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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

On ‘Orquídeas,’ Kali Uchis gets all she wants

The singer-songwriter Kali Uchis, in Culver City, CA on April 10, 2023. Uchis has deliberately alternated between albums with lyrics primarily in English or Spanish, and “Orquídeas” is nominally her latest Spanish-language album. (Elizabeth Weinberg/The New York Times)

By Jon Pareles

Kali Uchis basks in pleasure on her fourth studio album, “Orquídeas.” Make that pleasures: carnal, material, romantic, sonic, competitive and, if necessary, vengeful, all with a girlish nonchalance. The album begins with loops of laughter and ethereal oohs and ahs; it ends with Uchis thanking listeners with a “mwah” kiss. It’s an album of breezy confidence and sly ingenuity, easily moving among futuristic electronics, 1990s nostalgia and Latin roots.

“Orquídeas” are orchids: the national flower of Colombia, where Uchis’ parents were born. Uchis — Karly-Marina Loaiza — was born and grew up in Virginia, but she made long visits to Colombia while growing up. Orchids are colorful, alluring, fleshy, delicate, demanding and coveted, just as Uchis has presented herself throughout her recording career. In her new songs, she’s an irresistible, knowing object of desire. “I make ’em beg for it,” she announces in the album’s opening song, “¿Cómo Así?” (“How So?”), singing, “If you come around here, you’ll never wanna leave.”

Uchis, 29, has deliberately alternated between albums with lyrics primarily in English or Spanish, and “Orquídeas” is nominally her latest Spanish-language album. But now that she has built a worldwide audience, her new songs are fluidly bilingual; they casually switch between English and Spanish, sometimes in mid-phrase. “I get a lil bit crazy pero es no mi culpa,” she sings in “Me Ponga Loca” (“I Get Crazy”), adding “Es que soy apasionada.” (“It’s not my fault — it’s that I’m passionate.”)

Uchis and her many songwriting and production collaborators draw on expertly seductive pop and R&B from past generations, often using 21st-century technology to extrapolate from the plush, whispery fantasies of 1990s R&B hitmakers like Janet Jackson and Aaliyah. Lavishly layered vocals nestle among glimmering electronic sounds and programmed beats, and on “Orquídeas,” her voice sounds completely untethered by gravity.

She polished this approach on her 2020 album, “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios).” But while songs on that album — like the irresistible hit “Telepatía” (“Telepathy”) — often dealt with unfulfilled longings, on “Orquídeas” Uchis is triumphant. She gets whatever she desires: pampering and a man’s submission in “Diosa” (“Goddess”); loyalty and togetherness in “Tu Corazón Es Mío” (“Your Heart Is Mine”); blissful sex in “Young Rich & in Love,” where she coos, in Spanish, “On top of you, I feel free.”

Most of “Orquídeas” luxuriates in slowly swaying ballads. But now and then, Uchis gets friskier; that’s when she turns to Latin styles and star connections. She enlisted rappers El Alfa, from the Dominican Republic, and JT, from Miami group City Girls, for “Muñekita” (“Doll”), a plinking, thumping, cleverly tempo-shifting dembow track that celebrates hotness while it brutally dismisses rivals. In “Labios Mordidos” (“Bitten Lips”), Uchis and Colombian songwriter Karol G harmonize over a reggaeton beat and tease, “Tonight I’m a lesbian, you make me want it.”

Uchis reaches back to vintage Latin styles for two pivotal tracks: “Te Mata,” (“It Kills You”) midway through the album, and “Dame Beso/Muévete” (“Give Me a Kiss/Move It”) as the finale. “Te Mata” is an old-fashioned, string-laden bolero with a halo of overdubbed voices; Uchis sweetly twists the knife as she tells an ex that she’s happy with a new lover. “Dame Beso/Muevete” embraces two eras of Dominican Republic tradition, starting as a modern, piano-and-horn-driven merengue and then jumping further back to an older, rural-style, accordion-pumped perico ripiao. It carries Uchis from her celestial electronic flirtations to an earthy, sweaty dance floor, where she’s ready to let her body move.

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