I’ll point out now that Michael Kiwanuka is a Brit-nominated artist with a number-one album under his belt, but I won’t mention anything about his commercial success from hereon out. Listening to his newest album, KIWANUKA, feels like racking up numbers and ticking boxes is the least of its creator’s worries. It might miss a mark or two, but KIWANUKA has an earnestness that kept me coming back.
“The album sounds modern, but has been produced in an alluring, heavy-sounding retro style”
From the album-cover to the final track, this project has a very 21st-century feel of being both rooted in the past and springing from the present. The album sounds modern, but has been produced in an alluring, heavy-sounding retro style. Many tracks carry a moody atmosphere; the project can feel like it is being performed at the end of a large empty room. Hope and reassurance prevail through this loneliness though, like on the high-point of an opening track You Ain’t the Problem.
“This is an album designed to be appreciated slowly and in order […] rather than wolfed down on shuffle”
KIWANUKA is quite traditional in structure. There are numerous interludes to break up the pace, making about a quarter of the track list. This is an album designed to be appreciated slowly and in order (two singles have their own intros), rather than wolfed down on shuffle.
I like this measured approach personally, and when many artists are adapting their music specifically for modern streaming platforms (which is nothing new in music – I’m not complaining), it’s nice to see some downtime. Hearing the powerful end to Another Human Being proves that these tracks are an important component of the album.
“There are all sorts of musical genres on show throughout KIWANUKA – a testament to its modernness if nothing else – that for the most part mesh well together”
There are all sorts of musical genres on show throughout KIWANUKA – a testament to its modernness if nothing else – that for the most part mesh well together. The psychedelic soul Kiwanuka is known for has a strong presence here, like the swirling Final Days. Elsewhere he moves into folk-rock – such as You Ain’t the Problemand Hero –as well gospel on I’ve Been Dazed.
“I found the album not always able to reach the heights of the greats it draws from”
This blend of sounds, produced by Danger Mouse (who has worked with Gorillaz among others) and Inflo fits well, carrying the modern-retro blend I mentioned. That said, I found the album not always able to reach the heights of the greats it draws from.
This is painfully clear on the second half of the politically charged Hero (with vocal delivery reminiscent of The Doors’ Riders on the Storm), where multiple layers of his voice drown beneath a distorted guitar solo. As the instrumentation surges around him, Kiwanuka’s voice becomes lost. What might be intended as a dramatic crescendo ends up as a confused scuffle in my eyes. I was also left cold by Piano Joint (This Kind of Love). While the piano is beautiful, the cheesy vocal melody marks a low point on the project.
“As the instrumentation surges around him, Kiwanuka’s voice becomes lost”
Kiwanuka sounds much better on the slow, warm cuts like the seven-minute Hard to Say Goodbye:a beautiful, tender track about leaving a lover. Or on Solid Ground, where his voice mesmerises against the subdued keys.
It’s a shame that the album sometimes fails to get off the ground, because its themes go to some interesting places. From what the man himself has said, KIWANUKA is somewhat a product of Kiwanuka’s own battles with imposter syndrome and a lack of self-confidence. Even the album’s title is a result of this: a response to numerous requests to change his surname – and thus erase his Ugandan heritage – to sell more records. Meditations ranging from the death of civil rights activists, to finding your way in this hostile world, to preserving your identity all make for a thoughtful listen.
“KIWANUKA is somewhat a product of Kiwanuka’s own battles with imposter syndrome and a lack of self-confidence”
KIWANUKA takes many forms and is creatively very impressive. While it is generally enjoyable to listen to and rewards your full attention, a few tracks don’t have the emotional impact that might be hoped. It has one foot in the past and one in the present, and the many ways Kiwanuka has refused to compromise on creating the album he wants lend it a shining authenticity that leaves a lot to love.
Featured Image courtesy of Michael Kiwanuka Official Facebook Page.
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