Album Review: Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

By on Friday, 15th July 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

"MKWith racial and class tensions coming to a head both in America and the UK, British Ugandan Londoner Michael Kiwanuka occupies a rather unique position in time and society upon the release of his second album ‘Love & Hate’. As he profoundly explains in the album’s lead single, “I’m a black man in a white world / I’m in love but I’m still sad / I found peace but I’m not glad”. That song, ‘Black Man in a White World’, is the most immediately outstanding track on the album, but it’s also central to the development of the album as a whole. Kiwanuka illustrates its thematic duality by alternating between a gritty musical setting of rhythmic handclaps, blues-inflected guitar lines and gospel backing vocals and a more elegant arrangement of soaring strings and subtle keyboard lines.

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The juxtaposition of those two seemingly opposite musical styles is at play throughout ‘Love & Hate’, starting with opening track ‘Cold Little Heart’. Its delicate and slowly-evolving orchestral arrangement pivots around a repeated figure in the backing vocals, morphing into raw soul and sensuality as Kiwanuka intones the question in the song’s opening lyrics: “Did you ever want it? / Did you want it bad?” ‘Cold Little Heart’ transforms again at its close, paring down to Kiwanuka’s starkly exposed and richly-textured voice over a single acoustic guitar ahead of the final coda.

Title track ‘Love & Hate’ finds focus in a similar backing vocal, which along with the song’s deep bass groove and dramatic string gestures portrays an almost hypnotic swirl of emotion. The graceful fluidity of the arrangement is only enhanced by the wailing guitar solo in the bridge and the echoing production effects. Later in the tracklisting, ‘Rule the World’ is gentler and more introspective but again punctuated by a remarkably effective arrangement of backing voices, adding significant depth and colour to Kiwanuka’s already rich sonic tapestry.

‘One More Night’ is straightforward blues rock, with a hip-swaying bass rhythm and a dense arrangement of brass behind Kiwanuka’s thick vocals and sultry guitar melodies. It stands out for its relative simplicity in comparison to the rest of the songs on the record, but Kiwanuka hints at internal strife and resisting temptation in the song’s elusive lyrics: “I’ll be trying in the morning . . . no more lies in the day”.

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Kiwanuka shifts his focus even more sharply inward for the final pair of songs on the record, which showcase the self-described “confessional aspect” of his songwriting. ’Father’s Child’ starts in a bright, buoyant tone and finishes with a darker sense of self-doubt as Kiwanuka contemplates his own spirituality. Album closer ‘The Final Frame’ tackles the dual-nature of romantic commitment, passion vs. placidity, in a slow and evenly-measured ballad spiked with a potently seductive guitar solo.

Describing the themes on ‘Love & Hate’, Kiwanuka explains, “A lot of this album was grappling with the insecurities that I’d learned. The first album was grappling with faith. Here, I’m not so worried about that – I’ve accepted that it comes and goes, and now, I’m left with myself.” Unfettered by the heavy burden of expectation that surrounded his debut album ‘Home Again’, ‘Love & Hate’ finds Kiwanuka coming to terms with duality, both in himself and in the world around him, and finding an exhilarating sense of artistic freedom as a result.

8.5/10

Michael Kiwanuka’s sophomore album ‘Love & Hate’ is due out today, Friday the 15th of July, on Polydor Records. In support of the new album, Kiwanuka will play a list of headline dates in the UK this October. TGTF’s collection of previous coverage on Michael Kiwanuka is back this way.

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