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Is That A Thing?: Michael Kiwanuka

Is That A Thing?: Michael Kiwanuka
Have you seen this man?

Home Again Was One Of The Best Debut Albums Of 2012. Why Isn't Its Creator Totally Over-Hyped Yet?

By Beverly Bryan
December 28, 2012

Michael Kiwanuka is a young acoustic soul musician with the ability to write songs that are a little bit pop, a lot soul, and even a smidge country. He takes the classic accents of artists like Bill Withers and Otis Redding, to whom he is most often compared, and, with a little Joni Mitchell and John Denver thrown in, gives them a modern sensibility. He likes cardigans.

The British singer-songwriter with roots in Uganda has a light, easy way with the traditional tropes of genres from jazz to R&B. It ensures his stuff never feels revivalist, at least not in that costumey, superficial way. His music is too personal and immediate for that. The searching, hungry lyrics are suggestive and elliptical but they feel specific when you listen to them and they’re delivered with elegant simplicity and irony-free self-awareness. It’s kind of nuts.

The songs on his 2012 debut album Home Again are artful but unaffected, and therefore very affecting. And, in a moment that’s all about a boy or girl and his or her Ableton, he’s makinga surprisingly compelling case for a boy and his guitar. There’s a definite Tao to his deal, but no on-trend gimmicks, obscure influences, or haute subgenre appellations.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

The 24-year-old North Londoner just writes good songs. And isn’t that what everyone keeps saying they want? Isn’t that what they like to complain is missing from music? So, why aren’t we sick of hearing about him already? Shouldn’t we be inundated with him by now?

His debut came out in March and we’re living in times when artists become celebrities and land record deals on the strength of  a viral video or an especially compelling Twitter presence. What’s going on?

It’s not that he hasn’t gotten recognition. He won the BBC’s predictive Sound of 2012 poll, got shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, went on Jools Holland and everything else. And he is touring the world. This would seem to be his year. But why isn’t he on more end of the year lists, or magazine covers? (And by more, I mean all of them. End of the year lists are round-ups of the usual suspects. If you make more than five, you are probably on 90 percent of them.) He’s got the love. Where is the hype?

Perhaps, there’s less overt noise than there should be because, while the arrival of a serious new musical talent is news, it doesn’t read like news. Look.

Headline: London Youth’s LP Will Give You Lonely, Aching Feeling

Subtitle: He Seems Like A Pretty Solid Guy

See? It doesn’t work.

His music just isn’t the kind of thing to cause a sensation, unless it’s a very quiet one. But maybe that’s exactly what’s happening. He may be quietly, unassumingly the man of the hour. He’s unobtrusively made his way into conversations and playlists and settled into the back of people’s minds, like an old song you’re sure you’ve heard somewhere before. Is this what a sleeper hit in the offing looks like?

Considering all he’s accomplished, his career looks like it’s developing at a rate that’s more in step with his slightly vintage sound and matching wardrobe than the present day. Maybe that’s how he likes it. Maybe he wants to creep up on fame the way his songs creep up on you and stick in the back of your mind. Is he starting some kind of slow music movement? If so, it’s a good look for him.

It’s easy enough to avoid becoming the hipster fetish object of the year, if that’s what you’re going for. And Kiwanuka could make the YouTube tutorial on it. First, his music isn’t exactly provocative, and it doesn’t subscribe to current mainstream pop sensibilities, not in terms of songwriting. He often takes a melodic tack somewhere between “What’s Going On” and The Four Tops’ version of “Walk Away Renée” and That’s two strikes against him right there.

On the promotion side, he makes music videos that are either unbloggably spare (“Home Again”) or muted slice-of-life vignettes like those for “I’m Getting Ready” and “Always Waiting.”  Worse, his Twitter is all updates about shows and other relevant pieces of information. Very 2008. It’s entirely possible that he’s picking out his own clothes as well. This just isn’t how things are done.

Image has long been the adversary of substance in pop culture. Still, Kiwanuka’s case is an indication that we’re really not getting an accurate read. Great music is getting lost in the shuffle, like vital documents buried under colorful junk mail. He could be secretly huge right now. But, since even indie bands come packaged in the media equivalent of audio compression these days, how would we know?

Perhaps, 2013 is slated by the Fates to be his year and the appropriate hysteria is just waiting in the wings. Maybe he’ll reach across the pond to do a collaboration with Bruno Mars whenever he’s ready to set things off. Until then, he’ll be like the guy in that old song you’ve heard somewhere. The one you think you can live without, until he leaves and you find out you were wrong. This is just an awkward metaphor, of course. We have every reason to believe he’s going to stay awhile.

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