Whatever soul is, Michael Kiwanuka has it
Self doubt has been the making of some great art. Great singers have often found personal redemption in song.
Four years ago, Michael Kiwanuka won the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll. The Londoner, born of Ugandan parents, had a beautiful, sometimes rapturous voice. A love of soul, gospel and folk seeped through his acoustic music as he sang, “I didn’t know what it means to believe.”
It seemed that Kiwanuka might become lost in the hype and swallowed up by the industry. When he was summoned to Hawaii to work with Kanye West, it proved to be an eye-opener. Chauffeured from his hotel to the studio, he found Kanye sitting on a throne, surrounded by staff, deciding on beats and fashion lines.
Feeling out of place with his battered old acoustic guitar, Kiwanuka didn’t hang about. He went home. But he learned something important from the experience. Something that has helped him make a new 10-track album of distinction.
As he struggled to record an album to follow his breakthrough, Home Again, he was dissatisfied, unsure of himself. Remembering Kanye’s ability to harness collaboration, Kiwanuka reached out to Danger Mouse, the man behind the success of Gnarls Barclay.
As forensic in his approach as Brian Eno, Danger Mouse interrogated Kiwanuka and his music and made a surprising discovery. The singer was also an excellent guitarist. Between them, they devised a new way of working. Musicians were drafted in and jams ensued. Songs took shape. And Kiwanuka has made a quantum leap as an artist.
While it’s just his second album, Love & Hate has a feel of being a significant career-defining work.
Kiwanuka’s voice still oozes the smouldering soul groove of old, but this time he achieves the difficult feat of being convincingly modern while sounding as if his work has been around for decades.
Album opener, Cold Little Heart, is an early sucker punch. Opening with a keyboard swell, it unfolds as a Floydian epic for five minutes before Kiwanuka begins singing. It’s a brave musical move. And it works.
Elsewhere, he conjures up images of Marvin Gaye at his most tormented and he beats himself up emotionally.
The album stand-out might well be the heartfelt Black Man in a White World.
A timely anthemic gospel-inflected cri-de-coeur (“I’m in love but I’m still sad...”), it’s worthy of Curtis Mayfield or Sam Cook.