TRACK REVIEW: Michael Kiwanuka - You Ain’t the Problem



Michael Kiwanuka

You Ain’t the Problem




The track, You Ain’t the Problem, is available via:




London, U.K.


13th August, 2019

The album, Kiwanuka, is available from 25th October. Pre-order here:


Polydor Limited


THIS year has been a pretty…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @jodie_canwell

eclectic and wonderful one for music. I have loved the sheer scope and brilliance of what has come and, with a few months to go until the end of 2019, there is plenty more on the horizon! Before I look at Michael Kiwanuka’s new track, You Ain’t the Problem, I want to talk about the artist as someone who has developed and evolved since the start; soulful and powerful voices that get into the soul and can summon huge emotion; inspiring figures who are sending out great messages that make you think; albums of 2019 and why Kiwanuka will be in the running; shifting the focus back on London and the music coming out of here – I will end with a bit on Kiwanuka and where he might be heading. Every artist goes through development and change but, for Michael Kiwanuka, there has been this definite shift. I love his debut album, Home Again, from 2012 and it is an album that gives his wonderful and rich voice a lot to get its teeth into. The songs, I guess, nodded to 1970s Soul music and it is a very pleasant and warm album. One of the things that critics picked up on was the lack of urgency in the music. I guess there was this feeling (in the songs) that the mood was quite calm and the album as a whole was a personal thing. By that, I mean Kiwanuka was writing from the heart but there was not the same sort of awareness and urgency he would display on his follow-up album, Love & Hate. Actually, the change between albums is similar when we look at Leon Bridges. Like Kiwanuka, the American artist showed promise on his 2015 debut, Coming Home, but it was seen (by critics and some) as a bit underwhelming in places and lacking that real spark. He stepped up for last year’s Good Thing and Kiwanuka created this wonderful step forward on Love & Hate. Unlike his debut album, Kiwanuka was writing with more energy and though-provoking sentiments.

Four years from his debut, Kiwanuka was writing about his own life but doing so in a more socially conscious way. Songs like Cold Little Heart are stunning and it runs at over ten minutes in length – what a way to start an album! Black Man in a White World is the hero looking at himself as a black man in a world that seems strange and lonely. A lot of critics responded to the improved and bolder Kiwanuka and, in the space of a single album, he really came into his own! His music is becoming more strident and striking with every release. His debut has personal touches and strong songs but I think it was Kiwanuka taking from his influences and the music he grew up around. Now, he is reflecting the wider world and stepping away from pure Soul and splicing Indie-Rock and other genres to create a much more exciting, passionate and memorable sound. I know every artist changes and goes through these dips and rises through a career; Kiwanuka has vastly grown and strengthened and is still purging forward. Kiwanuka (or KIWANUKA) is released on 25th October and shows signs of being a real contender for album of 2019. You Ain’t the Problem shows Kiwanuka is one of the strongest songwriters in the country and someone whose can make an huge impact with his voice alone. I think it is amazing to see how far Michael Kiwanuka has come and just what he can achieve. He is only on album three so it is amazing to think where he can go from here! I shall allude to that in the conclusion but, before doing so, I need to cover a few more subjects. It is still wonderful looking at Kiwanuka and this determined young man who wants his music to touch lives and inspire people. He is definitely doing that and is someone who has a lot of years ahead of him. I do think a lot of artists have great songs but, perhaps, their voice lacks the sort of prowess and nuance you desire.


When it comes to Kiwanuka, there are no such problems! I guess it all comes back to his influences and some of the classic Soul heroes. I am not sure exactly what sort of artists Kiwanuka grew up around but you can hear embers of the legends; a soulfulness that gets into the bones and Gospel touches that take you somewhere special. As his latest track, Money (a collaboration with Tom Misch) showed, he can also do a bit of Disco. Kiwanuka is a stunning singer who can make his words come alive and stay in the memory. I am trying to think of another vocalist who has the same sort of palette and range as Kiwanuka. I do think a lot of today’s more urgent music relies on lyrical meaning and force and, whilst this is great, I am not as captivated by the voice as I used to be. A lot of my favourite albums and songs are defined by incredible vocal performances and there are not quite the same singers as you had in the past. There are some fantastic singers coming through on the scene right now – Anna Calvi is a particular favourite – but very few that leave such a lasting impression. Michael Kiwanuka is an artist who can buckle the knees and leave you wanting more. His voice was rich and enticing on Home Again but, as some noted, he was holding back a bit. Listen back to that album and you sense this beauty and immense promise but it was not until Love & Hate when everything sort of came to the fore. Maybe it was the fact there was a gap between albums and Kiwanuka had time to hone his voice. He toured a lot off of the back of the debut and it all shows on the sophomore release. Love & Hate is a tremendous album and one that displays the full extent of Kiwanuka’s voice.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Ian Laidlaw

