Attention, end-of-the-year list makers! You may not want to consider your ‘albums of the year’ list complete until you’ve heard Michael Kiwanuka’s kaleidoscopic journey of a third album, Kiwanuka.
Kiwanuka, a singer-songwriter, isn’t arriving out of nowhere. Growing up in the Muswell Hill area of London, Kiwanuka is the son of Ugandan parents who escaped their country during the reign of dictator Idi Amin. Kiwanuka began his musical career as a session guitarist, eventually launching a solo career with two EPs, and opening for Adele during a 2011 tour. Kiwanuka released his debut album, Home Again, in 2012. Love & Hate followed in 2016. Both albums have been successful in Britain and the song “Cold Little Heart” has achieved international notoriety as the theme song to the HBO series, Big Little Lies.
Produced by Danger Mouse and Inflo, Kiwanuka opens with “You Ain’t the Problem”, a breezy single that has gotten some radio attention with its “la-la-la” vocalizing and general Curtis Mayfield in-his-prime vibe. The second track, “Rolling”, a psychedelic-tinged rocker, builds on the momentum established with “You Ain’t the Problem”. Kiwanuka proceeds to move confidently through the album, incorporating influences from Bill Withers to Pink Floyd and beyond into his distinctive sound.
“I’ve Been Dazed” is a gospel-tinged ballad featuring effective orchestration that recurs as a haunting element throughout the album. “Hero”, a tribute to Fred Hampton, the president of the Chicago chapter of Black Panther Party, who was killed in a raid on an apartment in 1969, opens as an acoustic song before transforming into the heaviest rock track on the album with electric guitar riffs and solos playing over a propulsive rhythm and stabs of organ.
Meanwhile, “Hard to Say Goodbye” opens with an extended instrumental that echoes both Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and exotica composer Les Baxter, then melds into the kind of expansive soul ballad you can find on any of Stevie Wonder’s classic 1970’s albums, before fading back into Floydian exotica at the end. “Hard to Say Goodbye” is a highlight on an album that is full of them.
Kiwanuka slows the proceedings down considerably at the end of the album. It’s a potentially risky move to close a record with two ballads in a row, but Kiwanuka does just that and does it successfully. “Solid Ground” opens with Kiwanuka singing, “How does it feel when it’s quiet and calm? / And will I be denied? / How does it feel when it’s time to move on? / Mother says kneel and pray” over sparse keyboards. The song gradually builds into a prayer for understanding and guidance, but the questions remain.
“Light”, the closing song, is a deeply soulful ballad that might attempt to answer the questions raised by “Solid Ground”. With a combination of enigmatic lyrics and music, “Light” might gently evoke some of Jimmy Webb’s haunting songs for some listeners. The gradual fadeout of “Light” features an eerie guitar solo and backing singers repeating the lyric, “A mile apart, leave and be free”. As the end of the Kiwanuka journey, “Light” leaves the listener in a completely different destination from where it all started with “You’re Not the Problem”.
Indeed, Kiwanuka could very well be one of the best albums of 2019. But Kiwanuka is also a beautiful, deep place that feels like it will be worth visiting, not just in the last month of this year, but throughout a listener’s lifetime.