Occasionally, there are songs that grab your attention so firmly when they come on the radio that you know – even from perhaps just hearing a few bars – they are going to become an active part of your musical day-to-day. It’s a joy when this happens, especially when the song in question is by an artist you’ve never heard of. It reaffirms your faith in humans a little bit – see, we can keep making cool stuff.
When ‘Black Man in a White World’, the first single from Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Love & Hate’, made its way out of the speakers and into my head I knew it would stick. The mixture of 70s soul groove, hypnotic hand claps and silky, subtle guitar licks are instantly intoxicating. There is also that measure of melancholy that rides out over the top of it all that I simply can’t resist – exactly the same feeling hits me when I hear ‘110th Street’. Kiwanuka’s voice has a similar husky, slightly weathered quality to it as Bobby Womack has on that track, it really is crack for the ears.
Before my first play of the album I was expecting more of the same, and to a certain extent that is what you get. There are a couple of notable moments that give away just how different a beast this is though. Firstly, there is the album’s curtain raiser; the ten minute ‘Cold Little Heart’. Taking a sniff over five minutes for Kiwanuka’s sweet tones to be allowed out of their box, it is a confident and deliberate move that makes a statement that this album is a true creation and not just a collage of singles-to-be. It is absolutely, in the truest sense, a complete album.
The song behind the protracted introduction is very good – it is no gimmick designed to create column inches in a music press that has its eyes widened these days by any song that tops four and a half minutes. Moments like this crop up all the way through ‘Love & Hate’ and, as a result, it hasn’t taken long for people to start comparing it to Marvin Gaye and Pink Floyd. It’s easy to see what is meant by that. The comparison of on black, soulful singer addressing relationships and the socio-political landscape of their time with another is an obvious one but the melding of those aspects with lengthy, considered, deep instrumental sections that slowly position the listener in the way of the next big hit of satisfaction is what sets this release apart (and streets ahead of) the competition. It is very Floyd, it gives you space to fully submerged yourself and it is beautiful.
The title track is a mournful exhibition of Kiwanuka’s voice being given room to impress over a simple, repeating backing vocals – very reflective of the hand clap trick put to such good use in ‘Black Man in a White World’, and equally engrossing. Later on, ‘Rule the World’ employs the slow building tactic again to ensure the biggest impact possible is made by some storming call and answer over a dramatic bed of guitar lead in the song’s closing minutes. From start to finish this is something that is designed to embrace all of it’s influences by highlighting them obviously – it waves a flag for each of them and, in doing so, repels any potential tagging of the music as simply ‘R & B’ or ‘soul’; it’s much more inclusive than that and the resulting cocktail will surely go down as one of the best releases of the year.
So, I like this record a lot. In a world where Bowie was still with us and ‘Black Star’ hadn’t been given an extra (justified) layer of poignancy, Kiwanuka could’ve been forgiven for having made a Mercury Prize-shaped space on his mantel piece already. I haven’t been as excited by an album as I have by ‘Love & Hate’ in a while; from whatever angle you look at it this is what exciting new music sounds like.