There are periods in our lives during which we’re defined as people by how we deal with ghosts.
Some of these apparitions are of strangers, some of those we knew and loved. The subjects may well not be dead, but most are within our heads, spectres of us, the psychological residue of fear, joy or regret.
For Michael Kiwanuka, they seem to resonate more than most; it’s taken what amounts to a huge leap of faith for him to come to terms with the non-specificity of fame and the creeping tread of self-doubt, a process which for any other than the most bombastic performer is a lonely, near constant struggle. To do so, he’s had to sideline the happy, lop sided grin of his own face staring back at him from the gushing press of 2012, when the Londoner had won the BBC’s Sound of.. compo and his début album ‘Home Again‘ was rated a millennial cat’s pyjamas.
Even then though, it sounded like he believed jumping his own shark was almost inevitable. He talked warily about “expectations”, and also of the curse of “baggage”. Clearly these were not the background conversations of an artist who was living in the moment. Fame, even at a relative level, comes with complications – and risk. At its most arcane, Kiwanuka found himself parachuted into the sessions for ‘Yeezus‘, the briefest of instructions being merely to “do his thing” in the studio, a mandate which the ingénue found awkwardly uninspiring. Whatever the finished article was, it can’t be located amongst the work of a plethora of collaborators, co-writers and co-producers on one of the centuries most self-evangelising records.
Four years later – and after a scrapped batch of songs deemed not to standard – the son of Ugandan refugees returns with ‘Love & Hate‘ sounding not so much chastened by experience as meaning to transcend it, to shape his and the listener’s frivolity into something profound.
This vision is apparent from the beginning: for someone who reputedly considered leaving the music industry between albums there are few bolder statements than on the near ten minute opener ‘Cold Little Heart‘, on which you choose not to interject until a key change after nearly five minutes. Aided by a choir and string section, Kiwanuka not only blends a desultory ballad and a cinematic fresco together, he manages to weave a classic soul motif around them both, fashioning a song within a wildly ambitious cycle.
Some of ‘Love & Hate’s innate timelessness is due in no small measure to producer Brian Burton, a troubadour who has turned his retro-stylings into gold with meaningful regularity. Wise to the strength of the material here, his touch is light. Free, Kiwanuka boldly addresses inequality on the jazzy, almost a capella phrasings of ‘Black Man In a White World‘, his voice as worn and weary as if owned by someone three times his age. Whether conscious or not, there’s also a discernible movement through the gears as things progress, ‘Falling‘s dark hearted murder-kitsch rubbing shoulders with the Aquarian funk of ‘Place I Belong‘.
There are few traces of the artists the singer obsessed over as an adolescent – Prince, Jimi Hendrix, even The White Stripes – although there is much of the latter’s old/new esprit de corps, most obviously on the wailing blues of closer ‘The Final Frame‘. As in many other of the album’s nooks and crannies, happiness appears to be another man’s problem; ‘I’ll Never Love‘ speaks for itself, whilst the slow-burning title track and its bygone sounding piano are bit players to the barren rage of, “You can’t steal the things that god has given me. No more pain and no more shame and misery”.
Naming your record after the human soul’s most primal emotions – often divided from each other by porous walls – could’ve been a blandishment, a counterfeit gesture in an age when our esteem is driven by the fingertips of strangers. Instead, it becomes clear that these are both states which the singer ascribes to himself in equal measure; on ‘Rule The World‘ he sounds paradoxically like he could barely leave the front door, but on ‘Love & Hate’s apex ‘Father’s Child‘ the simple loops, finger rolled keyboards and gossamer scream to a cry voice are in a magical alignment. A marker from an artist emphatically at a peak he maybe felt he’d never reach, it’s a heartbeat which could belong to any moment of the last half century, any season of the year, a thousand places around the world, or just the one in which your bones are laid.
Sitting somewhere in Astral Plane is the Michael Kiwanuka of 2012, consigned to some sort of foreign past which is no more visible now than a phantom limb. His reincarnation has crafted one of 2016’s best records, so rich its pan takes a while to fully realise, multi-modal, scratched into the walls of somewhere ancient nearby by like glorious vandalism.
Once boxed in by his own self limiting beliefs, the modern day equivalent can know that for the first and hopefully not last time in his career, he’s made the universe spin around him.