Michael Kiwanuka’s third studio album is about the journey toward self-acceptance, and its title – a firm Kiwanuka – is indicative of his mission. The album delivers Kiwanuka’s expected skills as a throwback jazz/soul/funk-rock fusion artist and uses those skills to take the listeners on an introspective journey alongside the artist.
The album opens with a burst of charismatic, vintage energy with “You Ain’t the Problem.” The up-tempo song sounds like it could fit in swimmingly at a funk lounge of decades past. The confidence apparent in this first track forms a backbone for the rest of the album that often takes more meditative approaches to each song’s subject matter. Kiwanuka immediately shifts into a slower pace with “Running,” which pulls out a delectably rock-edged fuzz guitar, which then seamlessly transitions into “I’ve Been Dazed.” “Dazed” only lasts four minutes, but it feels twice as long in the best way. The softer, smoother tones of Michael Kiwanuka’s voice come through clearly on this third track, completing the introductory trifecta of the album. In three songs Kiwanuka demonstrates his rock showmanship skills, his instrumental rock edge, and his emotive vocals that altogether make the musician a compelling artist.
“Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” doubles down on highlighting the warmth of Kiwanuka’s voice, as the majority of the song is merely piano notes underneath his vocals. Strings gradually enter the composition and buoy the quietly plaintive song that wonders if it’s the “right time to give in/the right time to lose/to begin again/maybe win again.”
The second half of Kiwanuka slows the pace to sometimes diminishing effect, but it offers up some rewards if you attune yourself to its speed. “Hero” in particular becomes an extended riff-fueled atmospheric track, but without quite enough dynamic elements to make that repetition feel justified. The track just following “Hero” however, “Hard to Say Goodbye” becomes another atmospheric extended vibe session but its seven minutes feel shorter than the three of “Hero” because it keeps throwing in curveballs. The track begins with particularly delicate instrumentation, different from any other sound on the album, and introduces choral vocals that are reminiscent of classic Ennio Morricone soundtrack selections. The result is a theatrical excursion into the depths of love, into the warm corners of affection that elude easy lyrical description.
The last few tracks turn the energy down, which is especially appropriate for the elegiac tone of “Final Days,” which, yes, considers what it feels like to be alive right now during what often feels like final days. Kiwanuka eventually ends with “Light,” which is essentially the long fade-out to the entire album. Kiwanuka sings “all of my fears are gone, baby, gone” and the song illustrates this sensation by being especially loose and ethereal, more so than any other track on the album. Compared to the tight energy of the album opener, “Light” is relaxed and Kiwanuka is assured as his journey, for now, is complete. Kiwanuka has many pleasures to offer, albeit some you have to work a little bit harder for. The album even manages to feel shorter than it is, as Kiwanuka efficiently communicates a complex emotional arc with ease and assurance, reflecting the statement of fact and headlong gaze present on Kiwanuka’s cover.