Yes, brothers, it’s a bit late, but my god, it’s worth the wait. What can you say about Michael Kiwanuka that’s not already been said? Let’s get the cliches out of the way first: he harks back to the best soul musicians of the 60s and 70s, be it Bill Withers, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, with a twinge of the jazz he so adores, but he brings that soul, that classic guitar into the modern age, (with a little help from the talents of Danger Mouse and Inflo) with electronic touches and flourishes. Oh, and I think we forgot that it’s easy listening, middle-class soul that belies a depth and richness, and a self-criticism that shows underneath the wizadry, there’s real doubt, loss and sadness.
Now that’s over with, let’s talk about what goes outside the usual tick-box talking points. Because in Michael Kiwanuka we have an artist that could be set to ascend to the heights of a modern great, at a time when the music he makes feels beautifully out of step with everything else on show: tracks that you expect to crackle with the fizz of vinyl, that don’t adhere to radio-friendly lengths or structures, (yet get picked up by globally renowned TV shows) however simple they may seem at first sight. Yes, you may say he should’ve been born 30 years earlier, but in some ways, that would’ve meant he’d perhaps sunk back into the ‘really good’ with so many legends around him. Truth be told, we’re lucky he’s around now, because that means he stands out, and – for those of us of a certain age – he beautifully espouses the virtues of proper songwriting.
And yet, it could’ve been so different. In many ways Kiwanuka is an anachronism. An immigrant kid, growing up in a white, middle-class suburb in north London, stripped of some of the struggles that peers may have encountered. Growing up immersed in jazz and soul, rather than hip-hop or r’n’b, a skater (but really, not that good), and dropping out of his dream course at the Royal Academy to write some songs, play them in a pub, and see where it went, assuming it’d be respected session musician, and never Glastonbury headliner, and singer-songwriter that spent years both convinced his own voice wasn’t up to the mark, then when fame finally hit, wracked with self-doubt, a self-labelled impostor that walked out of sessions with Kanye and struggled singing songs about the bleak side of love as he was getting married himself.
But to stick with Kiwanuka is an experience that rewards you, continually. Even the breakout Home Again, and the BBC Sound of 2012 – which seems so incredibly long ago – didn’t seem to quite bring him the expected success he’d been talked up for. It wasn’t until Love And Hate, four years later, that the it felt like the world caught up. It debuted at No.1 in the UK, and was an album that improved with every listen, his voice just drifting into gravelly, lovelorn ennui, cloaked in sadness. It was hard enough to listen to sometimes in good days, let alone when you’d gone through a break-up, or suffered loss. Every track dripped with sadness, with subtle, careworn character that settled like winter snow. And when he found his voice as a black man in the modern world, it gave us musical glory.
So where do you go from here? Radical reinvention? Pastiche? In this case, a bit of that, but mostly taking what made you so loved, and adding layers. But as with his own character, it’s not a brash statement, but something enveloped in a sound so pure, rich and powerful, that it reveals itself slowly. And shows that along with musical growth, Kiwanuka is also starting to feel more at home with himself. The first single, You Ain’t The Problem, finds him coming to the realisation that, whatever tribulations and doubt there is, it’s not himself that’s at the centre of it. Hero is self-questioning, with a video that puts his own contradictions at its heart, but doesn’t put the blame at his own door, and throughout the album, there are songs whose first impact is ‘that’s nice’, but as you delve deeper and let the music wash over you, and the lyrics sink in, you get to enjoy the slow-burning, blossoming joy as the album slowly shifts under your feet, and you just want to listen again, and again, and again.
Not everything, it seems has to be accessible and obvious from the off, and so this gentle but powerful anachronism, at odds with a fast-paced, condensed, over-saturated world, is everything it should be: a current classic, a future classic, and one of the albums of the year. Amen, Michael.