Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka (2020)
The beauty about music is that we can’t possibly live long enough to discover all the treasures at the deepest points of the trove.
I’ve spent my life – and that’s 25 years of serious record collecting – digging through music of the past, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. That’s the reason it’s all so exciting though, isn’t it? You think you’ve heard it all, then another gem grabs your coat-tails and shakes you free. It’s very rare, in my experience, that something brand new comes along that does the same thing. But, the 2020 release of Kiwanuka did exactly that. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out with two massive statements now: it’s the best record of the century so far, and also the best thing I’ve heard since Paul Weller’s Stanley Road way back in 1995.
Yes, I’ve said it. This is a MASTERPIECE.
I don’t even know where to begin. This record has made me feel things that other records that are super special to me haven’t. It has just about everything. Michael Kiwanuka has emerged from the shadows a giant; a Folksy, Blues-rinsed, symphonic Soul-man with a penchant for reaching into the deepest depths and throwing audible colours around the room that you never thought existed. I’ll keep saying it….MASTERPIECE.
It’s one of the great albums of all time. There. I said that too.
Timeless and contemporary all at once, Kiwanuka, produced by Danger Mouse and London-based hip-hop producer, Inflo, leans on a range of influences as broad and eclectic as circus troupe. If you lend your ear with any sort of interest you’ll hear the soulful laments of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Rolling Stones meets Aretha Gospel-Rock, Hendrix-esque fuzzy guitars and Garage-bled psychadelic loops, the aching tunefulness of Bill Withers, the experimental innovation of Radiohead, a revelatory euphoria found in the likes of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica or Mezzanine by Massive Attack, the dreamlike harmonic gutsiness of the likes of Live At The Apollo by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, Bacharach sprinkled orchestrations, the penetrative lyrical genius of Gil Scott-Heron, the melancholy-Soul vibe of Donny Hathaway or Al Green, and at the core, a rootsy, anxious unrest of the likes of Curtis Mayfield or even Lauryn Hill. Does that give you a clue?
I’ve yet to mention how incredible the backing vocals are. Not just the performances, but the arrangements, the intensity, the grit and the spaces in between. The guitars are just enough, the orchestrations sublime and Michael’s vocal delivery as intimate as you could ever wish from a singer. It may at first seem like a mournful and despairing record, but it eventually reveals itself as a panoramic ray of hope and optimism. The slow burn urgency of tracks like Light and Solid Ground remain like eager brain-worms long after the vinyl has finished spinning, and the regal confidence of You Ain’t The Problem and Living In Denial also march forth from stunned speakers.
Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love) is the exemplary highlight – true longing in an empty room. A fierce statement with the softest of touches. Hard To Say Goodbye is equally as poignant, and Hero the confirmation that this once tentative and introvert artist has established his identity as a major player, and inadvertent cultural icon. He is a beacon of hope and wonder for immigrant families all over this country; the UK is a place that you can come, settle and realise your dreams.
If I could give it eleven, I would. There won’t be too many records getting 10/10 on this blog, but this one is a cast iron certainty. It’s made its way into my top three albums of all time. It’s that good. It belongs on every music lover’s shelf wedged between the classics. It’s already a classic.
Top track trio:
Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)
Hard To Say Goodbye