“It's really a day in the life of me,” Henry Wu aka Kamaal Williams (born Henry Williams) tells Apple Music. It's quite the circadian trip, as multifaceted in its sonic repertoire as it is in the stories told, places referenced, and the artist’s multiple monikers. Wu Hen spills over with movement and humor, with playful skits and snapshots of the characters around Williams’ life. There are tour de force pit stops from Toulouse via Camberwell to a soundtrack encompassing his signature four-to-the-floor beats, funky house and funk, straight-ahead and acid jazz, soul, grime, and more. This album arrives two years on from The Return (his first release as Kamaal Williams)—and four years on from the success of Black Focus (released with drummer Yussef Dayes under their short-lived Yussef Kamaal partnership) and its accompanying wave of the lauded new London jazz scene. There’s a new lineup of collaborators for Wu Hen: Atlantan Quinn Mason’s warm virtuoso saxophone (“He reminds me of Bennie Maupin,” Williams says), guest harpist Alina Bzhezhinska, drummer Greg Paul of the Katalyst Collective, and renowned UK bassist Rick Leon James. Then there are the luscious string arrangements of LA-based polymath Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.
Clouds are a central motif on the record—their ephemeral textures gesturing towards the immaterial and what Williams refers to as “spiritual rebellion.” Deeply spacious at times, with sweeping strings—the album also has a beatific edge. Williams, who converted to Islam in 2011, says that Wu Hen is “ultimately about understanding that there is a higher entity behind the creation of the universe.” An introspective assessment of his own value systems and relationship to the material world, it's also an intentional statement of pride and solidarity. Wu Hen is a throw to his maternal grandmother’s nickname for him and his lineage as a descendant of the Wu Dynasty. Noting the rise in xenophobic attacks against East Asian communities following the 2020 pandemic, Williams, of mixed Taiwanese British heritage, says that it matters for him to “represent” in the face of hate. Here he takes us through, track by track.
Street Dreams “This begins with Alina on harp, then comes in Quinn, then Miguel. I’m not even playing on the track! But it still sounds like me. Nas had an album called Street Dreams too. There’s also a studio in Brixton with the same name. They do great vegan food and are real pioneers of music when it comes to UK rap and hip-hop. For me, this is about dreams. When you think of dreams, what do you think of? Clouds, right? It’s celestial, ethereal, otherworldly: immaterial. It really set the tone for the concept of the whole album.”
One More Time “Sometimes you gotta tell people to behave themselves, you know what I mean?! This track is like a comedy sketch. It’s like the modern-day Only Fools and Horses [iconic UK sitcom]. That [skit at the beginning] would be Del Boy pulling up at the market and telling people off for selling dodgy apples and pears! We did the instrumental in one take, and it's a like video game: Man came through with a nursery rhyme melody.”
1989 “I was trying to think of something dramatic for the title. I looked down at my driver’s license and settled on 1989: the year that it all began! In the studio we get to this place where we are communicating on a telepathic level—you’re not thinking anymore. It’s that immaterial thing that I keep going back to. To get spiritual with it, you’re letting go. It's that feeling of freedom on this track, it’s like floating in the middle of the ocean.”
Toulouse “Someone put a bet on the football while we were recording and made a bad joke: to win or Toulouse! I think it’s a sign not to gamble. France has such a romantic feeling to me, and this is how I imagine Toulouse to feel—but in a small jazz club. I’ve never actually been! We came up with the piano riff, Quinn came in with his line, and then Miguel did his thing. Wow. To me, some of those moments sound and feel like someone’s tiptoeing across a misty lake with a waterfall behind them.”
Pigalle “Big up [fashion designer] Stéphane Ashpool, the whole Paris crew. I love Paris. Pigalle is a district of the city, and Stéphane’s fashion labels Pigalle Basketball and Pigalle are inspired by the area. They turned a local carpark into a basketball court for the kids to play, and it's a piece of art. All the walls are painted in geometric patterns and colors—it’s beautiful. You can go there and chill out. And I actually discovered a lot of music just from sitting there listening to people playing on their boombox. These are 18-year-old kids playing basketball, they’re listening to all kinds of music, from Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango to Mulatu Astatke. Quinn’s a real star on this record. I met him playing in Atlanta last year, and he’s the real deal. Alina Bzhezhinska’s on harp—we met doing an Alice Coltrane tribute. They give it a traditional [jazz] feel, but it’s still very modern.”
Big Rick “That’s Rick Leon James. Trinidad in the building! He’s a UK legend, I had to get him on this album. I’ve known him for years: He used to play bass for Tinie Tempah. Everyone knows him as the number one player in the UK—he’s a special one. The energy here is like an old Western movie. He’s coming to town with his bassline, just gliding around on a horse, having a look at what’s going down, and just being like, ‘No one can touch me, nobody can chat to me while I’m playing this bassline.’ The way he plays, if I was Rick, I’d be saying nobody chat to me right now!”
Save Me “Let’s just say we’re channeling Jamiroquai—that acid jazz sound. It's one of my biggest inspirations. There's a limited-edition version of this track with rapper Mach-Hommy. I’m also going to do a version with me on vocals, but I haven’t even written it yet, so watch this space.”
Mr Wu “This track is that UK house flavor. It continues on from the likes of Phil Asher, Irfan Rainy, Louie Vega, Kerri Chandler, Theo Parrish, Kenny Dope—all those guys, you know? This is the club track on the album. When I first started making tunes, this was the sound. It’s that four-to-floor beat. That’s why it's called ‘Mr Wu’—it’s my signature sound.”
Hold On “We’re really channeling Roy Ayers on this track. I wrote those lyrics: 'Did you ever ask the question; did you give yourself a reason to hold on?’ It's about these universal principles of life: some people say karma, others destiny or faith…and some people say coincidence. These are all the same thing to me, except I don’t say coincidence.”
Early Prayer “This album is like a day in the life of. This track is like 10 pm in Camberwell and I’m sitting in the car with a friend of mine. He’s an old-school legend, and he’s lived a mad life. He wants to write his life down, so we decided to start recording these stories: That’s the skit at the start of the album. One of the stories he’s telling is about him watching his best friend getting shot dead in a club. It’s an honest snapshot in the frame of someone’s life. The sense of a prayer is for anyone who's going through something, and instrumentally, we’re going back to the clouds.”