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33: Kali Uchis

Photo By Pitchfork

“If You Need A Hero, Just Look In The Mirror...”

In the midst of the internet era, before social media was the global phenomenon it is now, the 2010s bore witness to an explosive surge in self-made music artists. These creatives catapulted to fame through streaming channels and early internet sites such as YouTube and Myspace and, further empowered by the use of digital cameras and home recording equipment, blossomed into producers, mixers, and videographers. Infamous for this rise in stardom during an ever-evolving online landscape was notably Lana Del Rey with Video Games. The home-recorded film, which she edited with video clippings, became a global sensation for millions of teenage girls, winning her the Q Awards in 2020 as the best song of the decade.

Similarly, Tyler the Creator marked a turning point in the industry with his YouTube sensation, Yonkers. From this, he built the empire Odd Future, redefining an alternative culture for young black men, moving away from the stereotypes set by ‘gangster rap’, and cultivating a community of edgy, artsy, skater boys who geeked out. His influence on hip-hop was monumental, changing the narrative for the possibilities of Black youth within contemporary culture, openly criticising the categories beholden upon them by traditional institutions. This new online world opened a space for a counterculture built on alternative and individualistic expression. The freedom allowed artists to channel their authenticity and combat negative assumptions, inspiring a generation of musicians to step away from music labels and seize complete creative autonomy over their work.

Born on July 17th, 1994, Kali Uchis the Columbian-born, LA-based artist, emerged as a pioneering voice during this age, symbolising this transformative wave in the music industry of integrating their cultural heritage into their artistic personas. In 2012, Uchis broke onto the scene with her mixtape Drunken Babble. Combining smooth R&B vocals with gritty rap lyrics, Kali Uchis crafted her signature sound using a DIY approach. Armed with just her laptop, basic digital studio software Garageband, and a microphone acquired from a schoolmate, she skilfully blended a wide range of influences, including soul, reggae, doo-wop, and synth-pop, all within the confines of her bedroom studio.

From her sample-rich compilation, she took various tracks Multi, Honey Baby, and What They Say, and conceived her first self-directed music videos. Using a handheld camera and dripping with imagination, she experimented with an ever-evolving aesthetic, studded with ponies, LA highways, and 70s lowriders. Here she shows off her carefully cultivated image of a ‘glam Hispanic teen with gangsta lean’, with a profound influence of both her heritage and upbringing.

Drunken Babble took off in an unprecedented way for the young teenager, and after discovering quite how many people had shared her mixtape, had deleted it.

“I didn’t expect that, I felt like this is embarrassing. I don’t want it out anymore. I can’t sing. The songs are stupid...”

She went on to co-produce her preceding self-released album, Por Vida in 2015, with Tyler, the Creator, and Kaytranada. A mix of R&B, doo-wop, soul, and dream pop, Kali Uchis continued to cultivate a world from her various influences and interests. The inspiration she draws from the '60s to ‘70s icons is prevalent from her music to the fashion she designs. She has fused the early sounds of the soul and R&B era, such as Irma Thomas, Billie Holiday, and Curtis Mayfield with curated looks of Bridgett Bardot. Por Vida stood out as an accolade for self-invention, combining a powerful aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino-inspired filmography and 70s Columbian lowrider culture with a contemporary edge. At this stage in her career, Uchis hadn’t received much attention from formal critics, despite having a huge fan base of millions of streamers, plus the attention of big names in the scene. Uchis persisted in carving out her independence and impression on the industry, each video delivering a powerful aesthetic.

“I was very aware that my present circumstances were always malleable and that there’s a whole other world out there, no matter if you feel stuck. You can live so many different lives just inside this one...”

In a collaborative effort with the likes of Tyler the Creator, Kaytranada, and Jorja Smith, in 2015 Kali Uchis released Isolation under the labels Rinse Recordings, Virgin EMI Records, and Universal Music Group. Rinse an interesting scope for the American-Colombian artist, known for their contributions to the UK Garage scene.

The album mixed Latin pop, with reggaeton and progressive funk, each song having a unique imprint and identity, with further Spanish versions of tracks released. Her press attention began to build, and the production value developed from VHS style to well-produced began to integrate into her art. This era is what set Kali Uchis into the limelight and saw her as an unrelenting visionary where the sky was the limit. The album saw critical acclaim and received an average score of 87, based on 17 reviews. Subsequently, her 2019 song 10% with Kaytranada won her a Grammy award.

During lockdown, Uchis returned to her self-recording roots with Feel Alive. Dropping an EP that combines her two significant Isolation (2018) and Por Vida (2015) albums, with an explicit album cover of her two defining eras performing oral sex on the other.

Cover Art for Kali Uchis' "To Feel Alive

It might be this reflection that triggered her bold shift to release an entirely Spanish-speaking album. Her 2020 release, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), truly cemented her status as a positive symbol for the Hispanic community. She miraculously persuaded the record label Interscope Records to release the album, despite her contract stating that all releases were to be made in English.

The EP scored an average score of 78, based on four reviews, indicating a generally favourable reception. However, it seemed Uchis wasn’t driven by the validation of critics, but more creating something authentic to her and the culture she represents in her music. As a slight to any negative reception of the album, she said in an interview upon the former’s release that she acknowledged the barrier for those “who do not wish to make the attempt to listen to music in languages they can’t understand.” Her song telepatía went viral on TikTok in 2022, as Kali Uchis' ethereal reggaeton sounds made it into the popular social media platforms of the modern era, a symbol of how her music transcends. Then, her final album to date - Red Moon in Venus. For me, as a loyal fan of Kali Uchis, I have always been most committed to her independent releases. Those rough around the edges inspired the sounds of Honey Baby and Angel. This album marks an era into adulthood. From girl to woman. Embodying the power sourced from being the bigger person, leading with love and grace, and the strength that can give you as a woman. It’s this album that has taken her from ‘underground up-and-coming’ to a clear-cut star. Red Moon in Venus received widespread acclaim from critics, the album received an average score of 84, based on 13 reviews, indicating universal acclaim. Her influence on British music was marked by RAYE supporting her on the album tour. One of Uchis' most striking attributes is her mastery of self-invention and independent art direction. Throughout her career, she has not only pioneered a distinct genre but has also consistently evolved her style, remaining authentic to herself at every juncture. Striking the delicate balance between mainstream and indie, she has exercised total creative control over her career from day one, allowing her fans to remain intimately connected to her artistic evolution.

The singer-songwriter has proved to be incredibly self-sufficient in the industry, and although she has made some good connections along the way, it has been clear that she’s in the driver's seat and charge of her destiny. Uchis' commitment to authenticity in her artistry has also had a ripple effect, inspiring other artists to embrace their cultural heritage. The likes of Joy Crookes, Sasha Keable, and Jorja Smith have followed her, exploring their roots, and weaving them into their music, thereby enriching contemporary soul music with diverse influences and perspectives.

In a music industry often characterised by conformity and commercial pressures, Kali Uchis stands out as a beacon of originality. Her ability to create immersive worlds, celebrate her heritage, and inspire others is a testament to her lasting impact on the music landscape. As she continues to evolve and push boundaries, Kali Uchis remains a symbol of empowerment, reminding us of all what we can create by staying true to our imagination and identity.

Written by: @hannahmaybaldwin

Edited by:  @Arriv3r