Pop

Five Burning Questions: Kali Uchis Hits the Top 40 With 'Telepatia'

Kali Uchis
Courtesy of Kali Uchis

Kali Uchis

American-Colombian singer-songwriter Kali Uchis has built a devoted following and considerable critical acclaim over the past half-decade, thanks to her collaborations with wide-ranging artists like Kaytranada, Jorja Smith and Tyler, the Creator, and her two full-length LPs to date, 2018's Isolation and 2020's Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios). But she hadn't scored a breakout chart hit of her own until this month.

Last week, on the Billboard Hot 100 dated March 6, her half-Spanish, half-English-language Sin Miedo single "Telepatía" debuted at No. 53 -- thanks in large part to the song taking off as a common video soundtrack on TikTok, a virality that quickly spread to other streaming services. This week, the song hits the Hot 100's top 40 for the first time, jumping to No. 39 -- easily her biggest hit on the chart to date, outpacing her lone other entry, as a guest artist on Daniel Caesar's "Get You" (No. 93, 2018).

How representative is the track of what Uchis does well? And could it make the jump to pop radio ubiquity? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. This is Kali Uchis' first Hot 100 hit as a lead artist. Obviously the song's success on TikTok had a large part to do with its commercial breakout, but what about the song both made it a natural fit there, and also allowed it to cross over as a major hit on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music?

Rania Aniftos: Gen-Z is always looking for songs that “release serotonin,” and “Telepatía" does that with a calming yet uplifting effect -- similar to Ritt Momney’s “Put Your Records On” and SZA’s “Good Days.” The universal yearning for solace through music definitely helped push the song to success beyond just TikTok.

Tatiana CirisanoComing up on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, any song about loving someone from afar is bound to be universally relatable. Of course, it also helps that the song is a breezy treat fit to soundtrack almost any activity -- and in the same way, an endless array of TikTok videos. Ultimately, though, I think Kali Uchis’ own fun posts on TikTok -- which include a guide to creating an altar for manifesting -- helped translate the song’s social media success to streaming. As Kali herself noted in a Billboard interview, not everyone who becomes aware of a song through TikTok takes the extra step to find it on streaming services later. By engaging with and thanking the TikTok community, she encouraged users to make that jump, and found new fans in the process.

Griselda Flores: I think “Telepatía” is the type of song that if you listen to only 15 seconds of it, you’ll end up searching for the song and listening to it in its entirety. It’s dreamy and catchy at the same time, with timely lyrics that will instantly seduce you. Its minimalist production makes the song super digestible and the fact that it’s sung half Spanish and half English, well it just opens doors for playlist placement. It could have been TikTok that fueled its success, but at the end of the day, it’s a catchy song -- and it’s a good, relatable song.

Jason Lipshutz: “Telepatía” has a sleek hook and a romantic spring in its step, but the quick-hitting lyrics that oscillate between Spanish and English -- and focus on a telepathic connection during a time in which physical contact is impossible -- were tailor-made to be plucked for TikTok use during the pandemic. “You know I’m just a flight away / If you wanted you can take a private plane,” Uchis sings during a global pandemic in which we are all dreaming about being able to safely fly to places outside of our living room. The song contains some of Uchis’ most arresting melodies to date, but its lyrical content is really what sealed the deal.

Andrew Unterberger: It's impossibly smooth escapism in just about any language -- as further demonstrated by a popular TikTok video that makes the song trilingual by adding a chorus in Hindi. The general vibiness is both unmissable and close to inexhaustible, making it a welcome soundtrack to any number of such videos, and ensuring a snippeted edit of it just leaves you craving the full thing.

2. The overwhelming majority of viral TikTok hits to make the leap to the Hot 100 so far have been predominantly English-language. How meaningful is it that a truly bilingual song like "Telepatía" is exploding in this manner, with this speed?

Rania Aniftos: It’s so meaningful and it’s about time! I’m surprised that a bilingual hit hasn’t made waves on TikTok sooner, especially since Spanish-language songs have been crossing over into American mainstream in a big way the past few years. I’m happy “Telepatía” is rising the way it has, though, because it’s such a feel-good song as we head into the spring and summer.

Tatiana CirisanoVery meaningful. Uchis rose to fame by releasing music primarily in English, and has said that she wasn't sure that her new Spanish-language album would resonate. But as the success of "Telepatía" reflects, audiences are ready to welcome bilingual hits if the industry would only promote them. The song may be among the first non-English Hot 100 successes fueled by TikTok, but I'm almost certain it won't be the last.

