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Kali Uchis makes her own space on the idiosyncratic Sin Miedo

Kali Uchis has never sounded as good as she does on Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞, her first album written entirely in Spanish.

December 02, 2020
Kali Uchis makes her own space on the idiosyncratic <i>Sin Miedo</i>

Being alone doesn’t always have to be such a curse, as long as you have the right mindset. Kali Uchis would probably tell you as much herself: in her songs, trouble always seems to start in the company of others (and especially in the company of a romantic partner). Spending time by yourself, on the other hand — perhaps with a joint in one perfectly-manicured hand, a pen with which to scribble lyrics or poetry in the other — can be heaven. “Every day is a holiday when you’re living inside your dreams,” she sang on “In My Dreams,” an oddball highlight from her 2018 debut Isolation. In bright, bombastic contrast to the hedonism of the rest of the record, that line felt like Uchis’s mission statement, mantra, and mental health care plan in one. A year later, on the single “Solita,” she made the message even blunter, singing, on the song’s chorus, “Bailando aquí sola es mejor que con el diablo:” “Dancing here alone is better than with the devil.

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The Uchis of Isolation saw aloneness as a survival method — a way to escape the clutches of tyrannical men, a bloodthirsty music industry, and the general sin and sordidness of modern life. On Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞, her follow-up to Isolation released last week, things have changed. Across the album’s 13 songs — some of the most transportive and finely executed of her career — Uchis finds control in aloneness. She lets lovers slip away without shedding a tear, prioritizes sexual agency over gripping romance, and breaks the hearts that may once have broken hers. Isolation is still Uchis’s muse, but the meaning of the word has changed, now referring to something emancipatory, emboldening, and ecstatic. “Solo quiero sentirme bien,” she sings halfway through the album — “I just want to feel good.” Throughout Sin Miedo, she takes that idea and runs with it.

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The signs of Uchis’s newfound confidence are subtle, but help round out the self-portrait she first began sketching with Isolation. The coy reggaeton track “no eres tu (soy yo)” finds Uchis giving a lover a warning: “Dale, pero si me das no esperes que te pague / Tu nivel y el mío ya no son iguales.” It’s a lone wolf stereotype for the modern age, feminized and romanticized. The fluorescent-lit early highlight “¡aquí yo mando!”, a collaboration with Rico Nasty, finds Uchis affirming her sexual liberation in a fast, fluid cadence bordering on rapping. “Yo tomo las decisiones / Yo escojo las posiciones / Puedes tener los cojones / Pero yo los pantalones,” she spits, not mincing words as she asserts dominance. Uchis seems to unlock potent new ways to modulate her voice when she sings in Spanish, “¡aquí yo mando!” being one prime example: her wordplay here, while simple, gives the song a certain momentum that her songs have occasionally lacked.

Sin Miedo is not some bold, gobsmacking departure from its predecessor. Uchis is still making rich, intoxicating soul gilded with fluid and naturalistic incursions into rap and pop. Play Sin Miedo directly after Isolation, and you’re most likely to pick up on the multiple layers of refinement Uchis’s vision has seemed to have gone through between records: these songs no longer feel as beholden to their collaborators as the songs on Isolation did, and there are no more straight-up throwbacks, like the Amy Winehouse-style Motown homages “Feel Like A Fool” and “Killer” that closed Isolation.

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Instead, Sin Miedo is both more modern and more esoteric than its predecessor. Thanks to the presence of Puerto Rican pop luminary Tainy, a hitmaker for Bad Bunny and J Balvin, among others, these songs feel connected, albeit tangentially, to the most commercial echelons of Latin pop. He and Uchis deploy contemporary flourishes sparingly, but effectively: a horny, show-stopping guest verse from PARTYNEXTDOOR on “fue major”; unforgiving trap production on the Rico Nasty collaboration “¡aquí yo mando!”; sleek, foot-moving dembow beats on “tel pongo mal (prendelo)” and “la luz (Fín)”. These tracks aren’t in direct conversation with the most commercial Latin pop being made at the moment but they serve Uchis well, acting as proof that she can bend more commercial sounds to fit her needs.

In the same way that the most modern songs on the album don’t quite fit with their contemporaries, the songs on Sin Miedo that reference the past aim for something more complicated than mere throwback, as they so often did on Isolation. Opener “la luna enamorada” references a song by the '70s Venezuelan pop group Los Terrícolas titled “Dos Cosas,” but is for the most part a cover of Los Zafiros’ bolero “La luna en tu mirada”. The combination of the two gives the song a discombobulating effect — it’s like hearing the original song filtered through the experience of someone else, true to the original but coated in the flypaper-like film of memory, dragging back emotional and cultural detritus as it’s pulled from the recesses of the mind. Similarly, Uchis later delivers a striking cover of La Lupe’s “Que te pedi” that plays like a nearly note-for-note rendition of the original but is swiftly cut off a couple of minutes in. Like “la luna enamorada,” this is a song covered as if from memory — the distinctive parts left in, the rest removed. Uchis has said that Sin Miedo speaks to the music of her childhood, but these songs go a step further: they’re immersive and moving on a curious, metatextual level as well as on a musical level. They’re songs about her childhood, despite not having been written by her.

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The way these quirks and idiosyncrasies coalesce on Sin Miedo is remarkable. Rich with stillness and silence, this is an album that’s not universal, that won’t work in every environment, and is stronger for it. Even in its method of delivery — released on a Thursday, with less fanfare than usual for a major label pop record — Sin Miedo feels unique, like a transmission direct from some stranger, more liminal dimension. It’s clear that Uchis is entirely alone in the pop landscape — and she probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Kali Uchis makes her own space on the idiosyncratic Sin Miedo