2019, Music

Kiwanuka (2019)

So many attempts at reviving soul as a viable genre seem similar to me. In the ’90s, they were much made in reaction to ’90s R&B, but also with awareness of hip hop. In the 21st century, it feels like every attempt to revive soul is filtered through hip hop – how could it not be? – and alternative R&B. There’s nothing wrong with any of this – I like neo-soul much more than hip hop and more than most contemporary R&B – but it does all end up sounding similar, or at least most of it does. How much neo soul sounds like it was made under the influence of D’Angelo? (Knowing what I know now, I should up my rating of his debut album…)

If Michael Kiwanuka’s sound on this eponymous album is anything to go by, he is not one of these artists. Kiwanuka makes soul, but it’s soul music but it’s soul music made in an alternate timeline, a timeline where hip hop doesn’t exist, or at least it didn’t become massively commercially successful and musically influential.

Instead, Kiwanuka is drawing so much of his influence from late ’60s soul and pop. If he was a rock or pop musician, I’d say there’s a real danger in a record like this reeking of nostalgia and seeming completely unoriginal. But, the thing is, nobody else (that I am aware of) is making music like this in the 21st century.

Moreover, though so much of the arrangements sound heavily influenced by the music of the late ’60s, including some of the production elements, it’s very clearly a record made through the lens of the 21st century, through Kiwanuka’s voice, through his lyrics, and through the overall sound quality of the record, which may sound like it is aping ’60s sounds a lot but which never sounds like a record manufactured in the late ’60s.

It’s also an amalgam of different sounds that didn’t find their way onto the same record in the late ’60s, at least that I’m aware of. One thing I’ve always disliked about retro rock music is they usually have one band or one scene they are really trying to pay tribute to, or two or three at the most, with one dominant. Maybe I don’t know Kiwanuka’s reference points well enough here, but the baroque pop and soul I feel like he’s referencing here was not as diverse as his celebration of it.

Pretty cool stuff.


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