Griselda Flores: It’s huge! Especially after Uchis told Billboard that “a lot of people” didn’t want her to drop a Spanish album because it “wasn’t a real contribution to her discography.” It just goes to show you that Spanish lyrics, whether fans understand what they’re saying or not, are connecting with people. Spanish isn’t as foreign as it was once thought to be. I think it’s pretty cool that Sabrina Carpenter is on TikTok singing her heart out in Spanish, simply because she’s a fan. It’s moments like these, when a Spanglish song goes viral, that further supports the idea that you don’t need to sing in English to have a hit.

Jason Lipshutz: This type of achievement is more difficult to quantify than a game-changing No. 1 smash like Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” or an historic Spanish-language No. 1 album like Bad Bunny's El Último Tour Del Mundo, but the success of “Telepatía” on TikTok represents another language barrier that has thankfully begun to evaporate. As more Spanish-language songs start to take off on TikTok -- and there absolutely will be more -- we may look back at the rise of “Telepatía” as a quiet turning point for what non-English songs can accomplish on the increasingly influential platform.

Andrew Unterberger: I've often wondered if foreign-language songs are hurt on TikTok by the fact that so many of the songs that go viral rely on a kind of interplay between the video's framework and the lyrics of the soundtracking song -- a potentially tougher sell for non-English-language songs. But vibes trump all in 2021, as does great pop music, and the feeling of "Telepatía" is clear and powerful enough that you don't need to necessarily understand the meaning of every word to experience the song's full impact. Hopefully it's the first of many such examples.

3. Though this is Kali Uchis' first major pop hit, she's been a critic's favorite since at least her 2018 debut LP Isolation, even finishing in the top 20 for Billboard's staff list of that year's best albums. How representative is "Telepatía" of what she does well as an artist, or is it misleading for those looking to do a deeper dive into her catalog?

Rania Aniftos: “Telepatía” is admittedly the first song I’ve heard from Kali Uchis. After I did a personal deep dive into the rest of her releases, I think the song checks all the boxes on what makes her so popular in the first place: breezy melodies, soothing vocals with a hint of swag and, of course, her bilingual lyrics.

Tatiana CirisanoTelepatía” exemplifies the dreamy, spiritual side of Uchis' sound, as well as her ability to finds strength in solitude -- a major theme of both the aptly-titled Isolation and Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios). It's definitely not a bad place to start. However, just as good as the heart-eyed Uchis is the fiercely independent, take-no-prisoners Uchis, so I’d urge “Telepatía” fans to balance out the song's oozing romance with Uchis' more devilish side on tracks like "Dead To Me" and "Solita," which are also slightly more upbeat.

Griselda Flores: Kali Uchis’ music is purposeful. It can be healing, provide an escapism or simply get the party started with perreo anthems. “Telepatía” is no exception as it transports you to a limitless world where you make love telepathically. I think the track is representative of what she can do lyrically. Sonically, I’m not sure. You have her going from synth-pop to R&B then reggaetón in one single album. Kali is very unpredictable in her sonority, and that’s what makes her exciting and keeps fans on the edge of their seat.

Jason Lipshutz: The way that Kali Uchis explores the full range of her sound is one of the most exciting things about her -- after all, I first noticed her thanks to the gauzy indie-pop of Isolation’s “In My Dreams,” and the rest of that album sounded nothing like it. "Telepatía" nods toward the subversive R&B approach that often pops up in her projects (as well as her increased incorporation of Spanish), but Uchis’ catalog is already so multi-faceted that this breakthrough hit represents what she does well as a songwriter more than indicate what the rest of her tunes sound like.

Andrew Unterberger: It's pretty representative, I'd say. If nothing else, the success of "Telepatía" serves as a make-good on the fact that 2018's "After the Storm" -- a similarly intoxicating, gently funky R&B jam, featuring a spoken-word intro from Bootsy Collins and a guest verse from Tyler, the Creator -- never achieved the kind of crossover success it merited.

4. While "Telepatía" is well on its way to being one of the biggest streaming hits of early 2021, it's yet to make any kind of significant inroads on American radio. Do you see it eventually crossing over to major top 40 airplay, or is its success likely to end up mostly contained to the Internet? 

