz chords and quirkily unpredictable instrumentation with some free-form scat and pitch perfect wails, it’s difficult not to fall for her beguiling, sultry vocals, as the world did not so long ago for a talented but troubled doe-eyed musician from North London.
As flattering and inevitable as they are, comparisons to the female elite of 21st century pop music do not do credit to a young musician who is talented, sassy and intriguing in her own right. A precocious talent belies her young years and shows her promise as a songwriter and lyricist as well as a singer. Behind the happy-go-lucky west coast tunes there is a bite and attitude that set Uchis apart from many of her bubblegum-pop contemporaries. Channelling the influence of a difficult upbringing in her Colombian hometown of Pereira and the frustrations of dealing with the perils of young love, she lulls you into a false sense of security by juxtaposing delicate melodic hooks and vocal harmonies with lyrics that showcase dissatisfaction and resentment.
Ridin Round’s youthful defiance, “I don’t need a man, fuck me over I’ll fuck you worse”, and Know What I Want’s world-weary views on wasted relationships are obvious examples, while the contrast is rarely starker than on the aggressively misanthropic Loner, her ode to single life in which she moans “I don’t wanna be your cigarette, use me up then toss me, step on me”.
What stands out most about Kali Uchis is her all round talent, embracing collaboration as second nature and yet still managing to stamp her mark across all aspects of the creative process, from writing and recording through to final production and the directing of her own music videos. Although this release may just be the next step on her journey toward eventual musical stardom and more widespread critical and commercial acclaim, for now listeners can be well content with this latest batch of laid back tunes and the promise of a dreamily soundtracked summer ahead.
Words: Henry Wickham