Maria Isa’s performances have taken her from St. Paul’s West Side to Puerto Rico and, more recently, to Hollywood. Her new album Valley of the Dolls, which she will release this Friday with a show at the Dakota Jazz Club, proves her music has grown throughout her travels into a confident assertion of identity and control.
The Latina hip-hop singer, rapper, and performance artist found some time between filming upcoming indie movie Strike One and touring with hip-hop duo Villa Rosa to record her first solo album in five years. Partly inspired by the 1966 book and 1967 film of the same name, Valley of the Dolls explores the challenges women face in the entertainment industry. It evokes the struggles and vices of the characters, one of whom becomes a porn star, another a fashion model. The third drowns herself in “dolls,” or pills, to cope.
The album explores trying to find yourself while staying true to yourself, said Isa. For her, that means passion. “The only pill I’ve been taking is love with this project,” she said.
Valley of the Dolls marks a re-emergence onto the Twin Cities music scene for Isa, who earned acclaim for her first two albums—most recently Street Politics, released in 2009 when Isa was just 22. Isa, who was raised in St. Paul to parents of Puerto Rican heritage, further raised her profile the following year when she joined the cast of Rent in a much-praised production at the Lab Theater. Listen to Maria Isa’s 2009 session live at the Current; here’s a video from that session.
For the new album Isa takes a larger role in the studio than ever before, working alongside producers Andrew Bergen and Bobby Raps and even playing percussion on four tracks with Truth Maze. She was able to handpick her favorite collaborators—who include her Villa Rosa partner Muja Messiah, and her mother reading a poem at the end of the album.
Her artistic direction is clear in the album’s versatile pulse of songs, which range from edgy Afro-Latin beats to more reflective layers of hip-hop and soul. It’s a tribute to the 1960s childhood of her mother and to Isa’s own upbringing in the 80s.
The multifaceted performer’s next moves include filming new videos, pre-production for the next Villa Rosa project, reading new scripts, and continuing to promote youth and cultural activism. She will continue to divide her time among Minnesota, L.A., and her international audiences. Despite her work taking her into global neighborhoods, she said she’ll always be a local artist.
“I always will be if it’s here,” she said.
Hailey Colwell is a journalism major at the University of Minnesota and a co-director of Theatre Corrobora.