Michael Kiwanuka, "Love & Hate" Album Review
It's been 8 years since Raphael Saadiq brought back the throwback blues-soul with The Way I See It, a album that did not do so well on the charts or among critics yet stands the test of time--it's only appropriate that something that was created with the intent to sound old for its time starts sounding like valuable and timeless antique, as time goes by and it actually *is* old now. In the time of its arrival, many criticized the album for its unhealthy obsession with the past and unapologetic pretension. I said, give the man a break, first because the dude is kind of old (turned 50 this year) and second, how are you gonna hate on shit that sounds the same as the stuff you love from 40, 50 years ago? Upon hearing the album for the first time, I was convinced that it was the start of something great, not only because the music was objectively outstanding, but especially because Raphael Saadiq had long been an overlooked gem in the business (the man's accomplishments are on an all-star level--I mean, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Lucy Pearl, honorary soulquarian, neo-soul guru, and collaborators of veterans like The Roots, Dilla, D'Angelo...). In 2012, Raphael Saadiq was among the 100 individuals crowned as the most influential people of the year, after his new album Stone Rollin' followed the footsteps of his previous album. At the mid-point of his 40's, Saadiq remained relevant, utilizing his love for emotionally straightforward and sincere music with the much-deprived old-school touch.
Over the last decade, more than a few artists have emerged and succeeded at a high level as blues artists/songwriters with soul, jazz and funk influences, having garnered their success thanks to the choice to stick to the traditional sounds, music-making formulas and confidence in their own artistry. I, for one, credit Raphael for helping inspire and encourage this new breed of artists, who include Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Shakes, the late Amy Winehouse, and now, Michael Kiwanuka. There was something about Motown, Philly Soul, Chicago Soul and other 1960's styles that was different from what we hear today. There was a kind of subtle chemistry in that music that's absent in today's new music, the majority of which thrives upon explicitness and boisterous romance yet neglects the power of imagination. In Michael Kiwanuka's new album Love & Hate, sentiment overflows as the singer exudes helpless desire as well as pain in his rich and heavily reverbed vocals. With the help from simplistic songwriting, a lot of strings, mostly minor-mode melodies and relatable lyrics, Michael Kiwanuka crafted a record that doesn't quite scream versatility like Gary Clark Jr.'s Black and Blu did but instead shines with its cohesiveness and easy-listening nature. Catchy hooks, overdriven guitar solos, rough and raw vocal mixing bring the audience back a few decades, where we'd be driving across the desert as the torrid winds of July immerse our restless spirits in a delusional moment of sentiment, heat and euphoria. Love & Hate is at times a cruel journey of emotions, and at others a hopeful instant of release. It's not an album that takes risks; rather, it advocates for constants and takes its listeners on a trip down memory lane, back to a time when only real instruments were used in making music.
Kiwanuka however does display some versatility in his language as he explores different lyrical themes in the album, taking on a more socially conscious narrative on "Black Man in a White World" (in a time where the topic is as important as it's ever been) while recycling the age-old tale of heartbreak on "I'll Never Love". Opening track "Cold Little Heart" is a hard-hitting reminder of all the pain and sorrow the world has endured this year, starting with a quite cinematic instrumental intro that depicts an almost graphic representation of tragedy, only to transition into an acoustic-guitar-driven songful second-half where the singer laments the agony and despair of this life. Reminiscent of Isaac Hayes' Hot Butter Soul, the song advances in hopefulness, as he sings, "In my heart, in this cold heart; I can live, or I can die; I believe if I just try; You believe in you and I", the artist finds resolve in trust and acceptance, which I'm not sure is enough, but maybe it's a start. As it acknowledges heartbreaks and sadness, Love & Hate also emphasizes and advises that, hey, hope and love still exist, and they do within each other, and you and me.