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.
With thoughts of summer jams getting me through the beast from the east, get stuck into this brothers!
So, I don’t think I need any disclosure here: this feels a little obvious as a ‘Guy Album Of The Month’. Yes, I love Hot Chip (and LCD, and Joe and Al and Felix and Owen and Alexis and New Build and 2 Bears and…) as much as any other band that’s been around in the last two decades, but this doesn’t make it a throwaway choice. In fact, it’s one of the most listenable albums of the year so far for me, but it’s also much more than ‘oh, that bloke from Hot Chip’s made a solo album of dancefloor bangers’. It’s actually pleasingly more subtle than that, and it’s an LP that you should give a chance, because in many ways, it talks about what music means to me and tries to grab bits of all those *moments* that you have, whether it’s in a club, on the way to work, at a festival, at a gig. It may be ‘dancey’, but it’s not just a dance album. Stick with it and hopefully you’ll end up as rewarded as I do.
Joe’s a proper, unashamed, music geek. He loves disco and Salsoul (more of that later), but also dancehall and dub (just look at The 2 Bears influences). He loves techno and rave, and he loves pop music. But until now, his songs have often been twinned with others – Alexis Taylor in Hot Chip, Raf Rundell in The 2 Bears, as well as his Greco-Roman collective (label and releases-wise) – but while the solo stuff he’s done goes back to 2009, and there’s been some memorable stuff, this feels like a long time coming, and a bit of a new chapter for Goddard. He’s spoken about having a load of new kit, and wanting to make a record that gets the most out of it, and to push himself in a way that perhaps he doesn’t get when operating within the strictures of a band. But even with the newer sounds he’s created, what his music always sounds is joyous, vibrant, and throbbingly alive. And it takes someone with a cold heart to feel there’s nothing in Electric Lines for them.
So, what’s it like? There’s a myriad of influences, but instead of wrapping them in knowing subtlety, they’re out there front and centre, whether it’s the famous Celeda sample in tribute-heavy and vibes-laden Music Is The Answer, or the Salsoul sample – Brainstorm’s We’re On Our Way Home – in the paen to late-night wobbly post-club treks Home (with its brilliant Pete Fowler cartoons), Joe’s celebrating the music that is important to him, framed in his own template. The album flits around, from Ordinary Madness’ restrained modern soul openings, to shimmering, wide-angle pain of Human Heart, via balls-out 6am sweatbox Lasers, but there is a traceable line, and changes in tempo and feel that works across the length. You don’t make half a dozen albums without knowing how to structure an LP. Above all though, sonically and stylistically, the album shouts ‘HAVE FUN’, and it’s hard not to just let it wash over you and bounce down the road. It’s definitely made for summer and shades.
And with Al’s away with LCD, and Alexis releases piano-based albums, it’s a deserved chance for Joe to get some more limelight. No, it’s not a huge departure from other work he’s done, but why need it be? Alexis joins on the title track to sublime and familiar effect, and there’s some shades of Hot Chip around a few turns, particularly the cascading synth lines of Truth Is Light. But it’s very much Joe’s own project, and an album that shows that solo work doesn’t have to be any more complicated than putting together a load of music that shows who you are, and if that’s about good times, then where’s the evil in that? Despite being the wrong side of 35, he’s not a man that appears to be growing respectable with age (his comments about simply tearing out into Shangri-La and hanging on for the next 4 days made me chuckle), and if you saw his Glastonbury set on the Sunday, it’s a pretty impressive knowing what he probably got up to before that point!
Sometimes albums that are instantly accessible fade quickly, and feel disposable, but this isn’t one. Also, it’s hard to say what you’ll connect with in music. Even something you think you’ll like, it just doesn’t happen. But I’ve listened to it a couple of dozen times, and all I’ve done is feel it speaks to me and those moments you have when you’re out (we’ve all been in that fuzzy cab ride home). And you feel the connection was there from the start. I can’t make you like it, but I can make you listen, and just hope you do.
I first heard Sampha’s “who IS this?!” talents on this very blog, back in 2014, on “Wonder Where We Land?”. It wasn’t an album I really thought was my thing, and even on fifth listen, let alone first, it felt too odd, too patchwork, to take hold. But it did, and it was the incredible “Gon Stay” that pulled me in. But that, despite coming back to the album over the next two years, was all I encountered of the South Londoner until now. Having encountered “Process”, I feel a little foolish for this now.
But if it’s a debut album that’s taken a while to land, then it’s every bit the reward for being teased out. And while it’s a cliche, it’s more than just about the music here, as mesmerising as it is. These days we crave ‘story’, but the tale behind a work for an artist that’s worked with the likes of Drake, Solange, Frank Ocean and Kanye is one worth touching on, because it frames the album like an unseen assistant, a shadow over the lyrics and music that can’t be ignored. The Morden resident was a nascent musician as a child, but his adult life has been pockmarked by tragedy, his existence moving from single parent – his father Joe died of lung cancer in 1998 – to orphaned son, as his mother passed away from the same disease in 2015 in between his second EP and the album’s release.
It’s easy to talk of emotion and candour in music, such is the ubiquity of artists on social media, baring their souls (in 140 characters at a time) but Process feels exactly as that single word befits: a young man coming to terms with his place in the world as he comes to terms with love, life and loss in modern, isolating city life. His own health scares also sit behind the words of the record, and time and again the emotions are front and centre, with that incredible voice not slotting into others’ productions, but acting as another instrument in itself, and sounding the most powerful and piercing that it has yet. “Blood On Me” is a beautiful record, its staccato beats echoing modern hip-hop, but the piano’s chords carry punch, and the words speak of a man spinning close to the edge of control.
In fact, the feeling is one of boundary-free music, with Sampha’s soul pouring out unrestrained, even as the clever time signatures of “Kora Sings” or the simple arrangements of “Take Me Inside” cascade into multi-tracked synth and vox like a burst of of colour, despite the darkness of many of the lyrics. The pace may often be slow, but the energy and heft is always there, and even at first listen it’s a beguiling proposition. And for all the tales of suffering and anguish, the truth is that beneath all of it is a hugely talented musician.
The reviews are stellar, because the album has all the makings of a modern classic. A man whose career has been stop-start, halted by tragic episodes that may be the making of him. From all the heartache often comes the best music, and this is a stunning piece of work from a new British artist we should cherish.
This is dead good. In fact all their stuff is. Check out Power Dance too. But then you’d expect that when it’s Luke Solomon, Nick Mauer (of Greenskeepers fame) and a certain Al Doyle amongst others.
Like Disco: like Powerdance.