This is Michael Kiwanuka’s third album. He burst onto the scene back in 2012 with his début album, Home Again, but it was his sophomore release, Love & Hate, which was a Number One album in his native UK. He is usually categorized as a singer/songwriter, and this both shows just how far and wide that genre can bend, but also its limitations in describing an artist. Kiwanuka is both that and more and on Kiwanuka, his masterful third album, he is far more than that, crafting a beautiful soul album that is heavily reliant on the 1970s. It was largely produced by super-producer DangerMouse, and it kind of shows.
Apparently he named the album after himself because people find his name hard to pronounce (seriously) and he has occasionally wondered if he’d be more successful if his name was simpler. I find that kind of depressing. But I do like his rationale for this album’s tile.
Kiwanuka opens with a vaguely Caribbean or African percussion bit over a mellow bass line before the horns hit and the song breaks out into this epic soul track, complete with high-pitched backing vocals and a massively distorted guitar before the man himself steps up to the mic to inform us that ‘You Ain’t the Problem.’ As he sings the hook, ‘You ain’t the problem’, we get a Shaft-esque female backing vocal. Kiwanuka’s voice would probably be categorized as a tenor, and it is clear, and he is not given to histrionics with it. ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ then sets the tone for the album.
The second track, ‘Rolling,’ might be my favourite of the bunch. It begins with a thudding bass and drum set before that guitar, still distorted and fuzzed, steps in. It’s hard not to feel happy when he rolls in and sings. And then you realize just what a heavy track this is:
No tears for the young
A bullet if you run away
Another lost one
Like father, like son, we pray.
Uh, yeah. And this is what makes Kiwanuka such a brilliant album: It is deeply and unambivalently political. And part of what makes this track so successful is the push/pull between the music, which is crafted for good times, it’s just feel good, and then we get smacked with the vocals and the reality for a black man in the UK (or the US, or Canada, or wherever, for that matter).
‘Rolling’ directly segues into ‘I’ve Been Dazed,’ so much so that you don’t really realize we have a new song, just that the tempo has changed, almost as if we are simply in the bridge of the first track. Only when you check the playlist do you notice we’ve moved on. ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ includes some gospel-based beauty ‘The Lord said to me/That time is the healer/Truth the answer/And I’m gonna pray’ in a call and response with a choir.
With ‘Hero’, both the Intro and the song, he addresses the issue of his name. In the Intro, which is obviously the demo, over a sparsely strummed guitar, he proudly declares in a husky, gravelly voice that ‘I won’t change my name/No matter what they call me’ wondering ‘Am I the hero/Am I a hero now?’ And then the song itself kicks in, a cleaned up version of the same guitar riff in the acoustic, but then his voice, more polished and smooth in the studio, asks if ‘I’m the hero/Am I the hero now?’ and then the song kicks into this gorgeous, beautiful funky 70s soul stomper, as we once again confront the spectre of racist violence and police brutality.
‘Hero’ also brings something else, in two cases he uses the demo version of the song, sparse in effect, his voice huskier, to introduce the main song. With ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love),’ the intro part, the demo, had me looking around for Isaac Hayes, so deep and dusky was Kiwanuka’s voice.
The entirety of Kiwanuka is political, and, really, in this day and age, how can we not be political? But the politics are deliverd via this beautiful, soulful funkiness. I see orange shag carpets, ten-foot tall cabinet speakers, a lot of velour, pantsuits, and a cloud of weed smoke over the room in my mind’s eye as I listen to this, and I have listened to it at least once a day for the past week.