What would happen if Issac Hayes and Roky Erikson made a record together in 2019? It would probably sound a lot like Michael Kiwanuka’s modern classic, KIWANUKA. Born in London to Ugandan parents Kiwanuka’s multi-national background is evident throughout his work. Often compared to Otis Redding, Kiwanuka is no rookie, supporting Adele on her 2011 tour and winning the BBC Sound of 2012 Poll, he’s already made a name for himself. With numerous accolades, three EPs, and two LPs (now 3) under his belt, Kiwanuka teamed up with producers Dangermouse and Inflo to help him realize his vision.
In a world preoccupied with nostalgia, Michael Kiwanuka’s KIWANUKA brings the sounds of the 60s (and every decade in between) into the present. The journey through different decades and the emotions of the artist on his way to self-realization has something for everyone. Well written arrangements, eloquent lyrics, and strong production manage to ground the turbulent journey through the album and artist’s life.
The album opens with You Ain’t The Problem, setting the syncretic, wide-lensed genre and culture bending approach that takes place throughout the record immediately. Tropical reverberated guitar and polyrhythms, reminiscent of Afrobeat, Ghanian Highlife, and Fela Kuti’s West African pop evoke a sense of contentment in the beginning. The track seamlessly transitions into a psychedelic guitar break that conjures up the anxious sounds of The Count Fives’ seminal Psychotic Reaction. Hazy tape saturation quickly changes to spring reverb before it is grounded by the smooth, soulful, bassline and Kiwanuka’s strong but sensitive vocals. Much of the album consists of these effortlessly crafted transitions, borrowing familiar sounds and presenting them in a refreshing and unexpected way.
“Don’t hesitate, time heals the pain, you ain’t the problem” the first lyrics on the record, foreshadow its introspective and melancholy undertone. Beneath dreamy, and lush production, lyrics with themes of the self-doubt, weariness, sadness, and rage, emotions Kiwanuka feels on his journey towards self-realization, are as carefully thought out as the arrangements.
One part, Issac Hayes’ Walk on By, and one part 13th Floor Elevators Tried to Hide, Rolling further demonstrates the eclectic mix of sounds presented on the record. After the 60s psych-rock intro the guitar cuts out and the soul kicks in with a round bouncy driving bassline. This is followed by a Hammond organ that would sound at home on a gospel record, and then an instrumental break featuring piano and modern drum grooves with a 90s flavor ala Dangermouse.
Throughout the album are many other influences, cool vibraphone reminiscent of Milt Jackson, pristine undulating guitar David Gilmour could have played, and angelic choir vocals permeated by 80s FM synthesizer string pads combine in unexpected ways. The rubbery synth bass and airy piano on Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) intro are call to mind contrasts explored by Herbie Hancock. Dangermouse’s production and style are obvious and sometimes cluttered. It can be distracting from the journey the vocals and lyrics Kiwanuka and the listener embark on. However this is expected on a record with such a wide sonic palette, and Dangermouse and Kiwanuka skillfully crafted a remarkably neat package. Ultimately the album stays rooted in the combination of Dangermouse’s production and Kiwanuka’s exceptional performances and soul influence.
Michael Kiwanuka’s third full-length album is captivating even for those who don’t have a familiarity with soul. Kiwanuka manages to take the listener on a sonic and existential journey through the record and his life. Combining the psychedelic and esoteric nostalgia of the past with the present. The title, bearing only the artists last name, seems to serve as a triumphant announcement. KIWANUKA is a statement, a story of an artist’s self-actualization. Michael Kiwanuka knows who he is, and he wants to share it with the world.