Michael Kiwanuka Sings His Heart Out

MICHAEL KIWANUKA Finding his place in the world. PHIL SHARP

A few years ago, Michael Kiwanuka was in crisis mode. His debut album, Home Again, had sold more than 70,000 copies, won the BBC’s Sound of 2012, and was nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize. The press was comparing him to Bill Withers and Otis Redding. He was invited to tour with Adele. Kanye West flew him out to studios in Hawaii and Paris for the Yeezus sessions. Despite all of this success, Kiwanuka was struggling creatively, and went home to London to do some soul-searching.

While he was there laboring over the follow-up to Home Again, Kiwanuka received a fortuitous phone call from Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, the famed producer and multi-instrumentalist best known for his collaborations with CeeLo Green (Gnarls Barkley), James Mercer (Broken Bells), the Black Keys, and Gorillaz.

“He reached out just to write some music and meet and hang out,” Kiwanuka says. “He asked what I was up to and how the album was going, and I said I was kind of stuck.”

Burton invited him to his studio in Los Angeles in early 2015. With the help of Paul Butler and British hip-hop producer Inflo, they began working on the songs that would become 2016’s Love & Hate. Kiwanuka wrote and composed many of the tracks inside the studio, collaborating directly with Burton. And unlike his ill-fated Yeezus sessions, this collaboration paid off.

“Up until that point, I was used to writing songs on my acoustic guitar and then bringing them into the studio,” Kiwanuka says. “This showed me another approach to coming up with melodies and songs. It was a freeing experience for me, creatively.”

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Within the opening seconds of Love & Hate, Burton’s influence is already evident. Gone are the neo-retro and folk-soul sincerity of Home Again. Multi-voice choirs, rich string sections, and fuzzed-out electric guitars pile on top of each other, creating lush, challenging, and often foreboding arrangements—more Dark Side of the Moon than Otis Blue. The opening track, “Cold Little Heart,” clocks in at 10 minutes. Kiwanuka’s voice doesn’t even enter until the song’s halfway through, sounding like he didn’t escape isolation without a few scratches and scars.

The first single from the album, “Black Man in a White World,” begins as a hand-clapping field holler, before building into syncopated, ’70s-style funk. Kiwanuka voices his misgivings about his place in the world, as a child of Ugandan refugees and as a young, gifted, Black artist who faces a largely white audience wherever he performs.

“I’m in love, but I’m still sad/I’ve found peace, but I’m not glad,” he sings. “All my nights and all my days/I’ve been trying the wrong way.”

For years Kiwanuka has struggled to figure out his place in the world, both as an artist and an individual. But after being compared to so many other legendary singers, he’s finally finding his own voice.

“[Love & Hate] is a response to my search for identity and who I am. Who I am as a human being,” he says. “Because when you know that, or are at peace or content with who you are, you can really begin to enjoy life. You can enjoy the art you make, if you’re an artist; you can enjoy the job you have, or the relationship you’re in. I feel like a lot of the time when people are unhappy or struggling, a lot of it has to do with who you are and how you see yourself. All the songs on this album deal with that. Sometimes that could be a relationship, or the color of your skin, or the culture you’re in. But they’re all part of being a human being and becoming comfortable with who you are.”

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