At the center of Kali Uchis’ debut album Isolation is a very basic question about personal identity, one that seeks to reconcile the process of defining and preserving it with attempts to realize the dreams that tend to ignite it. While Uchis wrestles with this universal angst throughout the album, she puts forth a rather poignant distillation of this big question in another form on the third track of her album, “Miami.” In between tellings of flights from her home in Columbia to the U.S. to pursue her music career and stories of men being surprised at her use of money as a form of currency as opposed to sex, Uchis asks us as much as herself: “But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye.” Why indeed?
Watching Uchis perform Tuesday night at the Novo in Los Angeles, Uchis put the inquiry to the test as she made her first foray in her shot to the top. Like the smokey, funk-bumping atmosphere that she conjures up on Isolation, live Uchis oozes an elegant sensuality that electrifies a stage the moment she steps on it. A dominant force, Uchis actually dances to her music–something you just can’t take for granted nowadays. There’s also the complex, emotional cadence of her songs that she effortlessly brings to life with that heavy, velvet croon of hers. It links and transforms dualities we tend to think of as opposites, like grace and sexuality or aggressive individuality and loving vulnerability, into inseparable pieces that make a person who they are.
Looming over the crowd in a tube-top, skirt, and thigh-high boots, all made of a super reflective material that made her look like a sci-fi queen against the alien-landscape that was blown-up on her backdrop, Uchis was the embodiment of empowerment. On Isolation, Uchis throttles forward on an outsider’s perspective on attempting to break into an industry (and country for that matter) that would rather build walls than bridges. Uchis introspection, however, has very clearly only made her a greater force to be reckoned with. “She’s a hurricane, feel the earth shake / If the devil was asleep, she’d knock him wide awake,” Uchis dishes out on “Just a Stranger,” and the words ring true for her as a Columbian-female pushing her way into an oppressively white-male world. But there’s a knowing spunk, a tongue-in-cheek swagger to Uchis social commentaries; as she highlights them, she seems to also say her very existence upends them and renders them powerless.
There’s also something to be said of an artist with so much raw talent like Uchis naming her album Isolation, but then still drawing such a mind-boggling array of people to bring it to life. The likes of Damon Albarn and Kevin Parker, Thundercat and BadBadNotGood, all revolve around Uchis on her debut in a manner that supplements but doesn’t leave a void when she performs live. It might be too early to make sweeping comparisons or predictions, but it’s been two decades since a Latin entertainer dominated the states and we are absolutely here for Uchis blend of funk and soul to be part (or even lead) that next wave.
Southern California-native Cuco opened up for Uchis, bringing his lo-fi blend of indie-rock to the fans who’d shown up early to catch good spots for the night. Already making a name for himself amongst the underbelly of noisy, garage-meets-surf rock that exists in Orange County, Cuco exists in a very specific vein that is brought to life by his soft but cutting vocals–which he offers up to crowds in both Spanish and English.
Words & Photography: Steven Ward