Kali Uchis’s Fearless Latinx Pop

Without Fear

The bilingual and bicultural pop of Kali Uchis.


Kali Uchis’s musical approach is redolent of the past—mostly thanks to the smoky, nostalgic quality of her voice, which often feels like it’s being broadcast live from a hazy, tobacco-stained lounge. “La Luna Enamorada,” the opener from her sophomore album, Sin Miedo (Del Amor y Otros Demonios), takes full advantage of her vocals as she purrs over a rich, undulating bolero rhythm. But the song isn’t simply a chance for Uchis to show off her singing chops. It’s a cover of the Cuban classic “La Luna en Tu Mirada,” written by the composer Luís Chaniveky and performed in 1964 by Los Zafiros, a Cuban filin quartet that took inspiration from American doo-wop and harmony groups. Here, it serves as an introduction to the way Uchis explores her Latinx roots on this album, her very first release almost entirely in Spanish.

Uchis, who often visited her parents’ native Colombia while growing up, has always lived in between languages. In an interview with the Evening Standard, she explained, “The album is all Spanish with a few bits here and there in English. That’s just my writing style. I grew up bilingual, speaking Spanglish in my house, so it would be inauthentic to sing completely in Spanish or in English because that’s not how I talk.” Though she’s tested out bilingual music before—on her debut album and in a collaboration with the R&B singer Miguel—her statement did pose questions about how her identity would influence the actual music and what it would mean to excavate her upbringing for inspiration. Uchis isn’t a stranger to the minefields and complexities that surround the performance of Latinx identity: Early in her career, she traded ice-blond, Marilyn Monroe–style curls and the soft, pastel pop of her first EPs for darker hair and bolder aesthetics, which some critics contended was a marketing move intended to exoticize Latinx identity.

That history inevitably factored into critics’ and fans’ conversations around the new album and her announcement that she’d foray more deeply into Spanish-language music. For Sin Miedo, Uchis worked with the producer Tainy, generally considered one of the architects of the Latin music industry’s current reggaeton and trap styles, which have become commercially viable in recent years. She easily could have given her songs a sudden makeover and pushed deeper into the glossy reggaeton that’s in vogue, and she wouldn’t have been the first; pop artists like Selena Gomez and Camila Cabello have occasionally gravitated toward these genres and collaborated with the scene’s most prominent artists. But such performances, particularly when they’re fleeting efforts, can give the impression that artists are embracing Latinidad only when it comes with the promise of commercial success. Sin Miedo, instead, is subtle and instinctual, illustrating how much Uchis has learned about the sounds that work for her voice and her own experiences. These tracks, which are more interested in interpreting classics, boleros, and other traditions than in chasing trends, are a clear evolution from her debut, and her Spanish lyrics are natural and lived-in. She largely pulls off this risky undertaking, as the album’s name suggests, without fear.

The occasional downside of Uchis’s silky, serene delivery is that it can translate as sleepy and a little detached. However, on Sin Miedo she explores several avenues in her singing, trying out lustrous beats and adding vocal loops for more dimension. “Fue Mejor” is a dark, sinewy R&B track that plays with cosmic choral tones; a cameo by the Drake-affiliated singer and producer PartyNextDoor fits seamlessly into the arrangement. The song transitions almost imperceptibly into “Aguardiente y Limón,” built from her gentle coos over another celestial arrangement. She changes up the pace for “¡Aquí Yo Mando!,” an instantly gratifying, upbeat tribute to unabashed sexuality, which brilliantly enlists the Black and Puerto Rican Maryland rapper Rico Nasty, who drops a couple of lines in Spanish, while amplifying the record’s intensity. Uchis takes her time on the shadowy, down-tempo standouts, including “Quiero Sentirme Bien,” “Telepatía,” and “De Nadie,” all pieces that form a cohesive project as seamless and tight as a plait. On “Vaya con Dios,” adorned with lush strings, she channels the soulful vocals of Amy Winehouse, with whom she was often compared earlier in her career.

This is not to say Sin Miedo doesn’t have a few songs that speak to the current pop and reggaeton moment. “Te Pongo Mal (Préndelo)” includes the Puerto Rican duo Jowell y Randy, and though it might be less compelling in the context of a decidedly introspective album, it’s not hard to imagine this one playing at the club when the pandemic is over. A lighter dembow rhythm follows on “La Luz (Fin),” which features the rising Puerto Rican singer Jhay Cortez. What serves as the biggest reminder of the tensions tethered to the Latin music industry is “Que Te Pedí,” a short tribute to the legendary Afro-Cuban singer La Lupe.

On the one hand, Uchis pays heartfelt homage and will likely expose new listeners to a pioneering Black artist who has yet to get her due. On the other, her version does not reach the same emotional heights as the original: Uchis can’t reproduce the rawness of La Lupe’s deep, guttural wails, nor the sorrow behind the unrequited love that La Lupe sings about: “¿Qué no te dí?… Aunque quise robarme la luz para tí / No pudo ser.” (“What didn’t I give you?… Although I wanted to steal the light for you / It couldn’t be.”)

Listening to the original, it is also hard to forget the pain and intensity La Lupe constantly evoked in her music, which often reflected her own turmoil as a Black woman exiled from Cuba who was pushed out of the salsa industry and fell into depression and substance abuse. Uchis’s homage will indeed bring the singer to a wider audience, but the song itself offers us a reminder of how few Black Latina artists are included in the Latin music industry who could interpret La Lupe for themselves.

Sin Miedo isn’t an easy album to pull off; Uchis, as a bicultural and bilingual artist, is navigating a dual tension that is hard to ignore here. To appeal to the Latinx community, her Spanish-language efforts have to be seen as authentic and honest rather than as another way of profiting off Latinx culture.

At the same time, drawing on her own background and representing her identity is something Uchis has also had to defend to Anglo-American audiences. Last year, she noted that some of her fans may reject her turn toward her Colombian heritage and the language on this record. The day Sin Miedo was released, she tweeted, “today i drop another song in spanish which i know means another day of disappointment for my english speaking fans who do not wish to make the attempt to listen to music in languages they can’t understand.”

Yet Uchis nonetheless finds a way to succeed by following her instincts. Sin Miedo is an example of the benefits that come when artists explore a path that’s more idiosyncratic and creative than commercially driven. (Bad Bunny’s rock-and-shoegaze-inflected El Último Tour Del Mundo is more proof of an artist guided by introspection rather than trends.)

Sin Miedo peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums, Uchis’s first Top 10 entry on that chart, but that success seems almost secondary to her. Throughout the record, she makes it clear that she put her own feelings and creative demands first, while balancing the nuances and pressures of two different cultures. On the final song, “Ángel Sin Cielo,” she sings, “Hay que hacerlo sin miedo / La vida es una y a nadie le debo.” Roughly translated, it means, “You have to do it without fear / There’s only one life, and I don’t owe anything to anyone.”

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