Joshua Winstead (Metric) Found a Lot to Love about Michael Kiwanuka’s Newest Record

The bassist takes on Kiwanuka’s Love and Hate.

Love and Hate is the second album by the talented Michael Kiwanuka, and the follow-up to his beautiful 2012 debut, Home Again. Last year, while on tour with my band Metric, I was introduced to Home Again, and quickly became a fan.

On Home Again, Kiwanuka introduced the world to his distinctively warm, grainy and passionate vocals, as well as his vintage late ’60s, early ’70s soul-inspired recording style. His debut album showed us an artist who is extremely talented, but, in retrospect, it also showed us that he was in the early days of his musical exploration. Having intently listened to his debut, I began to compare the two albums, and as I learned more about the man himself — in particular his earlier work as a London session guitarist — I felt as if I might be getting a glimpse of an artist in transition.

Kiwanuka’s latest offering shows that he has arrived as an even more confident and skilled musician. From vocals to songwriting to lyrics, performance, instrumentation and production, Love and Hate is on a higher level than his already finely crafted past effort. Having recently completed my own solo album, MMXX — released this June — I was excited to think that I may be so lucky as to similarly evolve as an artist over time.

There are risks inherent in making an audience wait in this increasingly distracted world.

In the first five minutes of Love and Hate, Kiwanuka displays just one aspect of his transformation, the confidence it takes to make an audience wait. The opening is a tender yet tension-filled instrumental prelude within the epic ten-minute journey of the track “Cold Little Heart.” This grand gesture serves as an aural palate cleanser, preparing the listener for Kiwanuka’s vocal entrance. The length and pacing of the opening track show a level of confidence and bravery many musicians on the cusp of increasing success do not possess. There are risks inherent in making an audience wait in this increasingly distracted world.

Another display of his musical maturation is his lead guitar work on this track, which also crops up long before his recognizable smoke-and-suede voice appears. On his previous album, Kiwanuka proved himself to be a more-than-proficient rhythm guitarist, but here we have a completely different animal. His lead guitar work is subtle, understated and definitely one of the best parts of his new atmosphere. Within the first three minutes, we get two distinct tones, one warm, haunting and guiding the melody, followed by a classic tone: rusty, thin, growling, but held back from biting — for now.

When Kiwanuka finally lets us hear the voice we’re waiting for, he asks: “Did you ever want it, did you want it bad?/Oh my, tears me apart.” With these words we have begun a journey of questioning. The initial feeling of this song might seem like misery or strife, but a new overarching feeling is quietly revealed: one of celebration, of overcoming one’s own personal choices. It’s the excitement of learning how to think, how you are responsible for your own interpretation of what’s happening around you. This sentiment frames the tone of the album and the breadth of feelings encapsulated within. Whereas in his debut album there were isolated moments of celebration surrounded by a depth of longing, on this effort, Kiwanuka seems to have reversed the equation. The warm, moody vibe remains, but with a new undercurrent. Now he’s a man who can see the light of the sun before it creeps over the horizon. We’re not quite out of the night, but we’re aware of a brighter future soon to arise. “One more night, one more night, ’til the morning, one more night, one more night ’til the day/I’ll be right, I’ll be right in the morning. I’ll be all right, I’ll be right in the day,” he sings.

Kiwanuka recognizes his position in life, but isn’t beaten by the cards he has been dealt.

After the epic opener — and right on time — is the groovy, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, straight-forward, no fuss no muss, rock the pain away “Black Man in a White World.” With the Fela Kuti-esque rhythm guitar taking us through the whole song, this is our first moment to stand, loosen up and pulse along with the serious but celebratory message. In the song, Kiwanuka recognizes his position in life, but isn’t beaten by the cards he has been dealt.

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch Kiwanuka and his fantastic band in Brooklyn, New York. In the live performance, Kiwanuka played this tune at a highly revved-up BPM, ripping into it as if reinventing it in the moment. The groove quickly became infectious, taking us to the place he wanted us to go.

In the beautiful down-tempo, off-kilter love song “Fallen,” the guitar again plays an important counterpart to the lead vocal. The haunting melody is the perfect feeling of falling, falling once again in love with someone that you know you shouldn’t. The heartbreak comes from knowing this is someone you don’t want to fall for, nor is it the first time you have made this mistake. Having lived through this wonderful yet tragic experience myself, I found myself recalling the emotions of being trapped in this dangerous cycle of love. Excitement, tension, passion, anger and longing — with complete disregard for your own heart’s safety, you move forward all the while begging to be left alone.

On the title track “Love and Hate,” it’s hard to pin down exactly the subject matter, and it is all the better for it. It’s as if many parts of a hard and turbulent life are distilled into the triumphant feeling: “You can’t take me down, you can’t break me down, you can’t take me down.”

On songs such as “Love and Hate,” “Rule the World” and “Father’s Child,” you can hear the production influences of both Danger Mouse and Inflo. In particular, there’s the drum production — the percussion is a step forward from the previous release, with the freshness of a modern aesthetic. It’s crisp, clear and in front, with the tightness and clarity of early hip-hop tracks. All the while, the album stays consistent with Kiwanuka’s retro style.

“I’ll Never Love Somebody” is closest in tone and vibe to his debut album. With this song, Kiwanuka shares a moment of longing by a man who has to walk away from the comforts of home and love. Oddly, you don’t feel bad for him, because there’s an underlying feeling of excitement, as the journey is just beginning.

One of the bravest lyrical moments on the album is on the tightly grooved, pseudo hip-hop drum track “Rule the World.” With this song, Kiwanuka admits his own weaknesses, yet shows true confidence. He begs for help, singing, “Take me out of myself again, help me lose control, show me love show me happiness/I can’t do this on my own.” These words are hauntingly personal, yet easily relatable. He shows us how another’s love and attention can help free us from the trappings of our own minds.

As we come to the end of the album, “The Final Frame” provides the curtain call. This track portrays the dichotomy between love and hate. It also contains one of the best moments on the record, but followed by one of the least effective. The chorus of this end of summer, late-night make-out jam is quintessential ’70s soft ballad magic. But, sadly, in the last two minutes, the track loses clarity and distinction and falls apart. There doesn’t seem to be a clear way out. The guitar and piano are left to ramble at the end of the track. It feels as if someone just turns off the lights, leaving the listener feeling suddenly alone. The majority of Love and Hate is distinctly better than the ending of this final song, and for this reason the disconnect in the final minutes is more noticeable. Because the album has been so well crafted, the listeners deserve to be led out as thoughtfully as they are guided in.

The overall feelings of Love and Hate are of triumph, experience and excitement. While I don’t know Kiwanuka personally, as one musician listening to another, I get the feeling that he creates music for the purest reason. There’s just something about the choices he makes — the focus on expression in the age of ultra-pop. My guess is that Kiwanuka is just blessed with the gift of music — and must let it out.

For well over a decade, Joshua Winstead has played bass in Metric, an ongoing occupation that has involved the creation of six critically-acclaimed albums and multiple globe-spanning tours. But before that Winstead grew up as a singer and guitarist, and his songwriting, which toes the line between soulful bedroom pop and slinky R&B, grapples with racism and empathy in America. His first solo album, MMXX, was released in June 2016.

(Photo credit: Anton Lombardi)