At its core, Isolation is a conversation between Kali Uchis and herself

The singer’s long-awaited debut album proves that years of self-reflection can pay off.

Photographer Tyler Mitchell
April 12, 2018
At its core, <i>Isolation</i> is a conversation between Kali Uchis and herself

Some of the most profound conversations in life happen when you’re talking to yourself. Resolves get strengthened, delusions can dissipate, and lofty goals can feel, in that moment, almost tangible. There is something powerful about looking at your reflection in the mirror and reminding yourself that you’re on your own team, even if no one else is. Kali Uchis might know this better than anyone else.

At its core, Isolation — the Colombian-American singer’s long-time-coming debut album — revolves around the power of solitude. Yes, the record has empowering songs that continue the bullshit-resistant attitude of her 2015 EP, Por Vida, but there’s an introspective element that makes it clear this confidence didn’t appear fully-formed, out of the blue. Kali did the work.

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“Dead To Me,” a bouncy standout with a chorus so anthemic it’s practically begging to be belted out the window of a moving car, makes me think of the Por Vida single, “Loner.” There’s a shared sentiment between the two songs, but the personal growth and shift in power is vast. A few years ago, Kali sang about not wanting to be known, but now her words cut with a razor-sharp precision: “You're dead to me,” she sings, her words soft but precise. “I'm not somebody you know.”

There’s an introspective element that makes it clear this confidence didn’t appear fully-formed, out of the blue. Kali did the work.

Much of Isolation feels like it takes place in Kali’s psyche. “Tyrant,” the apocalyptic first single, sung with U.K. powerhouse Jorja Smith, finds Kali battling between staying willfully hazy about her lover or owning up to a loss of control. Her collaboration with Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn, a sneakily despondent track called “In My Dreams,” explores similar territory amidst a rickety, bedroom-pop atmosphere. Kali’s dreamworld is rich and carefree; there’s no senseless murder, men aren’t useless cheaters, and finances are never a problem. It’s on Albarn’s bridge where the song’s deep sadness rings out the loudest: “The moments we are happiest / Are the moments that we don't exist.” Turns out, it is only while dreaming that Kali gets a reprieve from the turbulence of reality. With her minding-my-own-business attitude, it’s easy to label Kali as someone who’s strong enough to handle anything thrown her way, someone who can do it all on her own. This isn’t to suggest that she isn't, but sometimes you still need someone in your corner to make reality a little more bearable.

Kali’s beginnings in music have taken on an almost lore-like quality. The story goes: after a fight with her dad at 17, Kali left the house and began living out of her Subaru. She’d go to school during the day and sleep in parking lots at night, and it was in that car where she’d write poetry that would later become her lyrics. During one of those moments of loneliness, she wrote the lyrics to “Killer,” Isolation’s melancholy, Wayne Gordon-produced closing track. “If you loved me, you wouldn't put me through it,” she sings, proving that even as a teenager Kali had the ability to find the beauty in being alone with her thoughts, to flesh out her pain into something that would outlive the circumstances.

Despite Isolation being a big album, Kali hasn’t really been doing much traditional promo. Her Twitter and Instagram aren’t full of link-outs to interviews, instead flooded with affection from die-hards, and with Kali dishing it back. “No one ever believe in me or my vision as much as I have,” goes one caption. “Ever! Until some of you came along.” These fan reactions make me think of the hopeful chorus of “After The Storm,” a funky, inspiring Isolation cut that features Bootsy Collins and Tyler, The Creator. “The sun'll come out, nothing good ever comes easy,” she sings, the words — and the way people seem to be hanging onto them — serving as a reminder that her years spent looking inward haven't been in vain. “I know times are rough but winners don't quit / So don't you give up.”

Isolation is out now.
At its core, Isolation is a conversation between Kali Uchis and herself