Kali Uchis, connoisseur of a gooey R&B that dims the lights of the mind and puts the blunt between your fingers, opens her fourth album in a curl of smoke and giggles, the bass a down blanket to fall into.
She knows you know exactly what a Kali Uchis song sounds like at this point, her propensity for languid, tone-setting album intros included: the beaming-in-from-outer-space bossa nova of “Body Language,” and black-and-white bolero of “la luna enamorada,” the nighttime bedroom with the windows open of “in My Garden…”
But “¿Cómo Así?” does something a little different: Instead of staying in the disaffected slow jam lane, it sobers up, the beat launching into an assertive clip that will characterize a large part of the succeeding 13 tracks of Orquídeas.
“How is it?” she asks. Well, this is how it is: In the second of a pair of albums released within 12 months of each other, Uchis, a cultural ambassador between R&B and Latin, is now building upon the pedigree of her Grammy-winning Kaytranada collaboration, “10%,” to lean further into dance, electronic, and the party-starting genres of the Caribbean. If 2023’s Red Moon In Venus was the self-affirmation you repeat in your head while checking your makeup in the rearview mirror, Orquídeas is the one screamed aloud as you grind on top of the car outside the party. Once lovelorn and lonely, Uchis is finally flowering; it sounds like a blast.
The 29-year-old artist and producer is an all-around curator of palettes (pastel, pink and foamy), clothes (cutout, playful, confident), and visuals (daydreamy, like falling asleep in front of the TV or waking up while it’s still on). She has an eye for whimsy and an ear for secret delights. Uchis’ music is a choose-your-own-adventure offering, easily accessible at multiple levels of passive and active listening: massive on TikTok and the main stage of Coachella, welcome at the club or on the computer, a companion to Lofi Girl and her easy-listening oasis for internet-addled brains.
Red Moon In Venus steered towards the latter. Although individually compelling, half the songs never surpassed the three-minute mark, and the similarities of their laid-back palette eventually smeared them together between the singles like so much melting candle wax — an artful approximation of turmoil for a project about “the blood moon [sending] your emotions into a spin,” but harder to imagine filling up requests for the setlist of arena shows. But the songs of Orquídeas fizz with unexpected pairings in both production and singing partners.
Just like with the switch-up on “¿Cómo Así?,” Uchis takes pleasure in convincing listeners that no genres are strange bedfellows when invited to her kingdom. On “Diosa,” she twists salsa’s characteristic horn blasts into an electronic bleat, punching in before blinking house piano chords. She starts “Tu Corazón Es Mío” with the twinkly piano of ‘70s soul before adding güiro, transforming it into a slow and sultry Cuban son. And only she can sequence a high-drama revenge bolero fit for the Bond franchise (“Te Mata,” literally “It Kills You”) next to a dreamy, electronic lament spiked with buzzy hits of bass and snare (“Perdiste”): Because when you think of Kali Uchis, you think about candy hearts, yes, but also the vicious crunch of teeth grinding them to dust.
Uchis traditionally leans on big-bodied funk bass and rounded tones to anchor the butterfly-light flutter of her voice, and on her albums marketed to an English-speaking audience, mostly chooses duet partners who blend right in. On Orquídeas, she seems less worried about getting blown away, vamping up the production and choosing foils whose vocal instruments contrast her own, like the scratchy baritone of Peso Pluma, which adds some grit to the smooth, disco-lite groove of “Igual Que Un Ángel,” or Puerto Rican heartbreaker Rauw Alejandro, who delivers his verse on “No Hay Ley Parte 2” (a remix of a 2022 single) with a charging frenzy, challenging a vocalist famous for her backseat delivery to pick up the pace on her following verse and changing the color of the song like a spritz of perfume in a small room.
That’s about the only time a man will ever tell Uchis what to do. She, however, has nothing but demands of men (and nothing but compliments for the women — angels, hotties, goddesses, all of them.) “Nobody in the future or the past will be like me, and you know that,” she admonishes her lover on the slow-grind sex jam “Young, Rich & In Love.” Uchis can make a kiss-off sound like a benediction, and it is: Key to her artistic vision is a self-love strong enough to infect others, to inspire the giddiness of falling in love and direct it inward, to give the girls their wings.
Rather than compete with others for affection — “No hay competencia, you know I don’t do that” — why not make the guys sweat for it? This is music for women who know what they have to offer and are taking bids at the auction. Even if en amor, no hay ley, Uchis certainly commands her lovers on these songs — ¡Cómprame cositas! Rub my feet! ¡Dame besitos! — in the sweet tones of a woman who means serious business. Consider the flower that gives the album its title: If you buy an orchid and complain about its caretaking, that one’s on you. You knew the price of its beauty.
But Uchis is also laugh-out-loud funny. All of these factors — the experimental production, the dynamic features, and lyrics that make you want to hire her services as a personal trainer for self-worth — culminate in Orquídeas’ pair of singles, “Muñekita” featuring Dominican rapper El Alfa and City Girls’ JT and “Labios Mordidos” featuring Karol G, which are all old-school reggaeton raunch and swagger.
