Album Review: Singer-Rapper Kat Dahlia's Debut 'My Garden' Transcends Sum of Her Disparate Influences

Kat Dahlia
Album Review

If Lana Del Rey once introduced herself as the "gangsta Nancy Sinatra," Kat Dahlia might be the gangsta, Cuban-American Nelly Furtado. She sings, writes and raps; she has a bit of Rihanna's swagger and the gravelly vocals of 1990s grunge. If that sounds like a lot to balance, well, sometimes it is. But if nothing else, on Dahlia's debut, My Garden, she transcends the sum of her seemingly disparate influences, proving herself to be a relatively distinct artist, even if her risks don't always pay off.

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The first thing you notice is that voice: Dahlia, 24, sings in a deep, throaty vibrato and raps the same way. Sometimes it's smooth and rich; more often, it's sharp and angst-ridden, each word intentionally rough-edged. (This approach takes its toll: In 2014, Dahlia was treated for a career-threatening pseudocyst on her vocal chords.) She's at her best somewhere in between, as on twinkly single "Crazy," a stadium-size soul number on which Dahlia marvels at the absurdity of infatuation. Elsewhere, her softer side shines: "I Think I'm in Love Again" is a sun-dappled power ballad that should find radio success with the right push; "Lava" is breezy, brown-eyed soul reminiscent of Amy Winehouse.

But Dahlia's "gangsta" side needs refining -- sometimes literally, as on debut single "Gangsta." Her knack for narrative is apparent, and here she recounts her riches-to-rags Miami upbringing. Her parents' lucrative business unraveled after their divorce, leading Dahlia to save money through years of waitressing to pay for her own studio sessions, and she captures both frustration and affection on the track: "I ain't stuntin' like my daddy, he's living with my grammy/Used to be a baller, he's surviving off of gambling/But I love him, he's my daddy." Still, there's something that doesn't quite jell when she applies her tremulous singing to rap; it feels put-on, clashing with the truth-serum realness of her storytelling. Album highlight "Tumbao," on which Dahlia lapses in and out of singing in Spanish, stands in stark contrast to the often hokey gangsta shtick -- it feels unmistakably real, and like nothing else out there.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of Billboard.