It’s been so long since we had a real primadonna. What that means has changed so much over the years, spanning Mariah Careys and Maria Callases, Whitneys and La Lupes, Lauryn Hills and Sades, and, more recently, Amy Winehouses and Adeles. The diva as a concept—still debated today in opera circles as to whether the term is a compliment or a critique—has evolved from the tortured and demanding star to include a less haunted but no less talented singer, a fabulous lone wolf figure haunting genres and ages of art. When it comes to sensual R&B these days, who serves as a diva?
Enter Kali Uchis, descending from a glimmering Red Moon in Venus. On her third LP, the 28-year-old presents a mature, well-marinated project with all the glamorous languor of midsummer on a Colombian villa. Equal parts soft femme and bad bitch—tropes she has embodied and toyed with since her first EP Por Vida (and even before, for the real ones who remember the DatPiff mixtape days)—Kali has fully marinated in the juices of heartbreak and risen out the seafoam a more self-possessed woman: strong, tender, in charge of her joy. To put it plainly, she’s “Happy Now,” or trying to be, despite the pain.
Red Moon in Venus is atmospheric and dreamy, bolstered with neo-soul production we’ve become accustomed to and sparkling pop touches, courtesy of Canadian prodigy Wondagurl, Benny Blanco and Gaga veteran producer Darkchild plus a slew of well-selected collabs. She greets you “in [Her] Garden’’ whispering “I love you” before thrusting you into a bilingual soundscape of radical tenderness, a place to safely confront one’s shadow. Soulful slow jam “Worth the Wait,” which features alt-pop golden boy Omar Apollo crooning a doo-wop chorus, simmers these contemplations on love gently, and “Fantasy,” her duet with longtime boyfriend Don Toliver, turns the heat all the way up. Listening to “I Wish You Roses” while dealing with a broken heart is a privilege; it can feel brave, in an era where wishing hell on an ex is easy, to wish them joy instead.
That’s not to say that the welcomed pettiness from Uchis isn’t there, and that it’s not delightful. The second half of the album is a romp through empowerment after heartbreak, full of anthems of divine feminine self-protection. On album highlight “Deserve Me,” Uchis is joined by her heartbroken sister Summer Walker to crush the men who were foolish enough to try them under their stilettos: “Wise up man cause you’re looking real dumb.” Then, the fast-paced exasperated shade of “Hasta Cuando” (“Until When”) reminds us she’s got bravado and isn’t here to play with the past. Regarding the girl her toxic ex is seeing now, she sings: “At the end of the day/She’d eat my pussy if I let her.”
Elsewhere, we hear the pain that births this anger, an emblematic trait of a diva’s torch song. It’s in the saxophone-backed heartbroken hues of “Blue,” and in the haunting whistle register at the end of “Moral Conscience,” where she snarls about karma searching and destroying her ex-lover. These moments call to mind Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and Mariah Carey’s renowned high notes. As a longtime listener who has always seen those diva traits in her, it was exciting to see her really embody them, without once making those references directly.
On the last two tracks, romance blooms, and we see a softer side of Uchis. Love is active on Red Moon in Venus, and it acts in multiple directions, but even at its most possessive (see aptly named slow jam “All Mine”) it wants, but it does not beg. Kali demands, but (to be fair) she’s not asking for much, at best, a lover to “get high [with] in the moonlight.” On “Como Te Quiero Yo” (“How I Want You”), she summons days lounging in bed with no complications, all while acknowledging si no hay drama, no hay amor. No drama, no love, but almost immediately, true intentions are revealed: but lately I just want to make love/I don’t wanna fight/Can we make up? It could be so simple, and Kali wants you to be unafraid to ask for it. In those respects, the album is a tribute to the bad bitch scorned, the woman in love, and, moreover, the healed and empowered lover.
Those who have ridden with her since 2012 aren’t surprised to have arrived at this point in her character arc—her villain era, if you will. We saw a glimpse of the modern Latin soul diva on 2018’s “Dead to Me” acoustic video. Flanked by a harpist and a keyboard player, Kali is bedecked in an orange dress. A bright contrast surrounded by blue, she reimagines Isolation’s upbeat fuck-you anthem as a doleful ballad. Fish swim around her as she sings into a vintage microphone, hair blown out in a short style that would give the 1900s-era showgirls she’s inspired by a run for their money.
We saw the glimmers of this diva then, and it’s officially solidified now; the aloof persona, the attention to detail, the talent and attention to craft, the devotion to beauty. Almost a decade in the making, Kali Uchis is seasoned; she’s a performer we can rely on to make us feel sensual and embodied with each new release. Kali’s music aids the embodiment—and, hopefully, the healing—of the inner dejected lover. She wants us to demand better, and insists we look, smell, and feel damn good doing it. Saturn enters Pisces, the Red Moon transits Venus, and a girl from Pereira holds the world in her manicured hands.