Michael Kiwanuka never seemed the type to self-title an album. He certainly wasn’t expected to double down on such apparent self-assurance by commissioning a kingly portrait of himself as the cover art. After all, this is the singer-songwriter who was invited to join Kanye West’s Yeezus sessions but eventually snuck wordlessly out, suffering impostor syndrome. That sense of self-doubt shadowed him even before his 2012 debut Home Again collected a Mercury Prize nomination. “It’s an irrational thought, but I’ve always had it,” he tells Apple Music. “It keeps you on your toes, but it was also frustrating me. I was like, ‘I just want to be able to do this without worrying so much and just be confident in who I am as an artist.’” Notions of identity also got him thinking about how performers create personas—onstage or on social media—that obscure their true selves, inspiring him to call his third album KIWANUKA in an act of what he calls “anti-alter-ego.” “It’s almost a statement to myself,” he says. “I want to be able to say, ‘This is me, rain or shine.’ People might like it, people might not, it’s OK. At least people know who I am.” Kiwanuka was already known as a gifted singer and songwriter, but KIWANUKA reveals new standards of invention and ambition. With Danger Mouse and UK producer Inflo behind the boards—as they were on Love & Hate in 2016—these songs push his barrel-aged blend of soul and folk further into psychedelia, fuzz rock, and chamber pop. Here, he takes us through that journey song by song.
You Ain’t the Problem “‘You Ain’t the Problem’ is a celebration, me loving humans. We forget how amazing we are. Social media’s part of this—all these filters hiding things that we think people won't like, things we think don't quite fit in. You start thinking this stuff about you is wrong and that you’ve got a problem being whatever you are and who you were born to be. I wanted to write a song saying, ‘You’re not the problem. You just have to continue being you more, go deeper within yourself.’ That’s where the magic comes—as opposed to cutting things away and trying to erode what really makes you.”
Rolling “‘Rolling with the times, don’t be late.’ Everything’s about being an artist for me, I guess. I was trying to find my place still, but you can do things to make sure that you fit in or are keeping up with everything that’s happening—whether it’s posting stuff online or keeping up with the coolest records, knowing the right things. Or it could just be you’re in your mid-thirties, you haven’t got married or had kids yet, and people are like, ‘What?’ ‘Rolling with the times’ is like, go at your own pace. In my head, there was early Stooges records and French records like Serge Gainsbourg with the fuzz sounds. I wanted to make a song that sounded kind of crazy like that.”
I’ve Been Dazed “Eddie Hazel from Funkadelic is my favorite guitar player. This has anthemic chords because he would always have really beautiful anthemic chords in the songs that he wrote. It just came out almost hymn-like. Lyrically, because it has this melancholy feel to it, I was singing about waking up from the nightmare of following someone else’s path or putting yourself down, low self-esteem—the things ‘You Ain't the Problem’ is defying. The feeling is, ‘Man, I've been in this kind of nightmare, I just want to get out of it, I’m ready to go.’”
Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) [Intro] “As a teenager, I’d just escape [into some albums], like I could teleport away from life and into that person’s world. I really wanted to have that feel with this record. It would be so vivid, there was no chance to get out of it, no gap in the songs—make it feel like one long piece. Some songs just flow into each other, but some needed interludes as passageways. This intro came when I was playing some bass and [Inflo] was playing some piano and I started singing my idea of a Marvin Gaye soul tune—a deep, dark, melancholic cut from one of his ’70s records. Then Danger Mouse had the idea, ‘Why don’t you pitch some of it down so it sounds different?’”
Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) “I used to always love melancholy songs; the sadder it is, the happier I’d be afterwards. This was my moment to really exercise that part of me. Originally, it was going to be a piano ballad, and then I was like, ‘Why don’t we try playing some drums?’ Inflo’s a really good drummer, so I went in and played bass with him, and it sounded really good. I was thinking of that ’70s Gil Scott-Heron East Coast soul. Then we worked with this amazing string arranger, Rosie Danvers, who did almost all the strings on the last album. I said to her, ‘It’s my favorite song, just do something super beautiful.’ She just killed it.”
