Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka’s debut album was commercially successful, but as a listening experience, it felt almost aggressively safe. Kiwanuka had built an incredible buzz around himself as an artists, and whilst the folk-jazz hybrid that made up his debut album was pleasant enough to listen to, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t dull. Love & Hate is the exact opposite of that. Working with Danger Mouse as a producer, Kiwanuka has made a gutsy, individualistic album that signals his arrival as a true artist.
Cold Little Heart, the opening track at first feels like something of a feint. The track itself is almost 10 minutes long, and the song proper doesn’t start until around 5 minutes in. The introductory section is made up of swirling strings and haunting vocals, which gives the track a sombre, yet spiritual atmosphere from the word go. As with the opener, the instrumentation varies throughout the album. Standout track Black Man in a White World is built around handclaps and funky guitar licks, but it doesn’t really come alive until the backing gospel singers enter the fray. One More Night is the most typical Danger Mouse-sounding song, with it’s organ-and-drum beat being intermittently punctuated by commanding horn blasts. The sound of the album is very much a throwback to 70’s soul, but with the grit and creativity that modern, digital production allows.
The most common criticism of Home Again was the relative banality of its lyrical content, which is a problem Love & Hate does not share. Kiwanuka immerses himself in politics and spirituality, and the album exudes an emotional realism that he previously didn’t seem capable of. The aforementioned Black Man in a White World deals with the emotional turmoil created by racism, and Kiwanuka hides nothing behind pretence of subtlety – “I’m in love but I’m still sad / I’ve found peace but I’m not glad”. The title track feels like the emotional exorcism of a man driven to grief by the conflict in the world – “love and hate / how much more are we supposed to tolerate”. His lyrics are potent, and unapologetically current, and demonstrate a huge growth as an artist.
Love & Hate shows that Michael Kiwanuka isn’t willing to rest on his laurels. It’s an enormous step up from his previous work, but more than that, it’s just a phenomenal album in its own right. Combining vintage and modern sounds, emotional and political lyrics, sad and joyous themes, Love & Hate marks the arrival of a truly great artist.