If you put down your phone for a second and take a look outside your windowsill, it may look more like the 1960s than it does 2016. Civil Rights issues are front and center with racial tension being metaphorically stretched like a rubber band, ready to snap.
In these times of turmoil, people hold on to hope that things will change, not only through the support of each other, but through the power of music. In 1964, A Change Is Gonna Come by southern crooner Sam Cooke was posthumously released and led the way in terms of a rally cry for the civil rights movement.
Cooke pleads with his listeners, belting every note, almost proclaiming that, “It's been a long long time coming / But I know, but I know a change is gotta come,” Ain't That Good News (1964).
History is suddenly repeating itself, not only with the socioeconomic status of our society, but with music as well.
Following up his 2012 debut album (certified gold - U.K), Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka has seamlessly given a musical voice to the times we are living in with his sophomore album, Love & Hate.
A lone slide guitar, an orchestra and a choir take up the better part of the first five minutes of the opening track, "Cold Little Heart." This sets the overall tone for the album: Trying to find your place in a world that hasn't given you one.
After the musical intro, Mr.Kiwanuka's raw and powerful voice enters for the first time, cutting through the instruments like a sharp blade.
"Did you ever want it? / Did you want it bad? / Ohhh, my / It tears me apart / Did you ever fight it? / All of the pain, so much pride / Running through my veins / Bleeding, I'm bleeding / My cold little heart / Oh I, I can't stand myself" - "Cold Little Heart," - Love & Hate
(listen to the first five minutes with your eyes closed)
This leads into, "Black Man In a White World," a self explanatory track that feels as if it was pulled right out of a Cohen Brothers movie with its hand claps and staccato guitar riff. Again we hear an orchestra and choir accompanying the track, which can be traced to Mr.Kiwanuka's blues and gospel influences.
"Falling," and, "Place I Belong," follow, reinforcing the themes of figuring out where Mr.Kiwanuka belongs, but more importantly, where does a black man or woman belong in society?
"I'm a man who belongs alone / thought that was plain to see / now you've come back into the fold / you're telling me you want me now? / Let me go, leave my head alone / Look what you've done to me" - "Falling," - Love & Hate
"Love & Hate", the song named after the album, is lyrically and sonically sound. A psychedelic guitar, violins and the choir once more all make their respective appearances to create musical magic.
As many artists before him (Kanye West "Homecoming,"Common, "I Used to Love H.E.R," Logic, "Nicki.") Mr. Kiwanuka has given a female persona to a theme in this song, and in this case, it's the people living in the world. He wants to believe, "she," (the world) has his best interest, but he knows of pain and misery so he can't be sure.
"Love and Hate / How much more are we supposes to tolerate? / Can you see this world to me is the longest day? / Sometimes I get this feeling - Makes me hesitate / I believe she wont take me somewhere I´m not supposed to be / You can´t steal the things that god has given me / No more pain and no more shame and misery," - "Love & Hate," - Love & Hate
The bass line in "One More Night," the subsequent song, heavily reminded me of the track, "Awake," by Electric Guest. Upon further inspection, Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) produced most of Love & Hate, as well as producing Mondo (2012) by Electric Guest. Of course Mr.Burton would have a hand in an album as riveting as this one (check out his catalog of produced works here).
The album could have ended six songs in and I would have been delighted, but Mr.Kiwanuka finished the album out with, "I'll Never Love," "Rule the World," "Father's Child," and "The Final Frame," all amazing songs in their own right that tie the album together masterfully. I could give you a thorough break down on each of these songs, but you'd be sitting here for three hours.
In my opinion, Love & Hate, is a dark horse candidate for Album of the Year. No one has made an album this unique in 2016 and I'm glad I found it.
Before I conclude with my rating, I would like to point out one downfall with this album, and that's the amount of notoriety it's receiving.
Love & Hate debuted on the U.K Charts last week (7-22-16) at number one. The United States? #170.
This is the same artist that beat out Frank Ocean (still bumping, "Swim Good," in 2016, liberate us Frank) for the BBC's sound of 2012 poll. The same artist that has opened up for the likes of Mumford and Sons and Adele. And the same artist that is currently on a world tour selling out shows in Europe.
In viewing, "Black Man In a White World," performed live on the Conan O'Brien Show in April of this year, I began to realize there might be a deeper rooted reason Mr.Kiwanuka isn't gaining popularity. The video almost has been disliked by half of the 66,000+ people who have watched. This begs to question, do people want to see him succeed? Is the color of his skin, coupled with the topics he sings about making him unpopular? If true, a travesty to say the least, but only time will tell.
Mr.Kiwanuka is the United Kingdom's best kept secret and I hope one day someone throws him a raft so that he is able to swim his way across the algae that is mainstream radio.