Michael Kiwanuka

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Kiwanuka Review

by Thom Jurek

Singer and songwriter Michael Kiwanuka is beloved by progressive music fans in his native U.K. He's been nominated for the Mercury Prize for his previous albums (Home Again and Love & Hate) and also received a Brit Prize nom for the latter. Further, his song "Cold Little Heart" became a kind of international indie hit after it was chosen as the theme song for HBO's star-studded series Big Little Lies. Born to Ugandan parents who fled during Idi Amin's reign of terror and settled in Muswell Hill, Kiwanuka has had to fight to keep his identity at the forefront of the culture; numerous record execs tried to get him to dump his birth name for one easier to market, resulting in such a crisis of self-confidence that he shelved an earlier album called Night Songs, recorded as the initial follow-up to Home Again, so he could decide if he even wanted to continue pursuing a musical vocation. This third album wears its self-titling as a badge of honor, a statement of who Michael Kiwanuka as artist and individual is. Once more produced by Danger Mouse and Inflo, this 13-song set is a brave, colorful collection that provides an exceptionally well-rounded aural portrait of Kiwanuka's massive and diverse talent. If one had to choose a genre umbrella for this release, the term "21st century psychedelic soul" would fit better than anything else. The opening tune here, "You Ain't the Problem," carries the inspiration of Curtis Mayfield in its rave-up chorus, while "Rolling" melds sweeping soul and the reverbed guitar psychedelia of Arthur Lee and Love. "Hero," at least initially, is a haunted, acoustically driven folk ballad: "I won't change my name/No matter what they call me." It transforms from a first-person manifesto into a trippy yet direct folk-rock homage to Fred Hampton, late president of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was gunned down by city police as he slept. "This Kind of Love" is perhaps the first tune to ever meld Bill Withers' folksy, funky soul to Terry Callier's singular, jazzed-up take on the genre. "Hard to Say Goodbye" is a weave of exotica-tinged, pillowy strings; Pink Floyd-esque guitar and effects atmospherics; and the sophisticated soul of Stevie Wonder circa Talking Book. Lyrically, the album reveals Kiwanuka at his most vulnerable and strident (no mean feat). The dramatic nature of his songwriting is gifted to listeners in catchy earworms, adventurous textural interludes, provocative lyrics, and through an ambitious melodic palette. As fine as Love & Hate was -- worthy of all its accolades -- Kiwanuka stands head and shoulders above it as a complex, communicative, poetic, and sometimes even profound collection that wears its heart on its sleeve and its sophistication in its grooves.

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