Over a squeaky dembow beat, she hypes up herself (“Tu angelita es lo que necesitas”) and other queens on “Muñekita,” nodding to Panamanian rapper Lorna and her 2003 hit “Papi Chulo… Te Traigo El Mmmm” (“Uf…cuerpazo…uf…carajo”) before warning men to watch out because women who walk with an attitude will “walk you like a dog, woof woof.” The song’s ringy-dingy riff, reminiscent of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” slows down as Uchis lays out her arguments for why men ain’t shit (“No I didn’t get your text/ You bitches do not exist to me”), and speeds back up when JT hops in to end him for good.
It feels like getting away with something. It’s not that women have never appeared on reggaeton songs or made music themselves (thank you for my life, Ivy Queen), especially with the rise of artists like Natti Natasha, Becky G, Villano Antillano, and Young Miko in the last few years, but fans of the music’s earlier years are still contending with the way the scene denied them artistic credit, more interested in women as object and subjects than equals and collaborators.
On “Labios Mordidos,” Uchis rejects that by flipping “Murder She Wrote,” the 1992 reggae song by Chaka Demus & Pliers about a girl whose “beauty’s like a bunch of rose” but who sleeps around and, horror-of-horrors, is accused of getting an abortion. Here’s a longer sample near the end of the song:
The girl a pose an’ a brag how she look sexy
All she worship is pure vanity
The girl a pose an’ a brag how she a look ready
When she wash her clothes, it dirty
Girl, you no ready if you can’t cook for me
Girl, you no ready if you can’t wash for me
Girl, you no ready if you know you’re flirty-flirty
Latinas have heard this all their lives, pressured to be wives, mothers, and homemakers (or, its own insidious complex, to carry the dreams of our families denied to our own mothers, to hold an office job and caretake after we clock out). It’s the reminder to smile and be pretty, but not too pretty, to not attract the wrong type of attention. To be pious, obedient, and filial.
Kali Uchis says fuck that. Her music is about indulging your fantasies, not other people’s, about cultivating your inner sensual being for your own sake and people taking care of you for a change.
As early 2000s style makes a comeback, bringing the era’s baggage of ED-skinny, gender essentialism, and sexual purity back in a mini-purse tucked under an armpit, how cool is it to see two Latinas, commercial and artistic heavy-hitters, snatch the speaker-shaking sound of perreo to center their own pleasure and points of view? I’ll never get tired of it, especially when that song is a “Mambo No. 5” for lesbian Latinas (“María, Jenny, Catalina y Sonia/ Amo a mis brasileñas y mis colombianas/ Dominicanas, boricuas, amo a mis mexicanas/ Y esta noche soy lesbiana, tú me das las ganas”), where you can feel the windows fogging up with the heat of bodies, or maybe the big-ass explosion they strut away from in the music video. It reminds me of what Keke Palmer tweeted last year when starring in Usher’s video for “Boyfriend“: “I know I’m a gUrL but when I watched your videos, I never wanted to be the girl in them, I wanted to be YOU.” Watching Kali Uchis channel house party jefe in “Labios Mordidos,” a lot of us are Keke Palmer in this moment.
Everyone wants to talk about Ariana Grande as a successor to Mariah Carey, but I don’t know a chanteuse more elusive, more chameleonic, more determined to marry genres divided by outdated gendered and racial ideas of what is marketable to whom than Kali Uchis. (And that’s setting aside her unlocked whistle tones, femme mystique, and butterfly favoritism, let alone that Carey is Afro-Latina). “I wish to re-define the way we look at Latinas in music,” Uchis shared ahead of the album’s release, and it’s a vision of love that grows ever more expansive on each project. As she promised on songs in the past: that after the storm is when flowers bloom, that one day all the seeds she planted will sprout. On Orquídeas, the root systems run deep and wild.
Orquídeas is out 1/12 on Geffen.
Other albums of note out this week:
• 21 Savage’s American Dream
• Kid Cudi’s Insano
• Infant Island’s Obsidian Wreath
• Marika Hackman’s Big Sigh
• Jeymes Samuel’s The Book Of Clarence Soundtrack
• Bruiser Wolf’s My Story Got Stories
• Integrity’s All Death Is Mine : Total Domination!
• The Vaccines’ Pick-Up Full Of Pink Carnations
• Nailah Hunter’s Lovegaze
• Bill Ryder-Jones’ Iechyd Da
• Armin van Buuren’s Breathe In
• Shed Seven’s A Matter Of Time
• Massa Nera & Quiet Fear’s Quatro Vientos // Cinco Soles
• Loukeman’s Sd-2
• Splitknuckle’s Breathing Through The Wound
• Willow Avalon’s Honey Ain’t No Sweeter
• Hannah Ellis’ That Girl
• Itzy’s Born To Be
• Casey’s How To Disappear
• Magnum’s Here Comes The Rain
• Unknown T’s Blood Diamond
• @’s Are You There God? It’s Me, @ EP
• Esther Rose’s Safe 2 Run (versions) EP
• Bad History Month’s To Be Free EP
• Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors’ Strangers No More: The Worktapes EP