Michael Kiwanuka

Interscope, 2019

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In titling his third album with the last name that a record label executive once pressured him to change, Michael Kiwanuka lays down a gauntlet: the album is not just an expression of artistic imagination, but of personal identity. "I won't change my name / No matter what they call me," he declares in “Hero.” In the process of asserting his autonomy, Kiwanuka delivers not just a new set of songs, but a whole world for you to step into, a sonic universe unto itself that’s full of heartache and trouble, yet also beautiful and uplifting.

Kiwanuka is a genuine head trip, a free-flowing, immersive album you experience as much as you listen to, in places a tonal cousin to Quincy Jones’ Walking In Space in its fearless melding of rock, jazz, soul, gospel and rhythm & blues elements, even as it equally calls back to the urgent, socially conscious yet dazzlingly impressionistic poetry of “What’s Going On”-era Marvin Gaye or Gil-Scott-Heron. And make no mistake—singer-songwriter Kiwanuka appears to be aiming exactly that high, for genuine transcendence, for a musical statement that gives voice to the pain of violence and oppression while attempting to respond with love and compassion.

Kiwanuka is also a true album, whose individual songs often feel like segments of a larger mosaic with themes and patterns that repeat, as well as creative segues and interludes, and songs that shapeshift as they go in true progressive fashion. Leadoff cut and lead single “You Ain’t The Problem” shimmers along initially before exploding into a sunburst of thrumming, flowing electro-soul, with tambourine, background vocals and synth strings counterpointed by fuzzed-out guitar, a heavy bed of percussion and Kiwanuka’s urgent vocals up top. The enthralling “Rolling” follows, opening with a sinuous bass line and stabbing, heraldic guitar figure over an insistent, stutter-stepping backbeat. Hammond organ, piano and synthesizers add color and dimension along the way on a tune that simply demands that you move your body to it.

After that powerful one-two punch, the album flows directly into “I’ve Been Dazed,” opening with just Kiwanuka’s richly expressive voice over distorted, burbly guitar, eventually adding a rhythm section and chorused background vocals, with a deliberate pace and spacious feel adding drama and tension. Halfway through its 4:25 run time, “Dazed” moves into an ecstatic gospel-revival call-and-answer between Kiwanuka and the background chorus as strings and synths move in and push the song skyward.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The remaining three-quarters of the album is less consistently dazzling than that opening trio. After an atmospheric intro segment, “Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)” features the titular piano ringing out a gentle, insistent melody as Kiwanuka croons “My oh my, this kind of love / It’s taken me from my enemies / Don’t let the pressure get to me” as strings come sweeping in. Another free-jazz-y interlude jump-cuts into the flat-out Motown fantasia of “Living In Denial,” complete with ”La la la la la”s galore. The latter’s social consciousness gets expanded further by the chameleonic “Hero” (“Am I a hero / Am I a hero now? / To die a hero / Is all that we know now”). Opening as an almost mournful acoustic contemplation, at 1:20 Kiwanuka’s strums grow more aggressive, switching over to a muted electric that’s soon boosted by a lacerating electric lead, with drums and organ and finally strings piling on before the song erupts into its Hendrix-worthy climax.

Things grow both hazier and more familiar over the course of the last few tracks. “Hard To Say Goodbye” opens in another electric Motown daydream full of echoey drums and shimmery strings, before the electric guitar comes slicing into view. It’s a seven-minute progressive electro-soul number that, in contrast with the brilliant 10-minute “Cold Little Heart” from 2016’s Love & Hate, feels somewhat unfocused in places. “Final Days” puts an airier yet similar frame around a rather fatalistic / apocalyptic lyric. After another gauzy interlude, “Solid Ground” opens with electric piano and Kiwanuka’s voice, rich with reverb, a song that feels like a meditation, albeit a familiar one by now. Closer “Light” deploys a similar bag of tricks on a tune that manages to feel both sunny and elegiac.

Album co-producers Danger Mouse and Inflo offer Kiwanuka a powerful mix of predominantly retro tones with exotic modern flourishes, positioning the artist as a man out of time who nonetheless knows exactly who he is. This trio seems made for one another in the way their musical sensibilities mesh and amplify these songs.

At its best, Kiwanuka verges on genius in the way the artist and his producers frame these songs to push our emotional buttons, and the first three songs here are among the most powerful Michael Kiwanuka has recorded to date. The less distinctive second half leaves the album feeling a bit uneven and, as daring as some of its production decisions are in isolation, repetition makes them begin to feel like formula. A striking, distinctive formula, to be sure, but by the fifth or sixth time that an airy chorus of background singers comes in high above the action in a haloed glow, the novelty has passed.

Still, any album ultimately comes down to the quality of the individual songs that comprise it, and on Kiwanuka they range from good to spectacular. Michael Kiwanuka’s unique artistic vision and heartfelt songs and performances are consistently captivating and occasionally, yes, transcendent. You’d best believe I’ll be watching and waiting for whatever comes next.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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