I am not sure how many of today’s artists Kiwanuka is influenced by but I get the sense older artists are more important. What affects me most about Kiwanuka is the fact he can mix the classic Soul sounds but has this real edge and fire. When he is digging deep and talking about his place in the world, you are sort of startled and moved by the passion coming from him. It is a revelation listening to this singer sort of unburden himself and call out. I will not go as far to say it is a prayer but you sort of get this spiritual element from his work. Kiwanuka is an always-growing artist who is adding layers and qualities to his voice. Not to say his lyrics and music lack but, when it comes to Kiwanuka, it is the voice that really gets to me! I can hear one of his songs and keep coming back because the vocal performance has that balance of complexity and directness. That is a blend you do not often hear and I do think, if you have not discovered Michael Kiwanuka, you need to get behind his music. He is an amazing artist and I feel like he has many more albums under his belt. Today, there are very few singers who you feel could be considered future legends. That is not a shot at them but, when we think of the best voices ever, we often cast our minds back quite a few years. I feel Michael Kiwanuka, in years to come, will inspire other generations and have his voice studied. You get so much emotion and different colours when you hear him sing. I can listen to a track such as One More Night (from Love & Hate) and get all these feelings; a sort of effect that you do not get from other singers. Kiwanuka puts his all into everything and that really tells. I feel Kiwanuka’s work has become more conscious of the world around us and important things we need to consider.

His debut was quite a personal work but I feel it could have been a bit more stirring and outward-looking in places. As I said, this was rectified by Love & Hate and it seems like his upcoming album is going to be another triumph. It is a bit early to call the best albums of 2019 but, when Kiwanuka is unveiled to the world, I feel it will be in the chasing pack. Before moving on, I actually want to bring in an interview Kiwanuka conducted with NME very recently where he talks about subjects like social media and how it can be toxic – NME looked at the eponymous third album and what it is going to say:

 “Michael Kiwanuka self-titling his upcoming third album is more of a statement than most make when releasing an eponymous record. His is a name that was constantly mispronounced at school in North London’s Muswell Hill. Then, when his music career was kicking off, people asked him what name he was going to release the songs under. From the man whose first big hit came in the form of a song called ‘Black Man In A White World’, it’s something that’s coloured his entire career. Stepping out, then, with the follow-up to a chart-topping, Mercury-nominated second album, and naming it after his ‘difficult’ surname, means a lot. He’s even written it in all-caps, too, as if to hammer the point home even further. ‘KIWANUKA’.
To outsiders, it would seem like this big step should’ve arrived years ago for the celebrated songwriter, but the lack of acceptance he received (and then consequently gave himself) from childhood means it’s a significantly longer road to this kind of revelation. As such, ‘KIWANUKA’ is a record that feels like a vivid, proud exhale, created with the energy of an artist who can finally be himself, with nothing filtered out.
“Comparison is really dangerous,” he says, reflecting on the process of learning to celebrate and accentuate his flaws rather than cut them out and head towards a more homogenised version of himself. “I think we’ve underestimated it, and because of the internet and the resources we have, it’s really prevalent. With things like anxiety and depression – things that are becoming epidemics, especially within young people – a lot of it is coming from filters and Instagram posts, and the idea of ‘living your best life’.

“It’s fun, and it’s part of the world, but I think we need to find a way to balance it, and know that what you see on the internet is such a small fraction of the story. We need to learn to take care of ourselves a bit more. That’s not to become narcissistic,” he continues, “but to realise that we’re made how we’re made, and it’s amazing. Humans are really great things, and we’re all different and made in different shapes and sizes, and that’s something to be celebrated, not filtered out and diluted”.

