review: Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Kiwanuka’ is a masterclass in modern psychedelic soul
Michael Kiwanuka put out his great 2016 sophomore album Love & Hate, it felt like it came out of nowhere. Not that he wasn't already popular, but just that you probably never would have predicted the bold, impactful psychedelic soul of Love & Hate from the sounds of his largely acoustic singer/songwriter-oriented 2012 debut Home Again. (Though in hindsight, some of the songs on the debut foreshadowed its followup.) And Love & Hate proved to have staying power, thanks in no small part to its opening track "Cold Little Heart" becoming the iconic, perfectly-matched theme song of HBO's much-loved Big Little Lies and a sleeper hit. I assume I'm not the only person who didn't hop on the Michael Kiwanuka train until Love & Hate came out, and while that album might have taken a lot of us by surprise, Kiwanuka is just the opposite. The anticipation for Michael to release a worthy followup album is greater than it's ever been, and Love & Hate fans will probably agree that Kiwanuka delivers.
It's fitting that he chose this record to name after himself, as it may very well go down as the album that most defines who he is as an artist (at least until he tops it again). Since Love & Hate established Michael as the artist we now know him as, and is home to his signature song, it might seem destined to go down as his most classic, but Kiwanuka tops it. It picks up right where Love & Hate left off, delivering everything that album had to offer and more. Once again, it was co-produced by Danger Mouse and Inflo, who have proved to be the perfect collaborators for Michael Kiwanuka, and his songwriting gels with the production even more this time around. It feels more organic, more relaxed, and more lived-in. Love & Hate sounds like a 2010s album influenced by '70s soul, but Kiwanuka sounds like a lost '70s soul classic that somehow you've always had sitting right next to your old Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye albums and just never realized it. Love & Hate has multiple songs that already feel like classics, be it "Cold Little Heart" or "Black Man In a White World" or the title track, but Michael doesn't let that pressure get to him on Kiwanuka. Instead, he loads the album with even more potential classics. Recent singles "You Ain't the Problem" and "Hero" already feel as essential and established as "Cold Little Heart," and I won't be surprised if one or more other Kiwanuka songs get there eventually too (like maybe "Living In Denial" or "Solid Ground" or "Light"). Between the unmistakable familiarity of his voice and the warmth of the vintage-sounding production, Kiwanuka quickly starts to feel like an album you've known your whole life. The arrangements are complex yet welcoming, and the songs are stuffed with hooks, even when they're at their most poignant.
Like its predecessor, Kiwanuka straddles the line between the personal and the political, the retro and the current. It contains samples of leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights era (and the video for "Hero" pays homage to the leaders of that era as well), but those samples work less as a tribute to the past and more as a reminder of the similarities between the political climate of that era and of today. Even the album title is both personal and political. He tells The Guardian that the title is a belated protest of when he first signed to Polydor, and it was suggested that he adopt a stage name because "Kiwanuka" was hard to pronounce and might make people think he was a world music artist. "Nobody would dream of saying that now. Now it’s cool to be from Africa and have a difficult name. But back then it was just another thing to make me potentially ashamed of who I am."
Michael has had to fight for acceptance time and time again. He talks in that same Guardian interview and other interviews about feeling like he didn't fit in with white communities or black communities. He talks about his last name not just being a roadblock in the UK music industry, but also when he would visit family in Uganda, where his name is pronounced "Chi-wa-nuka," rather than the anglicized "Kiwanuka." He talks about his confusion about still having a mostly white fanbase, and being jealous of artists like Jay-Z who represent a place or a group or a culture. "Some artists are singing to their people and I don’t know who mine are," he adds. You can hear these struggles informing the music on Kiwanuka, but there's also a sense of hope. These songs can often sound uplifting, like they're pushing forward despite whatever roadblocks might be in their way. It takes a lot of work to make an album like this one, and while Michael Kiwanuka the person always comes off about as humble as possible, Kiwanuka the album is beaming with a sense of accomplishment, like it knows it can win even when the odds are stacked against it. Whether it's finding your place in the world, or writing a song that can dethrone "Cold Little Heart," there's seemingly no obstacle Kiwanuka can't overcome.
Kiwanuka officially comes out Friday, November 1 via Interscope/Polydor,
and we'll update with a full stream once it's out. Also, catch Michael on tour in 2020.
Update, stream the full LP: