Folk-soul darling Michael Kiwanuka burst onto the scene in 2012, topping that year’s BBC Sound poll, writing a gold-selling and Mercury-nominated debut album (Home Again), and bagging an Adele support slot. Not a bad 12 months’ work.
Comparisons with Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye abounded, and it was only a matter of time before the big boys invited him to play. So sure enough, he found himself headhunted by Kanye West to sing on sessions for his Yeezus album in Hawaii. Unsure what was expected of him, and with little guidance from the man himself, Kiwanuka felt out of his depth, decided it wasn’t working out and upped and left.
For me, that was reason enough to be intrigued by this enigmatic talent; anyone who essentially says “It’s not you it’s me” to hip hop’s biggest ego is alright in my book.
But fast forward four years, and he went and did something even more impressive. After nearly quitting music altogether while trying to write his follow-up album, he came back with a record that drags his smooth soul sound somewhere altogether darker, and infinitely more interesting.
With producers including Danger Mouse (Black Keys, Gorillaz) at the helm, Love and Hate is all spectral backing choirs, expansive string arrangements and distorted electric guitar solos.
His vintage blues-soul sound is carefully observed, but never tips into retro pastiche; his voice is painfully raw, and aches with turmoil in places. The first time I played this album to my boyfriend, he asked if it was Otis Redding – which tells you all you need to know about the depth of his cracked oak vocal delivery.
But there’s a very real darkness to this record, and it slices like a knife through the gloss and polish. It’s a statement of intent, not to mention a new-found confidence, that the album opens with a ten-minute track, five minutes of which is instrumental. Imagine Pink Floyd meets Isaac Hayes in an after-hours whisky joint. That’s Cold Little Heart, and it’s with this epic that he opens his set at the Tramshed. It’s brave, but from the opening bars, the crowd is enraptured.
It’s a treat to watch an act of this stature in this great venue, which boasts good acoustics, and the friendliest security staff you’ll encounter (when someone in the front row complains of being hot towards the end of the set they hand out cups of ice-cold water. A nice touch).
I doubt we’ll see him back here again, as bigger things surely beckon.
Yet when Kiwanuka sings “I can’t stand myself”, you get the feeling this isn’t solipsistic posturing. He has the air of a man who really means it.
The adoring crowd provides handclap percussion for Black man in a white world, a tale of racial struggle set to a deceptively rousing Afrobeat rhythm (“I’m in love, but I’m still sad/I found peace, but I’m not glad”).
The encore comes by way of Prince cover Sometimes it rains in April and, finally, the haunting Love And Hate. “You can’t break me down” he sings, and you get the feeling it’s a lyric addressed to himself, in an ongoing battle with his own insecurities. You’re left wondering what lies ahead if he ever comes to terms with his own talent.