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!
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.
I’ve started doing a radio show on Meat Transmission, which is part of the Meat Liquor stable, in Hoxton. It’s a mate of mine, Tom Real, and me, playing just big party records, or BANGERS. It started off as a night at the Big Chill (which got WAY out of hand usually), but it’s translated as fun fun fun to the radio. It’s not serious, unless having a hilarious two hours is serious. SonOfBangers is two shows old, and on every other week in 2014, and it’s just 120 minutes of us playing a loosely thrown-together mix of hip-hop, house, d’n’b, rave, funk, soul, disco. You name it.
Have a listen, hope you enjoy it.