Album of the Week: Michael Kiwanuka, 'Love & Hate'

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Michael Kiwanuka - Love & Hate
Michael Kiwanuka's new album 'Love & Hate' will be available on July 15, 2016. (Album art)

Michael Kiwanuka is an undeniable talent. A wise, soulful songwriter with an incredible voice. He's also a great guitarist. His 2012 debut, Home Again, was such an authentic and faithful offering of soul revival that critics made frequent comparisons to the likes of Bill Withers and Otis Redding. Good company, to be sure, but no artist simply wants to stand on the shoulders of giants. Despite the awards and glowing reviews, many critics wondered if this might not be a very stylish flash in the pan. Would there be a worthy second act?

Love & Hate, Kiwanuka's sophomore studio effort is no slump. Nor is it a carbon copy of his critically acclaimed debut. This is anything but another all-too-self-aware soul revival album. This is a genuine, evocative statement from a man who recognizes that our world is broken in so many ways, and that each and every one of us is looking for answers of some sort. Love & Hate is powerful, raw and very real. An album that, at once, is extremely personal and also completely universal. It's also a gorgeous listen.

The sprawling opening track, "Cold Little Heart," sounds more like early '70s Pink Floyd than any song in the early Soul catalog. It's a full 10 minutes of washes of slow psych-soul, haunting vocals and hypnotic slide guitar. Danger Mouse adds an expansive, lush element to the proceedings, and his sonic touches can be heard throughout: stirring string arrangements, background vocals drenched in reverb and a sweeping, cinematic quality that sets the tone for the whole album. "I've always wanted to make an album that felt and sounded like this one," Kiwanuka said in a statement. "Working with guys as good as Danger Mouse and [producer] Inflo really helped me find what I was looking for."

As wonderful as the production and arrangements here are (and they really are), the real star of this show is Michael Kiwanuka. It's been four years since his celebrated debut, and Kiwanuka has not been idle. Instead of treading the safety of the same waters, he's taken the time to experiment and learn. He's grown as a songwriter. Intimate glimpses into personal experience ("Black Man In A White World"), real heartbreak ("The Final Frame") and anthems for the uncertainty we all share ("Rule The World"), Love & Hate is not only a very worthy second release, it might also be a genuinely important one.

The summer of 2016 is filled with so much division and uncertainty along virtually every line — cultural, geographic, political. Too much hatred, fear and killing. Only a fool would believe that a handful of songs is going to fix things, but I feel less alone every time I listen to Love & Hate. It's impossibly intimate and personal, but also universal. If you're someone who refuses to give up hope on our mutual future, you need to hear this record. An impassioned, unifying plea to all of us … a plea to do better, try harder. The counterpart of suffering is hope. The only antidote to hate is love. The time is now. We still have a long way to go, and we'll never get there if we don't make the journey together. And there may not be any answers, but it's a lot less scary out there when you know others are asking the same questions. This is one of the most beautiful and important records I've heard in a long time.


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