‘Kiwanuka’ delivers charged lyricism over shapeless instrumentals

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Michael Kiwanuka’s self-titled album is his most sonically dense yet, but ironically, one where his musical identity is hijacked in favor of a more contemporary blues-rock record. Kiwanuka’s tendency to prefer a diverse musical palate is not surprising, considering his leap from stripped back singer-songwriter on his debut album Home Again, to the luscious and heavily orchestrated Love & Hate. Renowned producer Danger Mouse returns with London hip-hop producer Inflo to add more bite and grit to the instrumentation. Still, their influence is overbearing enough where Kiwanuka’s original style is sidelined.

Kiwanuka’s pen is the sharpest it has ever been with tracks centered around topics such as global warming, political consciousness and soul-searching. Songs like “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” are studded with lyrics of wavering self-image and confidence like “It’s the right time to give in/The right time to lose/To begin again/Maybe to win again.” Kiwanuka’s voice is teeming with sensitivity and fierce expression — the same Michael Kiwanuka that listeners have resonated with in previous years still drives the album, but there are a few musical hurdles he has to overcome for his personality to truly shine through. 

Kiwanuka opts for reverb-drenched guitars as the motivating force behind the album. There are still times where the indie-folk approach of Kiwanuka’s previous efforts gain a foothold, like on the songs “Solid Ground” and “You Ain’t the Problem” — Danger Mouse’s bass-heavy riffs expertly complement them, but only when Kiwanuka steps out of the way. When Kiwanuka’s voice has to compete with the instrumentals, the results are muddied and it becomes difficult to hone in on who the star is: the singer or the instrumentation. Songs like “Rolling” exacerbate this problem, as an overbearing surf-rock instrumental battles Kiwanuka’s sophisticated lyricism. 

There are times where all these kinetic elements come together to form a flourishing hybrid, which sounds like the apex of what these two polarities can achieve. The centerpiece of the album, “Hard to Say Goodbye,” is the most impressive song as a combination of rippling string arrangements and fuzzy guitars meld into a wonderful burst of melancholic longing and promise. Kiwanuka belts out “Better believe I’ll be back” over a mix of indie rock and psychedelic soul.

The album references many experiences felt within the Black community with regards to the police in the United States. Songs like “Hero” make direct reference to these experiences with lines like “It’s on the news again/I guess they killed another” and address a world that is unwilling to change or recognize its institutional racism. Kiwanuka masterfully blends news stories heard by the public with his personal experiences to add weight and emotion to issues in American society. 

The most striking feature of Kiwanuka lies in its structure. Many of the songs will subtly bleed into the next one, creating a cohesive listening experience. There are a couple of instances where an intro track will appear before a song, and this helps set the tone for what’s to come. They are comprised of sparse instrumentals and a repeated phrase which will appear in the featured song; the effect is akin to a palate cleanser as Kiwanuka’s complex and poetic lyrics can be more thoroughly explored. 

There are only a few unnecessary songs on the album, such as the aforementioned “Rolling,” and the album explores musical tendencies new to Kiwanuka’s music, such as the influences of 1960s psychedelic rock. In the end, none of it feels like Kiwanuka is stepping in the right direction. The album branches out so much that the overall direction seems unfocused and more like a detour in his discography.  

Contact Jake Lilian at [email protected].