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Album review: Michael Kiwanuka is back bolder than ever with ‘Kiwanuka’

It's been thrilling to watch Michael Kiwanuka, a British singer-songwriter of Ugandan heritage, blossom since the somewhat circumscribed folk-soul of his retro-leaning 2012 debut, "Home Again." With "Love & Hate" (2016), coproduced by Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, the artist boldly stretched his sound and vision to create wide-screen epics, dusted with backing vocals, strings and acid-rock guitar solos.

On "Kiwanuka" (Interscope), Danger Mouse is back in the mix along with U.K. hip-hop producer Inflo, and with the singer they take the "Love & Hate" blueprint and turn it into something even more immersive. The music encompasses the sound of chirping birds, whirring machinery, laughing children, gun shots. At times it feels like the listeners are inside a church with a choir in the loft, an orchestra hall with a string section in full swoon, a bedroom illuminated only by the moon peering through a window. Songs melt into one another without losing their identities.

Kiwanuka's narrators drift through a world torn by violence and racism and find purpose. His voice remains plaintive, understated, deeply textured, but there's a resolve that wasn't as evident on his earlier work.

"Time heals the pain," Kiwanuka sings on the opening "You Ain't the Problem," a theme that threads through the arrangements like the singer's steeped-in-funk bass lines. Backing vocalists – often developing wordless hooks or bouncing off Kiwanuka in call-and-response patterns – suggest a loose church choir spilling out into the streets. The singer also showed an affinity for Pink Floydian acid-rock on his previous album, and his distorted, reverberating guitar lines give the hard groove of "Rolling" and the haunted "I've Been Dazed" a hazy glow.

Doubt threatens to consume the narrators in these winding songs, but they refuse to succumb. "Are you really giving up? Are you really gonna stop right now?" the backing voices ask in "Living in Denial." The next song – "Hero" (Intro) and its companion, "Hero" – provides an immediate answer. "I won't change my name no matter what they call me," Kiwanuka declares.

The closing songs prove just as powerful. "Final Days" combines skittering electronic rhythms with sparse piano chords, an otherworldly take on hip-hop. It lays the groundwork for a lament sung by a perpetual outsider much like Kiwanuka himself as a boy growing up in London. In "Solid Ground," he's alone "on the edge of the world." In these songs, the strings and backing vocals become his beacons. "Light" closes the album with a long, dreamy guitar solo set against those distant voices and shimmering strings. "We're miles apart," Kiwanuka sings, "but safe in dreams."

'KIWANUKA'

Michael Kiwanuka

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 4)

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