The fact that KIWANUKA (although I am going to use lower-case as one can write it both ways) is going to be in bold lettering – a lot of artists are doing this and I guess it is meant to convey passion and power – shows Kiwanuka himself is keen to get out some big songs. He is still going to be reflecting his own life and feelings but, like Love & Hate, he is looking at the world around and asking some questions. Looking at some of the interview above and, when Kiwanuka talks about the difference between social media and real life, it does inspire. There are artists speaking out against social media’s damaging effects and how it can cause depression and anxiety. I like the fact Kiwanuka is raising awareness and knows how the modern world can give a false impression. Many of us live through social media and rely on filters and misleading perceptions. Kiwanuka is sort of saying the Internet can be good but there is a danger of being sucked into a rather dangerous space. The world itself has a lot to offer and I think we all need to get out there more and explore. I am not sure how much of modern culture and social media will be dissected on his upcoming album but it is clear Kiwanuka is concerned out topics like this and wants us to rethink. I will be interesting seeing how all his passion and inspirations manifest themselves on this third album.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @jodie_canwell

I did say how it is early regarding album predication and what defines this year but there has been nothing like Michael Kiwanuka in music recently. A lot of this year’s best albums are from women; many are from popular young bands but there is a definite gap for Michael Kiwanuka. Maybe it all comes back to his voice and what it can do but I feel like there is an opportunity for the London-born songwriter to strike hard. He has been away from a few years in terms of albums but Kiwanuka has been honing and building his voice; he has been looking at the world around him and bringing this all the fore. I love You Ain’t the Problem and what is suggests. Kiwanuka has brought in new lyrical and compositional touches and it is fascinating seeing this brilliant young songwriter explore and evolve. Although there is a couple of months left before we get Kiwanuka’s third album, I feel like there will be more material out; a chance to see what direction he is moving in and what we might get. With a definite sense of purpose and passion (sorry to keep using that word) in his heart, I think Kiwanuka is going to release this huge, year-defining album. I think Love & Hate is a magnificent record but Kiwanuka will be even bigger and better. That is a bold proclamation but I do sense this tremor coming. Before we get to the album, there is this great song out. I have been a fan of Kiwanuka since the start and this review gives me a chance to talk about a London artist. Hailing from Muswell Hill, Kiwanuka is London through and through. I have sort of tried to distance myself from the capital in terms of reviews because I think a lot of media spotlight comes the way of London – so many other areas do not get a look in. Whilst there is terrific music coming from Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow, one cannot ignore the brilliance emanating from London.

From artists like Kiwanuka to poetical forces such as Kate Tempest, it is clear London is vital and the centre of British music. With the nation so divided and things being pretty strained right now, I do think London music has a very big role to play. Kiwanuka lives in a city that is changing and going through some tough times. There is a lot violence and division and, whilst there are a lot of positives, one cannot help but notice a change in the air. That is not to say Kiwanuka’s forthcoming album will be political but he is an artist who takes from what is around him and reflects the lives of people he sees. He will walk the streets and notice a different vibe to the one he grew up around. London is still proud and strong but I myself sense a slight fear and sadness in places that is hard to stomach. Rather than become downbeat and rejected, Kiwanuka is actually writing some of the most uplifting and inspiring music of his career. Even when he is in reflective mood, Kiwanuka is capable of stirring the soul and summoning something deep-down. I wonder how London will change in the next few years and whether Brexit will damage the diverse ecosystem and climate. It will be interesting to see but I am finding so many fantastic artists from the capital reflecting this shift and the feeling that is lingering. I shall move on to You Ain’t the Problem in a second but, before then, I want to get people to think about Kiwanuka as a future legend. If you have not heard a lot of his music then rectify that. I think he is very special and is a unique wonder that we need to treasure. Having heard interviews with him, Kiwanuka is very grounded and personable; he is very warm and someone that is as accessible as he is inspiring. It is about time I get to focus and work my way through Kiwanuka’s amazing new song, You Ain’t the Problem.

