‘Blending the personal, political, and pure to dazzling effect’
Dominic Penna
09:15 25th October 2019

More about:

It has been seven years since Michael Kiwanuka courted soul stardom with a collection of nostalgia-tinged tracks enhanced by a unique voice. His third, and self-titled, record reveals itself to be a marked step forward in terms of quality, style and vitality.

Kiwanuka starts as he means to go on with the infectiously upbeat opener ‘You Ain’t The Problem’, which offers the listener an irresistible cocktail of funk, hip-hop and soul influences. An affirmative ode to self-love, confident and soaring vocals are ably assisted by Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley fame on production.

The opener is followed by a powerful one-two of tunes marking a step into more experimental musical territory. ‘Rolling’ shows off electric guitar licks and alternative influences which work well.On ‘I’ve Been Dazed’, the honeyed tones of Kiwanuka’s voice combine with psychedelic instrumentation to create an ethereal modern masterpiece. The use of a gospel choir and call-and-response, culminating in Kiwanuka singing over filtered samples of his own voice, makes the track impossible to forget once heard.

Taking cues from the legendary Al Green and Johnny Cash, while infusing enough elements of alternative R&B to give a contemporary sheen, the album benefits from a broad musical palette. ‘Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)’ is one of the most pensive, atmospheric moments on a record steeped in raw human emotion, while the neo-soul of ‘Living In Denial’ recalls Marvin Gaye at his most self-chastising and emotionally raw.

The quality is further elevated by strong social consciousness, with timely, important points about unity and black identity proving impossible to ignore. ‘Another Human Being’ samples a civil rights sit-in which is suddenly, brutally interrupted by the sound of a gunshot; the scratchy, electric guitar-led ‘Hero’ is another standout moment, with addictive funk elements providing an uncomfortable contrast with lyrical bleakness. Lines like “please don’t shoot me down” and “die a hero” focus on Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, who was assassinated aged 21, while ‘Interlude (Loving The People)’ samples congressman John Lewis.

Seven-minute epic ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ stakes its claim as the most powerful moment on a record which covers matters of the heart just as much as wider social concerns. Portraying the gradual disintegration of a whirlwind romance, it is the lovelorn balladry of Kiwanuka’s debut writ large, complete with stunning vocals and compelling guitar work. While ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ comes to a muted, fading conclusion, ‘Final Days’ preoccupies itself with a looming sense of catastrophe over breakbeat-infused production, before coming to a sudden stop. 

‘Solid Ground’ takes in themes of mental health and helplessness, while closing number ‘Light’ is a fitting climax to an introspective, emotional journey, ending with half a minute of considered silence.

Throughout Kiwanuka, Michael asks big questions of both himself and the listener, finally offering some sense of peace and closure by the end. A work of stunning range and depth, it is by far Michael Kiwanuka’s finest work to date. Blending a range of influences, sounds and themes to ensure a creative and compelling end result, this is one of the very finest recent R&B records, blending the personal, political, and pure to dazzling effect.

KIWANUKA is released on 1 November 2019 via Polydor. 

Issue Two of the Gigwise Print magazine is on sale now! Buy it here.

More about: