Michael Kiwanuka has been highly diplomatic for a singer who’s second album feels like it was written about the social and political turmoil of our time. In March, he told Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac that lead single Black Man in a White World “isn’t about race”, but rather his own insecurities – something he has since reiterated. Nevertheless, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and the racial divisions stirred up by Brexit, it has taken on a life of its own. Kiwanuka may have felt he lost his way after his celebrated arrival in 2012, but this follow-up sees him in fine form, with riffs for the worried and messages for the nomad generation.
It’s music, not the message, however, that leads the way. Kiwanuka’s songs have never been preachy in our view: they’re world as seen by the young guitarist, who enjoys Prince and Jack White. On debut album, Home Again, Kiwanuka sings how he’s been told to “speak your mind, just be bold”. And bold is just how Love & Hate’s music feels.
Right from the off, Kiwanuka demands that you invest yourself, opening the album with a 10-minute mood piece (Cold Little Heart), that grows from droplets to a stirring whirlpool. He doesn’t start singing until halfway through, preferring to tell the story through his guitar-playing prowess. This commitment to upset the “norm” proves strong – the title track and ninth song, Father’s Child, are also abnormally long, and turn out to be poignant vignettes in their own right.
Encouragement to test the listener’s attention in this way could well have come from that old maestro, Danger Mouse, who takes production duties on the album. The LA producer’s influence is all over the record: from the frequent appearance of a gospel choir and their ethereal bedding (Place I Belong), to strings that gracefully catch you (I’ll Never Love) after Kiwanuka’s vocal climbs, to a whiff of The Black Keys on album closer, The Final Frame.
Kiwanuka’s earnestly and vulnerability are intact. Black Man in a White World is a powerful statement by itself. Its lyrics (“I’ve been sold all my lies”) may have originated from Kiwanuka’s personal insecurities, but there’s truth to them – truth that some people will find uncomfortable. On balance, though, this is not an album of overt political protests: these are songs of endurance. Falling is a Marvin Gaye-like lamentation of the hardships beyond one’s control (“Oh, it’s so hard to see / Look what you’ve done to me”). On the operatic title track, Kiwanuka sings: “No more pain, no more shame, no more misery / you can’t take me down, you can’t break me down.” There’s weight to his words. A weight that’s amplified by the stirring rhythms and the thrust of the earthy productions, which have a timeless, Isaac Hayes or Tyrone Davis quality to them (Rule the World).
Kiwanuka’s debut album was a re-lit classic 70s soul album: twilight yearning and cheery, feel-good sing-a-longs. It was safe, it was agreeable. Love & Hate, by contrast, dunks you head first into a well of expression. There’s poetry, poise and purpose to this record – something that can’t be said for every guitar-playing singer-songwriter. “Somethings just seem to take so long… There’s so much more I can be,” Kiwanuka sings on the penultimate song. Where this new age Bill Withers will go next is anybody’s guess. This humble songwriter has wrestled with, and overcome, his personal demons, and, organically, made an album for our time. Love & Hate will get you lifted.