Michael Kiwanuka Finds His True Self on ‘Kiwanuka’
English singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka has a sound steeped in soul traditions and spanning far beyond them. Discovered as a session guitarist, and quickly going on to tour with such star power as Adele, Kiwanuka released his debut album “Home Again” in 2012 to positive reviews, but made his real breakthrough came when he teamed up with genre-bending producer Danger Mouse for his 2016 followup “Love & Hate.” The collaboration recognized latent proclivities, channeled old sounds into new avenues, and lifted Kiwanuka’s music into a higher plane. For his latest album, simply titled “Kiwanuka,” the titular artist goes further yet, rejoining Danger Mouse as well as producer Inflo. The production team provides the ideal canvas for Kiwanuka to express his struggles and successes in the journey that ties the album’s songs together — the quest to find one’s true self.
Opener “You Ain’t the Problem” begins with the muffled sound of vaguely Afrobeat percussion, with intertwining, meshing guitar lines underneath ambient festive noise. Suddenly, the track bursts open, and a beat drops, with insistent, thumping snares, and gleeful “La-la-la” vocals. When Kiwanuka’s voice comes in, the backdrop clears out, with busy percussion most prominent, and plenty of empty space. It’s a format that characterizes much of the album, and gives it a singular, off-kilter, global indie feel. The song title is a reminder to us all that we needn’t feel compelled to conform to standards brandished befores us by the likes of social media. It’s a theme that permeates this album, and here makes its first pronouncement bold and clear.
The aesthetic teased on the opener is further fleshed out on “Rolling,” with a breakbeat, a fetching, bleeding, distorted guitar riff, a strategically placed sample, and Kiwanuka dominating it all with his brassy tone. The chorus lines, “Rolling with the times / Don’t be late” are issued deadpan and earnest, but obviously intended ironically, as an afterthought on the aforementioned issue — mocking the compulsion to search for the next big thing. “I’ve Been Dazed” takes this further yet, capturing a moment of realization that one has been following a path carved out by others, instead of one’s own. Kiwanuka treats his guitars heavily with phasers, and more skittering drums and vocal samples carry the track into a gospel outpouring, with impassioned backup singers, effusive strings, and all the works. Apart from the backing vocals, however, it’s far from your typical R&B-based gospel fare, with the strings slightly reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s arrangements on Radiohead’s last album “A Moon Shaped Pool.”
“Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” is given an intro with a track of its own, and this might be the most sonically exciting bit yet. Danger Mouse works his magic, pitching voices up and down, arranging jagged sampled bits together meticulously, cloaking them in just the right amount of hiss and fuzz, all over some thrilling, growling bass. The actual song finds Kiwanuka alone at the piano, over a phantom bass drum pulse. With his sonorous voice front and center, his singing truly shines. Midway, jazzy drums and haunting strings send the song into the stratosphere, making for an absolute standout. On “Another Human Being,” another interlude, Danger Mouse uses a melody that eerily recalls Bjork’s “Pagan Poetry,” and throws in a spoken sample from ‘60s Civil Rights sit-in protests. The associated self-assertion fits the overarching theme of setting one’s own standards. There’s a seamless transition into “Living in Denial,” which brings a new variation of the “La-la-las” of the opening number, and the phasers from “I’ve Been Dazed,” over a killer soulful groove, with a prominent, funky bassline and cooly restrained drums. Kiwanuka again sounds on top of his game, masterfully channeling late ‘60s and early ‘70s soul groups like the Delfonics. As the title suggests, the lyrics are essentially a reprise of “I’ve Been Dazed,” but with those sentiments interspersed with musings on racial injustice.
Like “Piano Joint,” “Hero” has its own intro track — a barebones guitar riff and Kiwanuka’s pitched-down vocal. When the actual song comes along, it strikes as an anticipated realization. A loose funk-rock cut, “Hero” features the refrain “Am I a hero?” further exploring the self-esteem issues that have surfaced in preceding songs. It’s a question at the heart of the quandary that inspired this album. Rather than hide behind an inflated, manufactured rockstar persona, Kiwanuka chose to be himself — and we may thank our lucky stars. At this point the album has shifted gracefully from a largely percussive affair to one focused on soul and atmospherics, and a grand moment comes on “Hard to Say Goodbye.” Ghostly, tweaked, ambient vocal samples open into full choir and string outpourings that build to an apex, then break abruptly. The rest is a standard R&B love song, but with an arrangement that nods to the grandeur that characterized the genre in previous eras. There’s a twenty-piece orchestra, guitar soloing indulgence, and plenty more in the rich mix.
If the last song looked to the past for inspiration, the next, “Final Days” looks to the future, with its inventive, spacious arrangement. There are again strong echoes of Radiohead, this time particularly the “In Rainbows” era. Kiwanuka’s voice sounds raspy, expressively sincere, and powerful. Clipped, overlain samples add a little discordance to the ghostly voices that feature on so many tracks, and the whole experience is marvelously surreal. There’s another seamless transition into “Interlude (Loving the People,)” which spins the sound into a Pink Floyd-esque extravaganza, and interpolates a spoken sample of US congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. Kiwanuka is one of few artists who realizes the value of silence as an instrument, and this especially shows on tracks like “Solid Ground,” the titular phrase referring to the composure gained upon truly finding oneself. He utters his phrases far apart, the space only partly filled by sparing string gestures, so that when the band finally erupts at the end, it feels revelatory. This sets the stage for the closer “Light,” an ethereal, string-laden event, with a refrain of “Shine your light over me.” Hefty guitar slides cue the entry of drums, and it gives the sense of jumping levels, leading to the final “light,” after all the soulsearching.
“Kiwanuka” is a continuation of the sounds by which the eponymous artist has made his name, but freer in its whims than any previous work. The album stands out for how well the musicianship, arrangement, and production allow Kiwanuka’s songs to achieve their full emotional resonance. Danger Mouse and Inflo craft a set of consistently evocative soundscapes. One marked attribute is how immaculately the songs flow together, reference one another, and mesh into a cohesive whole. It’s essentially a concept album, about the struggle to break free of societal oppression, come to terms with oneself, and take the bold step forward. Along the way come moments of crippling anxiety, expressed in the strained fluctuations of Kiwanuka’s voice and the surrounding noise. Ultimately, however, it’s a message of optimism, fully consistent with the album’s cover art, a painting of Kiwanuka in gold, confident and poised, looking at you head-on.
“Kiwanuka” is available Nov. 1 on Apple Music.