The build-up on You Ain’t the Problem is fascinating. Rather than go straight in there or have the vocal swoop, there are background sounds and percussive groove. It is almost like you are listening to a big conversation through a door; maybe the distant sounds of the street or something else. It is hard to describe but there are lower-volume voices and a sense of chatter that gives the track a busy and evocative start. There are percussive patters and beats that has this sense of cool and groove and, together with the voices, it is such an interesting start. Kiwanuka is a master of the intriguing introductions and allows songs to breathe and inspire. You get this real sense of scenery and life before a single word is uttered from the hero. Before you immerse yourself in the soft voices and a sense of calm, this vibrating and electric-shock blast comes through that definitely bucks you up and takes you by surprise. Having moved from this street-level sound to a lightning blast, you are starting to wonder where the song might head next! The composition is thrilling indeed and has a real energy that is hard to ignore! There are backing vocals and raw guitar which gives the song a huge weight and punch. It is a fantastic blend and sound that really does blow you away. There is so much life in the music that you are filled with a sense of strength and awe. When Kiwanuka comes to the microphone, his words are delivered with definite meaning and speed. He is asking who he believes in and posing these big questions. It is interesting seeing the combination of oblique and direct lyrics. Early on, Kiwanuka living in the trouble and someone not believing him. I get the sense that he is referring to a personal pain or, maybe, a relationship that has ended. With all of Kiwanuka’s songs, there might be this reference to the wider world and how he is seen. Kiwanuka talks about time healing the pain and this person not being the problem.

 PHOTO CREDIT: yardmanflo

Whether, again, it is a sweetheart or a larger figure, I am not too sure. With every song, Kiwanuka’s voice holds this incredible power and stir that really does affect you. When he sings about not needing to die and not needing to play himself, you get this feeling and emotion from the delivery that other singers would not be able to project. Kiwanuka is someone who can change from the direct and clear to the more oblique and, here, we get someone who is sort of twisting words and phrases. You get a directness but actually there is room for interpretation; some of the lines leave a mystery and every listener will have their own conclusions. After delivering these curious and interesting words, we get another blast of horns, electronics and voices that punctuates the song beautifully. In some ways, Kiwanuka is combining some of this debut album with Love & Hate. The chorus bursts have elements of 1970s Soul but the lyrics are definitely more familiar to what we heard on Love & Hate. You Ain’t the Problem is a wonderful song that reveals more and more the more you listen. It seems this person – whether a lover, friend or a larger entity – is the one doing all the talking whilst the hero is trying to fix things. He points the gun and ‘they’ shoot for fun – one wonders who that refers to; some very striking images come to mind. You need a few listens to get inside the lyrics and immerse yourself in the flow. Later, Kiwanuka talks about how he used to hate himself and how someone has the key. Maybe he referring to his very early life or earlier in his career but there is this breakthrough and realisation. Kiwanuka definitely has some pains and weight on his heart but it seems like things are improving. I do wonder who is referring to through the song and where the lyrics stem from. Many of us will be able to relate to what he is saying but there is this room for guessing and interpretation. You Ain’t the Problem is a mighty song that proves Kiwanuka will be a very interesting album. I have listened to the song a few times and it grows more interesting and illuminating. I do sense Kiwanuka is tackling relationship issues but there is this essence of a man speaking out and looking at the world as a whole. In any case, make sure you check out this class song and pre-order the Kiwanuka album.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @jodie_canwell

The next few months are going to be very busy for Michael Kiwanuka. He is preparing himself for a new album and there will be the usual promotional duties. If you want to catch him perform live, then check out where he is heading. I suggest you go and see him if you can because Kiwanuka is a fantastic force and someone who can seduce and overpower from the stage. He is one of the best live acts we have in the U.K. and it will be exciting seeing some of his new material come to life on the stage. Kiwanuka comes out in October and many will wonder how he has changed and developed since Love & Hate. In terms of subject matter, I do think there is going to be that same blend of the personal and universal. Kiwanuka will address his place in the world and the realities of that; some of the problems we all face and, as the NME interview suggested, there will be mentions of social media lifestyles and how many of us live through machines. The fact his album is (semi)eponymous means there is a lot of the personal and meaningful. I wonder whether relationships and matters of the heart will feature. There is definite anticipation and excitement growing because, as I have mentioned, there is a void in the industry that only Kiwanuka can fill. He is one of the best artists around and always brings something golden and memorable. You Ain’t the Problem is a fantastic song that gets right into the mind and does not shift. Looking ahead and it seems there is no stopping the tremendous Michael Kiwanuka. He has so much determination and passion in his heart and I feel like he will continue to search and move forward. I shall end things there but I want to point people the way of Kiwanuka and his tremendous music. Make sure you grab a copy of Kiwanuka and let the sensational music do its thing. There are some simply staggering artists around but none that have the ingredients of Michael Kiwanuka. His music is motivating, illuminating and, at a tough and divided time…


VERY valuable indeed.


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