Original gangsta Snoop Dogg: “From the moment I seen ‘What They Say’ I knew Kali had something special. She has this authentic look that reminded me of that old-school low-rider culture. Then she took it a step further by sampling Brenton Wood and laying some Mary Wells-type shit over it. I loved it, it left me wanting more.”
Talk-rap singer/songwriter Kali Uchis is the poster girl for pretty-but-tough girls, with a look that’s part street princess, part anime character. Her firmly DIY sensibility – she happily directs and styles her own videos – can surprise even her celebrity collaborators. “Diplo kept asking me who styled my ‘What They Say’ video,” the 20-year-old laughs. “I was like, ‘No, that’s just my clothes!’” The song, her biggest so far, is an addictive ode to youthful misbehaviour, featuring the lyrics: “They poundin’ they fists on the floor / Say that they’re gonna take us to court.” The rest of her debut mixtape, Drunken Babble, displays influences that range from doo-wop to calypso.
The Colombia-born, east-coast-based Uchis shares a birthday with one of her main influences, M.I.A – July 18 – which also happens to be the date that her idol Billie Holiday died. She’s also into Amy Winehouse, with whom she shares a soulful timbre, and the Cali grunge of Gwen Stefani. “Most of the female artists I like found a way to be sexy but they weren’t like music prostitutes,” she says. “They were actually creative geniuses.” As major label interest picks up, it’s this empowerment that explains the young singer’s determination to be untainted by the music industry.
You won’t find her singing odes to bling any time soon – Uchis keeps it a little more real, although her baby-doll look and sound might not prepare you for such surprises as her ode to marijuana, “Tiger Lily”. With the ability to sing about illicit activities and make them sound sweet with her cooing vocal, Uchis is a confection of s’more-like layers, both sweet and unapologetically crunchy. As she sings in her video for “Por Vida”, “All I hear is sirens in a world so violent.” She might just be the most exciting voice from Virginia since Missy.
Follow Lily Mercer on Twitter here @LilyMercer