Michael Kiwanuka – ‘KIWANUKA’ review: brave experimentation and hard-won self-knowledge

Looking ahead even as he evokes the work of greats as such as Bill Withers and Gil Scott-Heron, Michael Kiwanuka's bravura self-titled record sees him fiercely reclaim his identity

“Are you really giving up? Are you really going to stop right now?” Michael Kiwanuka asks on new track ‘Living in Denial’, the lyrics from his self-titled latest feeling like pages from his diary five years ago. An artist well known for his struggles with self-confidence, Kiwanuka may well have spoken those words to himself in the period between his first and second album releases, when crippling self-doubt left him ready to quit music for good.

The reasons, he explained recently, were complex. Kiwanuka scrapped the initial follow up to his Mercury nominated, gold-selling debut, ‘Home Again’, after feeling “lost” at a time when he sought to understand his British-African identity in greater detail. Record industry executives asked him to choose an alter-ego, an “easier” stage name – one that would inevitably eradicate the Ugandan cultural heritage he was seeking to unpack, but which would, they said, sell more records. “It was just another thing to make me potentially ashamed of who I am,” Kiwanuka said, adding that it reminded him of the teachers at his Muswell Hill school who embarrassed him when they couldn’t pronounce his name correctly. Kiwanuka retreated and his second album ‘Night Songs’, was shelved.

A different second album eventually followed, thanks to a new partnership with Gnarls Barkley, Danger Mouse and Inflo: each rebuilt his confidence anew and encouraged a form of creativity where cultural heritage was celebrated, not censored. The result was 2016’s ‘Love & Hate’, an album where Kiwanuka acknowledged his identity struggles and reached dizzy new heights.

Opening track ‘Cold Little Heart’ became the theme tune for Big Little Lies, he reached number 1, got another Mercury nod and sold out shows soon after. Now, the group reunite again for his third, self-titled latest – a record that sees Kiwanuka owning his identity fiercely, the album’s capital letters shouting a name for all to hear loudly. “I won’t change my name / No matter what they call me,” he definitely asserts on the album’s standout track, ‘Hero.’

Where ‘Love & Hate’ was a tentative step forward into identity politics, ‘Kiwanuka’ is a daring leap of self-affirmation. It’s Kiwanuka at his most vulnerable and exposed, as he unpacks the causes of his identity crisis and ultimately finds catharsis by holding a candid mirror up to a world that still relentlessly maligns and mistreats its minorities. “No need to blame myself,” he emotively sings on rebellious opener ‘You Ain’t The Problem’: for the first time in his career, Kiwanuka seems to have something that resembles peace as he navigates personal doubts via political observation. His technique is similar to that of poets Jackie Kay and Lemn Sissay; we see prejudice through Kiwanuka’s eyes. The fact it’s taken him so long to release a self-titled album suddenly starts to make sense: his plea of “Help me carry on” on ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ is gut-wrenching to hear.

We see this prejudice through the eyes of others, too. On ‘Hero’ Kiwanuka presents a mournful lament to civil rights activist Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old Black Panther who was murdered by police in 1969. Elsewhere, echoes ring out from of the ’50s and ’60s Civil Rights. The crackled voice of a newsreader on ‘Another Human Bring’ ominously reads: “And for the first time the community was confronted with negroes in places they have never been”. The voice stings as a gunshot, bringing the brutal, crushing interlude to an abrupt end. As with each of his albums to date, Kiwanuka navigates the past and the present, skilfully making sounds and subjects appear both classic and contemporary at once. Despite its historical context, the song feels apt for reports of race-related police brutality today.

Kiwanuka somehow also forges a sound that leans into the future. His latest recalls Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and Gil Scott-Heron as much as it does Fela Kuti and Kendrick Lamar. There’s an abundance of analogue synths, Hammond organs, vintage guitars, harps, pianos and horns within a melting pot of jazz, soul, funkadelia and afrobeat on these carefully layered songs. The hallmarks of Inflo – who worked on Little Simz’ dazzling album ‘Grey Area’ – feel evident amid the more experimental and interestingly textured sounds here, such as on ‘Living in Denial’, with its subtle Johnny Greenwood-like guitar line and frequently shifting tempos. On the 80’s tinged ‘Final Days’, Danger Mouse pushes Kiwanuka into psychedelic territory – think UNKLE at his dreamiest – and the results stagger.

As well as being his most reflective album, it’s also Kiwanuka’s most hopeful. Afrobeat styles are prominent on his most assured songs; which feels like a poignant nod to his parents’ Ugandan heritage: these are often the album’s most standout tracks too. The heady ‘Hard to Say Goodbye’ is a beautiful lament to a loved one full of shimmering synths, gentle strings and birdsong in a moment of hopeful escapism. On ‘Light’, searing orchestral strings and angelic choirs take Kiwanuka out of chaos and towards order until he declares, “All my fears are gone… The young…will always need one of their own to lead.

By the album’s close, Kiwanuka is no longer questioning himself, his anxiety replaced with confidence. He’s explained in a statement: “It is a kind of defiance. I’m engaging with who I am now and I’m not going to have an alter ego. I can just be Michael Kiwanuka.”

This album becomes even more emotive when you think that Kiwanuka was on the verge of giving up five years ago. It’s the sound of an artist examining the politics of prejudice that have led him to self-doubt and out of it again. It’s also the sound of an artist coming into his own through brave and dizzying experimentation. “Be free,” he sings on ‘Light’. It finally sounds like he is.

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