Another Human Being “We were doing all the interludes and Danger Mouse had found loads of samples. This was a news report [about the ’60s US civil rights sit-in protests]. I remember thinking, ‘This sounds amazing, it goes into “Living in Denial” perfectly—it just changes that song.’ And, yeah, again, I’m ’70s-obsessed, but the ’60s and ’70s were so pivotal for young American black men and women, and it just gave a gravitas to the record. It goes to identity and something that resonates with me and my name and who I am. It gives me loads of confidence to continue to be myself.”
Living in Denial “This is how me, Inflo, and Danger Mouse sound when we’re completely ourselves and properly linked together. No arguments, just let it happen, don’t think about it. I was trying to be a soul group—thinking of The Delfonics, The Isley Brothers, The Temptations, The Chambers Brothers. Again, the lyrics are that thing of seeking acceptance: You don’t need to seek it, just accept yourself and then whoever wants to hang with you will.”
Hero (Intro) “‘Hero’ was the last song we completed. Once it started to sound good, I was sitting there with my acoustic, playing. We’d done the ‘Piano Joint’ intro and I was like, ‘Oh, we should pitch down this number as well and make it something that we really wouldn’t do with a straight rock ’n’ roll song.’”
Hero “‘Hero’ was the hardest to come up with lyrics for. We had the music and melody for, like, two years. Any time I tried to touch it, I hated it—I couldn’t come up with anything. Then I was reading about Fred Hampton from the Black Panthers and I started thinking about all these people that get killed—or, like Hendrix, die an accidental death—who have so much to give or do so much in such a small time. I also love the thing where all these legends, Bowie and Bob Dylan, were creating larger-than-life personas that we were obsessed with. You didn’t really know who they were. That really made me sad, because I don’t disagree with it, but I know that’s not me. So, ‘Am I a hero?’ was also asking, ‘If I do that stuff, will I become this big artist that everyone respects?’—that ‘I’m not enough’ thing.”
Hard to Say Goodbye “This is my love of Isaac Hayes and big orchestrations, lush strings, people like David Axelrod. Flo actually brought in this sample from a Nat King Cole song, just one chord, and we pitched it around, and then we replayed it with a 20-piece string orchestra packed into the studio. We had a double-bass cello, the whole works, and this really good piano player Kadeem [Clarke] who plays with Little Simz, and our friend Nathan [Allen] playing drums. That was pretty fun.”
Final Days “At first, I didn’t know where this would fit on the record, like, ‘Man, this is cool, I just don’t loveit.’ I wrote some lyrics and thought, ‘This is better, but it’s missing something.’ It always felt like space to me, so I said to Kennie [Takahashi], the engineer, ‘Are there any samples you can find of people in space?’ We found these astronauts about to crash, which is kind of dark, but it gave it this emotion it was missing. It gave me goosebumps. Later, we found out that it was a fake, some guys messing around in Italy in the ’60s for an art project or something.”
Interlude (Loving the People) “‘Final Days’ was sounding amazing, but it needed to go somewhere else at the end. I had this melody on the Wurlitzer, and originally it was an instrumental bit that comes in for the end of ‘Final Days’ so that it ends somewhere completely different, like the spaceship’s landing at its destination. But I was like, ‘Let’s stretch it out. Let’s do more.’ Danger Mouse found this [US congressman and civil rights leader] John Lewis sample, and it sounded beautiful and moving over these chords, so we put it here.”
Solid Ground “When everything gets stripped away—all the strings, all the sounds, all the interludes—I’m still just a dude that sits and plays a song on a guitar or piano. I felt like the album needed a glimpse of that. Rosie did a beautiful arrangement and then I finished it off—everyone was out somewhere, so I just played all the instruments, apart from drums and things like that. So, ‘Solid Ground’ is my little piece that I had from another place. Lyrically, it’s about finding the place where you feel comfortable.”
Light “I just thought ‘Light’ was a nice dreamy piece to end the record with—a bit of light at the end of this massive journey. You end on this peaceful note, something positive. For me, light describes loads of things that are good—whether it’s obvious things like the light at the end of the tunnel or just a light feeling in my heart. The idea that the day’s coming—such a peaceful, exciting thing. We’re just always looking for it.”
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