MODERN ALBUM REVIEW: Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘KIWANUKA’ (2019)

‘KIWANUKA’ is the third studio album from London born songwriter, Michael Kiwanuka. 

The album finally won Kiwanuka his first Mercury Prize, after the singer had been nominated for the award with his first two previous records (2012’s Home Again and 2016’s Love & Hate). 

The album takes the listener on a journey of Kiwanuka’s own personal quest for self-affirmation and self acceptance; he had previously had struggles surrounding his own identity at various points in his career. In fact he discarded an early version of his second album, originally called ‘Night Songs’, during a time of personal crisis in which he endeavoured to gain a deeper understanding of his British-African identity. Around the same time, he was advised by people within the music industry that ditching his African surname would sell more records, which deepened his identity crisis. The crisis took such a toll on Kiwanuka that he was ready to quit music for good, but he persevered and eventually released ‘Love and Hate’ in 2016; an album that began to examine the deep and complex relationship he has with his identity. 

If ‘Love and Hate’ was the start of his soul searching journey, ‘KIWANUKA’ is where it reaches its climax. The album is an immersive exploration into the constitution of the singer’s own identity. It touches on political, explorative and reflective themes throughout and paints them against a background made up of an abundance of musical styles and concepts. 

Musically, Kiwanuka clearly takes inspiration from his personal heritage and fills out the rhythm of the record with Afrobeat sounds, as well as taking inspiration from funk, soul and jazz styles. The influxes of different musical styles are layered into the sound of the record like carefully crafted strokes of an artist’s brush. There’s also a heavy use of synthesisers on a number of the record’s tracks; often used to thicken the overall immersion of the album. 

The album as a whole is utterly immersive, the rhythmic styles on the record are captivating, with the drumming and bass lines doing an excellent job of driving the soft and floating melodies forward. The use of synthesisers compliment the overall immersive sound of the album and create a kind of retro funky soulfulness feel to the record. I could hear echoes of 1970s funk, soul, and prog rock as well as throwbacks to the psych of the late 1960s. The vocal performances of Kiwanuka are also standout; his soft, soulful voice guides the listener through and compliments the tones laid down by the record’s instrumentation. The album also features a number of interludes and intros that showcase Kiwanuka’s drive to experiment with all kinds of musical styles. Track six, ‘Another Human Being (Interlude)’ features a harp (played by Jean Kelly) that blends the tracks either side of it together, while track four, ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) Intro’ experiments with dreamy vocal styles that drift around in a way that’s reminiscent of Pink Floyd. 

The sound of the album is best summed up in a number of tracks; the album’s opener, ‘You Ain’t the problem’ features African drum sounds anchored in the background of the track that keep the track lively amid an assortment of added and layered sounds. Track two, ‘Rolling’ features a clean and steady funk-inspired bass guitar hook, played by Kiwanuka, that cuts a path for the synths to follow. The live drums, played by the album’s co-producer, Inflo, are also an excellent addition to the track and give it a kind of raw and authentic feeling. Track 12 on the album, ‘Solid Ground’ encapsulates the retro synth sound that Kiwanuka aimed to achieve, beginning with Kiwanuka’s singing with a piano in the background, before growing into a synthesised masterpiece of musical ingenuity. Guitar also features heavily on the record and shows Kiwanuka to be a talented player in his own right. The guitar on fan favourite ‘Hero’ is clean in tone and sounds like it’s somewhere between Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ and Jimi Hendrix’s cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower’.

Lyrically, Kiwanuka’s examination of his own identity really comes to the fore. In listening to this record, we are given a passenger seat on Kiwanuka’s own journey of self discovery. His lyrics are powerful, emotive and thought provoking. The singer’s drive to come to terms with his identity leads him to hold a mirror up to the world and highlight how it, even in the modern day, mistreats people of his ethnic background. The track ‘Hero’ tells the story of civil rights activist Fred Hampton, a Black Panther who was killed by US police officers in 1969: Lines like “I won’t change my name, no matter what they call me.” are defiant in nature and show Kiwanuka to be finally reaching a point of self acceptance. Elsewhere on the track: “It’s on the news again, I guess they killed another.” projects the injustices of the modern world onto itself, and give the album a sincere edge. Similarly, ‘Another Human Being’ features a newsreader saying: “and for the first time the community was confronted with negroes in places they have never been” which again points to Kiwanuka’s drive to highlight social issues, issues he himself has come face to face with.

Overall I think the album signifies Kiwanuka finding his feet musically, and finding his voice lyrically. A lot of the singer’s personality went into the making of this album; it’s the product of his drawn out efforts to discover himself both personally and professionally and I feel he does incredibly well conveying his journey through the music on this album. He himself has said that he now feels able to be himself for the first time in his career, able to connect with his own identity and able to look forward to a future of progression. I for one, can’t wait. 

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