Rania Aniftos: I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this song’s journey yet. As it continues to grow beyond TikTok, it’s only a matter of time before we start hearing “Telepatía" nonstop on the radio.

Tatiana CirisanoHistorically, radio hasn’t been friendly to bilingual tracks, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Telepatía” remains primarily an Internet gem. But I'd love to be proven wrong, and as more Spanish-language songs continue to climb the charts, radio can’t cling to its old habits forever.

Griselda Flores: As much as I’d love to see it cross over to major top 40 airplay, I think it’s a song that is meant for streaming. The track was boosted by 10 million U.S. streams earned on the week ending Feb. 25, almost tripling its clicks from the previous week (3.4 million in the week ending Feb. 18). She clearly caters to a younger demographic who is discovering her on TikTok -- therefore, streaming is her biggest ally.  

Jason Lipshutz: Sadly, U.S. pop radio has remained relatively reluctant to play non-English songs as they concurrently break through on streaming platforms, with songs like “Despacito,” “Mi Gente” and “I Like It” being exceptions. All of those songs had sustained runs in the top 10 of the Hot 100 chart, and if "Telepatía" climbs that high, I could see a fair amount of radio PDs noticing that momentum and giving a shot to such a catchy, immediately engrossing track. Top 40 radio likely won’t be a catalyst for the song’s chart climb, but maybe they’ll join the bandwagon if it reaches the top of the Hot 100.

Andrew Unterberger: I think there's a chance, because top 40 has been a little more receptive lately to jumping on vibe-heavy TikTok hits, even if they're outside of the usual norm for them -- take the radio success last year of Surf Mesa's "ily" -- and last year's pair of Harry Styles pop smashes in "Adore You" and "Watermelon Sugar" also shows there's a place for blissed-out midtempo on the FM dial. But for a song with a mostly Spanish-language chorus, from an artist without much radio history, it might take a little prodding first -- and it wouldn't be shocking if it never quite proved a match.

5. Use your own telepathic connections and try to convince Kali Uchis of the one specific thing she needs -- a remix with a big guest, a particular type of music video, a major TV performance, etc. -- to take "Telepatía" to the next level as a hit. 

Rania Aniftos: Kali, I am sending you telepathic waves to please, please, please get Olivia Rodrigo or The Weeknd on a remix! Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” has been No. 1 on the Hot 100 for eight weeks now thanks to TikTok, so her popularity, both in mainstream and among Gen-Z, could really help propel “Telepatía” to the next level. The Weeknd is a hit magnet, and has already dipped his toes into the Latin pool with Maluma’s “Hawái.” I think a serene Spanish verse from The Weeknd on “Telepatía” would blend so seamlessly with Kali's vocals and give the song an airplay push.

Tatiana CirisanoKali is the queen of over-the-top, imaginative music videos (remember the delightful wackiness of "After the Storm"?), and I’d love to see her take “Telepatía” to the extreme. My mind goes to aliens and outer space themes for this one, but with Kalis' creativity, the options are endless. That said, I also wouldn’t be mad about a remix from fellow Latin music disruptor Bad Bunny. Brb while I set up my altar for manifesting.

Griselda Flores: I’d love to see a remix featuring Bad Bunny. I think a more rhythmic-leaning version could give the track more love on Spanish radio. Bunny’s longtime collaborator Tainy co-produced “Telepatía” so it’s not too far-fetched…

Jason Lipshutz: If Tyler, The Creator -- whom Uchis has worked with extensively, including appearances on both his Cherry Bomb and Flower Boy albums -- hopped on a remix of "Telepatía,” I could foresee the internet at large getting behind the updated version and pushing it up the Hot 100 chart. Tyler has reached as high as No. 13 on the Hot 100 over the course of his career with “Earfquake,” but has yet to crack the top 10. Could a "Telepatía" remix help him and Uchis, currently riding her biggest career hit, get there?

Andrew Unterberger: One way to significantly boost the song's chances of radio success: How about a remix co-starring airplay magnet Dua Lipa? She has a proven track record working with "Telepatía" co-producer Tainy, and couldn't you just hear her sultry mezzo-soprano intoning "If you want it you can take a private plane"? Pair it with a video featuring the same visual imagination of Lipa's "Break My Heart" clip (perhaps also directed by Henry Scholfield), and the collab could spend the entire warm-weather season in the Hot 100's top 10.