MICHAEL KIWANUKA – KIWANUKA
Michael Kiwanuka got on my radar back in 2012 with his debut, Home Again. I don’t quite remember where or how, but I heard the track “Tell Me A Tale” and I was just enamored with the meticulous recreation of that retro soul sound. I will admit that when I bought the album I was surprised to find that the majority of the tracks were much quieter, more acoustic-driven songs, but that didn’t effect how much I ended up loving it.
2016 brought us his very warmly received follow-up, Love & Hate. With this album Kiwanuka brought in producers Danger Mouse and Inflo and saw him embracing that retro soul sound even more (including the tendency of those artists to write 7+ minute songs). While the album was almost universally well reviewed, I personally felt that some of the personality of the first album was lost and I didn’t enjoy it as much.
This all brings us to his third (technically self-titled) album, KIWANUKA. Danger Mouse and Inflo both return as producers on this album. While my reaction to their last collaboration with Kiwanuka was less than stellar, Inflo did produce one of my favorite albums of this year so far (Little Simz’ GREY Area), so I went into this a little more hopeful. Right out the gate, things are looking better.
This album has Kiwanuka leaning hard into the retro style once again, but some of that personality that was lost on Love & Hate has been regained, signaled by a burst of noisy fuzz guitar within the first minute of the first track. This same guitar tone returns a few times on the album, and is just one of the ways that retro soul is interpreted through a modern lens on this album. In fact, the first five tracks of this album flow incredibly well. “Rolling” and “I’ve Been Dazed” flow so well, that I often think they’re the same track when I’m not paying attention.
Other standout tracks are “Hero” with its intro track and the 7 minute “Hard To Say Goodbye” (which is also the only 7+ minute track on this album, another improvement). Lyrically Kiwanuka is pulling from his retro soul influences again with lyrics of personal struggle that point political at times. He uses audio clips from the Civil Rights era of American history to further emphasize that while his lyrics would be at home on records from the ’70s, they are (unfortunately) still relevant today.
My one major complaint is that the album really starts to lose steam when you get to the final four tracks. None of these are particularly bad, but “Solid Ground” and “Light” in particular feel like they drag on a bit too long. There are also the interlude tracks. Some of them are great, like the intro tracks for “Piano Joint” and “Hero,” but “Another Human Being” and “Interlude (Loving The People)” do more to interrupt the flow of the track list than enhance it.
Overall I think KIWANUKA is a much better execution of what was attempted on Love & Hate, and honestly a pretty exciting release. He has taken greater steps to make this sound his own and has done a clever job of interpreting the modern world through a retro lens while interpreting that retro music through a modern lens. It’s a tricky balancing act that Kiwanuka is becoming more and more skillful in performing.