Album Review: Kali Uchis – Orquíedas

[Geffen; 2024]

Peace and joy: oh, what to do with them once you’ve attained them? Frankly, it’s the kind of problem anyone would love to have.

These days, Colombian-American recording artist Kali Uchis has a lot to be joyful and at peace about. She took the organic, steadfast long route to chart-topping superstardom with footnotes like “10%”, her esteemed collaboration with Canadian producer Kaytradana. And of course her sultry synth pop stunner “telepatía”, which became a viral hit with Uchis talking full creative control on the song’s production values. Uchis became part of a vanguard of Latin mainstream artists – namely Bad Bunny and Rosalía – who have come to define the entire sound of contemporary mainstream radio across the globe.

But, to circumvent the list of supposedly success-defining metrics completely, last year’s Red Moon In Venus became the singer’s most coherent and complete creative statement, an assembly of stunning cutting-edge R&B-songs that urgently capture the push-and-pull thrills of flourishing romance. To top it all off, Uchis is expecting with partner Don Toliver, featured on the luminous “Fantasy”, a song of pure and unwavering reverie. Something interesting happens at the end of that particular track, however: the fever dream is cut short by a grainy field recording of Uchis plainspokenly declaring: “That’s it, that’s the end of the song,” before turning to her lover to head home.

This illustrates how Uchis is still at odds with the whole pop star lifestyle, and the demands and the scrutiny that come with it. Given how she has maintained creative agency throughout her career, this is not only admirable, it gave her a clear sense of what she projects on stage and who she is behind closed curtains. In a recent interview with Vulture, Uchis stated that she doesn’t feel the need to saturate her following with the minutiae of her private life: “I don’t understand the pressure from labels, which want us to be influencers, too. That is a separate job. People on the internet show luxurious things or a certain lifestyle they don’t really live, and they think that’s doing something good for them. But in reality, it’s putting so much evil on you. What are you trying to give yourself that attention for? I don’t know. To me, it’s a trap and a form of validation that doesn’t serve your spirit and will never make you feel fulfilled.”

It’s on this particularly slippery slope where Uchis’s new album Orquídeas (named after orchids, the national flower of Colombia) operates. If all your dreams have suddenly become a reality, how do you hit that sweet spot between a luxurious facade and a candid authenticity? Many mainstream artists have a hard time keeping both plates spinning, but Uchis manages to do just that by keeping her musical roots close, namely the legendary Cuban singer La Lupe and R&B star Aaliyah. And on Orquídeas, Uchis exhibits them all, as if trying on a full wardrobe of radiant garments.

The first half of Orquídeas unfolds like a morning-after of pillow tak and sweet nothings after Red Moon In Venus‘s steamy nocturnal dance beneath the sheets. On the spaced out, propulsive “¿Cómo Así?” (“How So?”), Uchis paves a diamond expressway reflecting a rainbow, transitioning seamlessly – and spectacularly – into the skiddy, syncopated cadence of “Me Pongo Loca” (“I Go Crazy”). It’s clear from the get-go that Uchis intends Orquídeas to be more of a party album, moulding her multi-layered, washed out R&B sound confidently into a more propellent club atmosphere.

“Igual Que un Ángel” – featuring Mexican artist Peso Pluma – sounds like an interstellar dream boat expedition to the heavens, while on the excellent “Diosa” – a warm wellspring of synth stabs and cavernous beats – Uchis even touches the divine, depicting herself as the total goddess. If Uchis is indeed reluctant to sell the listener a fantasy, you certainly couldn’t tell from these first few songs on Orquídeas .

That being said, the record starts to break from its hazy daydream with “Te Mata”, a gorgeous, more traditional leaning bolero that exhibits the full emotional range of Uchis’s voice: from seductive trills to piercing venomous outcries. Thematically it’s quite an about-face too: on “Diosa”, Uchis embodied godhood, while on “Te Mata”, she laments a past relationship where she is the devil in her estranged former partner’s story. “Te Mata” unfolds as a cathartic revenge fantasy. It chronicles all the big emotional beats: the promiscuity, the scandal, the sorrow, and finally, dramatic retribution. In the video, a car ends up being blown up, go figure. It’s big blustering stuff, the complete fireworks. It’s a bold shift in tension as well: it wouldn’t be as firm of an emotional bitchslap without the first few songs of Orquídeas lulling the listener into existential bliss.

From here, the record solidifies into a more grounded, earthbound place – yet joy and peace still hold firm. “Perdiste”, “Young Rich & In Love” and the Sade-recalling “Tu Corazon Es Mio” take Uchis briefly back to the downtempo anthems of love, heartbreak, deceit and lust we’ve been familiar with, a tried-and-true approach that she perfected on Red Moon In Venus. But then she breaks out to cupboard to exhibit her impressive versatility with a trio of cheeky and nostalgic party anthems: the rattling merengue inflected “Muñekita”, the sizzling “Labios Mordidos” and “No Hey Lay Parte 2”. Each of these tracks feature some of Uchis’s peers in Latin-American pop; El Alfa and JT on the first song, while KAROL G and Rauw Alejandro add some sugar and spice on the latter two tracks.

The lowrider-bumping urban funk of “Heladito” almost acts like a roll-the-credits type song where Uchis achieves the perfect balance between temptress and divine mother: “Ángel o demonio tú / Playing with me means you’re playing to lose. Just play with my hair instead. Can we spend some more hours in bed till noon.” It’s the artist doing what she ultimately promised: disappearing into the sunset bearing the fruits of joy, cruising towards a horizon beyond public scrutiny, finally at peace. Uchis blows us a final kiss with the lavish party romp “Dame Beso // Muévete” before disappearing in the polonaise for good. As she declares herself: she isn’t a pop star, she is international.

And though the second half Orquídeas breaks stylistically with the first – sometimes a bit too abrasively to stay fully engaged – it nevertheless makes sense for an artist like Uchis, who is trying to break industry conventions one project at a time. She already made a big point of being an artist of dual cultures and languages; allowing them to coexist in the same song reflects the most honest, candid version of herself in her music. It is therefore logical for her to carve out her dominion stylistically as well with Orquídeas: a place where all facets of her artistry can roam unchecked under the strong iconography of her striking image. It’s her own private island, and we are on a boat just off the coast watching bright fireworks, smoke and music emanate, reaching a fever pitch of euphoria. It’s hard to make out the specifics of this grand happening but we can tell people are having the time of their life down there. To feed off even 10% of that energy can hopefully spark a dream of one’s own making.