After an album of soft, sun-speckled soul Michael Kiwanuka came into his own with the biting contemporary sound of his sophomore album Love & Hate. Kiwanuka is his third, and earns it’s self-congratulatory title. Any shyness has gone by the by. This is out there stuff.
‘You Ain’t The Problem’ sets the blueprint vividly: squawking sax, 70s bongo runs and absurd backing vocals. This feels full-blooded where Love & Hate occasionally felt a little stiff. Call it nerves: that album nearly didn’t happen. On Kiwanuka there’s a very clear sense of purpose, a passion for the craft that turbo-charges these neo-soul arrangements.
Although the earnest sounds of soul have largely been transplanted with the abandon of grotty, lo-fi funk. The opening tracks of Kiwanuka could be cuts from a forgotten blaxploitation soundtrack. There’s some of the oddball charm of Thundercat’s Drunk here too. However by the end some unease has crept into Kiwanuka’s tone. Muted electric piano cushion the vocals on ‘Solid Ground’. ‘Final Days’ through it’s bizarre robo-acapella intro and stuttering beats, could be a lost track from A Moon Shaped Pool.
As album centrepiece, there are few better than ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)’. Presaged by a spooky chiming intro, the track slowly blossoms into romantic strings and a jazzy beat. It’s an expression of what a talented crew Kiwanuka has working with him: Danger Mouse and Inflo were behind the boards on this one, as on Love & Hate, and there are some fantastic individual performances too. This is a real session-heavy album, a throwback to the studio perfectionism of the 70s and albums like Steely Dan’s Aja with the street-lit funk of George Benson & George McRae.
Kiwanuka has been frank about his self-doubts, his botched Kanye contributions, and his search for purpose. How refreshing it is to hear him not just building on the strengths of Love & Hate, but finding new things to say and a more thrilling, engaging way of saying them.
Kiwanuka is energetic and uncompromising – a brilliantly realised collection of raucous funk and icy lounge.