ALBUM REVIEW: Michael Kiwanuka Lays It All out There on ‘KIWANUKA’

The British singer-songwriter quietly drops his biggest statement yet.

Race is a funny thing, and still a point of interest for many listeners. Musicians are supposed to stay in their assigned slots, aren’t they? White indie kids, black rappers, white punks, black R&B stars. Never the twain and all that crap. Stories on Michael Kiwanuka often focus on his struggles within the industry as a “Black Man in a White World.” Many writers have drawn comparisons between Kiwanuka and such greats as Marvin Gaye, Richie Havens and Terry Callier. I’ve never understood those. 

When I first heard Michael Kiwanuka, it was on “Tell Me A Tale” from his debut album, Home Again. It’s a lovely song. Sounds like something Island might have put out on a pink label circa 1971. It has a flute on it but it ain’t Jethro Tull. His voice is warm and reassuring, a hint of melancholy, a crackle of emotion. I didn’t know who it was. I certainly didn’t think “Ooh, Marvin Gaye!” Home Again is an easy delight. It wraps you up like a warm cuddle. Kiwanuka was obviously special. 

The second album was even better. Here, some of the guile had been stripped away and replaced with an urgent anger. By this stage, Micheal Kiwanuka had weathered a few storms. I was pleased when “Cold Cold Heart” was used as the theme to HBO’s Big Little Lies. That long, meandering song is Floydian in the way it slowly unfurls. Two albums in and he hadn’t put a foot wrong. 

KIWANUKA arrives without fanfare. Still, much is being made of the fact that we have a young black Brit who eschews hip-hop, grime and soul in favour of rock music. Still, there is a sense that the media sees him as a fish out of water. And still, the writing and the craftsmanship are playing second fiddle to the question of pigment.

That title—KIWANUKA—seems like a statement of intent. Like McCartney back in 1970. Another young musician looking to make a defiant gesture. But while Paul McCartney was shaking off the expectations of Beatledom, or at least trying to, Michael Kiwanuka has no such pre-conceptions. Still, there’s the sense that he has a point to make. That this is who he is. He won’t be anglicizing his name to make life easier for the executives. Deal with it. The cover depicts him as a king, in Henry VIII style robes. 

The music starts like a party.  “You Ain’t The Problem” rides an infectious groove and “Rolling” keeps things busy like Santana in 1970. The first thing we hear is a scandalous rhythm on the congas and tropicália guitar. The backing vocals sound like a chorus of demented muppets. In comes the fuzz guitar. Bass carries the melody. There’s some strings in there somewhere.  Kiwanuka says he used to hate himself but I’m too busy jumping about to notice. The bass and drums do a lot of the heavy lifting on “Rolling” too, with spangly guitar and tinkly piano and Michael telling us “don’t be late / stay with the times.” Quickly, we’ve moved into warm intimacy and melancholy.  “I’ve Been Dazed” sneaks up in on jangling guitar and marching drums. It threatens to build into a gospel fervour but then he sings, “Lost my way / You know I try,” and the choir slip into silence.

“Piano Joint” drifts in on a muffled heartbeat of a drum. Its extended intro is busier than the song itself which exists on a two note piano riff: “It’s the right time to give in / The right time to lose.” The sadness is infectious and what had started out as a house party now seems like a wake. “Living In Denial” stomps along on bass and drums. The muppets are back in on BVs.  “Hero” is all slivers of acoustic guitar and introspection. “Hard To Say,” “Final Ground”… you suddenly realise that this album has fooled you. That Michael Kiwanuka and his team have lulled you into a false sense of security. The album is hauntingly beautiful and deeply moving. 

Some of the credit has to go to producers Danger Mouse and Inflo, who manage to weave these sad angry songs into something uplifting and majestic. Rosie Danvers’ string arrangements embellish the tracks but remain unobtrusive. And whether the album is channelling Brazilian psychedelia, Ennio Morricone soundtracks, Pink Floyd or Traffic, KIWANUKA is bang up-to-date. The album is a seamless whole.  There’s no Henry VIII fat here. This might just be Album of the Year.  

Score: 👑👑👑👑👑 / 5

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