Reviewed by Toby Fournier
Michael Kiwanuka (pronounced Chi-wa-nuka) is currently sitting atop the Cross Rhythms Chart with his single "You Ain't The Problem (Claptone Remix)", a remix of track one of his near-universally acclaimed third album 'Kiwanuka'. The remix by Claptone isn't actually on the album. It made the BBC Top 40 Singles chart so it may make an appearance as a bonus track sometime in the future but we'll have to wait and see. There's no denying Michael's musical influences (Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, et al) but it's too easy to write him off as nostalgia. 'Kiwanuka' contains original songs that lyrically address not only universal issues but also the themes of life right now. But the musical shadows of the past fit with Michael being to some extent a child out of place (he was born and raised in Muswell Hill, a predominantly white suburb of London where his musical taste developed away from inner city musical trends or pressure) and it's all the more impressive that an album that must be given some patience and concentration, which needs one to sit still and listen, can top the UK charts (OK, number two).
Track one, "You Ain't The Problem" feels like arriving at an outdoor party in full swing, where the sound of laughter can be heard over the rhythm. It's such a fun track; infectious and urging the listener to move. It's captivating and the perfect introduction to the album. A paean to belief in one's own ability: "If you don't belong, live in the trouble." It's for anyone whose inner voice suggests they give up at the first sign of criticism; that they might not be good enough. In track two, "Rolling", it is possible to hear the input of Danger Mouse (who, together with Inflo, are the producers of 'Kiwanuka'). There are distinct echoes of the Gnarls Barkley track "Crazy" in the guitar work. "Rolling" sounds as if Michael worries about the future: "No tears for the young/A bullet if you run away." It has a bridge linking verse and chorus that took me aback; it seems to have been dropped in from a different song, but it hangs together perfectly on second listening. "Rolling with the times/don't be late" goes the chorus. It feels like a warning somehow.
"Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)" feels like Michael is speaking directly to God. "All I know is my oh my, this kind of love/It's taken me from my enemies/Don't let the pressure get to me." It feels like a "thank you" but nothing is straightforward with Michael: "You've taken from my enemies/I still let the pressure get to me." The song is built on an exquisite two chord phrase. It's just so subtle that, once you realise it, Michael doesn't really have to try. You can take it on faith that whatever he does will have depth and a deftness of touch that you can't really be disappointed by.
My personal favourite (at the moment - I'm sure it will change) is "Hard To Say Goodbye." The second time I heard it, I held my breath. It aches with beauty. I listen to this track and I feel like Michael must be 80 years old. Echoes of Burt Bacharach. "When you appeared to me, you let me know what love could be/You gave me confidence, you showed me light, you stayed with me." There is a deep melancholia that runs through 'Kiwanuka' like 'Blackpool' through a stick of rock. And therein lies its beauty. It is real and with real comes sad. Later, we come to "Light", which also makes my chest hurt and my temples get warmer. Love and anger, frustration, are related. Perhaps the most direct message (prayer?) to God, Michael at last sounds without fear. Imagine that; a life without fear. "I had to lose to understand/Strung out from all this/Pour out a thousand tears/I never knew a kinder man." What a wonderful surprise this album is. Michael is human and therefore imperfect and as he pointed out to The Guardian, "Life isn't easy. If we're worrying about not being perfect, we're really going to struggle." What he's given us is a perfectly imperfect album.
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