Self doubt and self-shame can significantly hinder the progression and happiness of a musician’s career. Michael Kiwanuka’s struggle with confidence stems from feeling lost and lonesome in society (a reoccurring motif in his lyrics). He doesn’t feel like he fits in his birthplace of London or his Ugandan heritage. He wrote the unforgettable singalong ‘Black in A White World’ from the 2016 album Love & Hate to reflect his confusion at having only white audiences at his American gigs. Privately and musically, he was still trying to figure out where he belonged.
However, Michael Kiwanuka returned after 3 years with a powerful single that acts as a motivational pep talk to himself and others in a similar predicament, putting the blame elsewhere: “Don’t hesitate. Time heals the pain. You ain’t the problem.” he sings on the suave, exciting and instantly likeable cross-genre ‘You Ain’t The Problem’. African drums hit behind psychedelic fuzz, folk-rock guitars, atmospheric noise and an unmistakable 70s soul aura. The track is a springboard for the Londoner to truly be himself without fear and is a great introduction to concept behind Kiwanuka – the apt title of his third album because he embraces an aspect of his existence; his unusual and often-misspelled surname.
Like predecessor Love & Hate, once again Danger Mouse (who has produced albums for The Black Keys, Portugal.The Man and Red Hot Chili Peppers) and hiphop producer Inflo provide their artistic oomph. The result is that Kiwanuka is an invigorating and immersive experience from start to finish. One reason is why it’s so absorbing is because tracks seamlessly blend into one another. Add to this the moments of instrumental string arrangements and the detailed depth given to the stereo space – hear ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)’ in which machine gun drums fire from one side to another and the heartbeat bass that vibrates in the headphones – and you’ve got a somewhat cinematic IMAX experience. The psychedelic-soul ‘Hero’ is also a great example of the stereo experimentation – starting off as a humble mono acoustic performance before exploding into a louder trippy distortion-filled jam.
Michael Kiwanuka sings on the aforementioned track: “Hear my sin, Lord. Speak no evil now. My amigo. No gun to reload now. A broken people. There go a negro now”. It’s dedicated to Fred Hampton, an important figure in the 1960s era of the Civil Rights movement and leader of Black Panther Party, a key political organisation. He wasn’t just fighting for racial equality but also trying to persuade street gangs to stop fighting each other and Kiwanuka could be inspired by his multi-layered activist story.
‘Another Human Being’ features a a speech from a protester taking part in the Civil Rights sit in protests in 1960 North Carolina, when some shops refused to serve members of the African race: “And for the first time. The community was confronted with negroes. In places where they had never been.” It’s impactful and unsettling due to its pairing of calming harp and jazz piano contrasted with an altered deep voice, ominous noise and a gun shot sound. ‘Interlude (Loving The People)’ also features a borrowed recorded dialogue of defiance: “…keep loving the people that denied my strength,” before it turns into the kind of electronic funk dream heard on Janelle Monae’s The Archandroid.
Like a Sinkane album, Kiwanuka has a real community spirit about it. An aim to unify unjustifiable segregation in the present by looking at the past, whilst Michael Kiwanuka simultaneously confronts his own identity issues. The spirit is felt not only in his lyrics but in the many effective uses of backing vocals, which give a nod to the harmonies in Northern soul. Great examples are in the distant calling on the Jimi Hendrix-channelling ‘Rolling’, the euphoric gospel on ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ , the na-na-na-na humming on the psychedelic soul ‘Living In Denial’ and then there’s the epic 7-minute track ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’, in which the hazy backing vocals haunt in grainy black & white behind the clear colour of the rest of the production.
Kiwanuka ends with the repetitive lines: “A mile apart, leave and be free,” before the voices disappear into the distance. This is undoubtedly one of the best records of the year because it leaves an inspiring afterglow and lasting imprint in your brain after experiencing it. You will be inspired by his respectful, authentic and memorable nod to his old soul idols (from Gil Scott-Heron to Bobby Womack) but most importantly you are likely to be inspired to follow his new found courage on self-belief.