Frank Ocean and Michael Kiwanuka Craft Two Different "Traditional" Soul Records
Michael Kiwanuka and Frank Ocean
His major label debut, channel ORANGE, was only released digitally a week ago and physically yesterday, but I'm going to wager a guess: You're sick of hearing about Frank Ocean.
The singer/songwriter has been the subject of hundreds of insightful think-pieces, a talking point in the (necessary) discussion about hip-hop and R&B's institutionalized homophobia, and Frank Ocean even crowned by the insightful Dan Weiss at SF Weekly's All Shook Down as "the only band that matters." Weiss writes: "[Ocean] the first purveyor of R&B album-making since Prince (if he even counts) to have an audience of all stripes ready to treat him like a legend."
But he isn't the only 24-year-old who released a stunning, powerfully affecting soul record yesterday. Enter North Londoner Michael Kiwanuka and his stellar record, Home Again.
Chances are you haven't been overloaded with press about Kiwanuka's record, but it's no less deserving of praise. Like Ocean, Kiwanuka's got a gorgeous, aching voice, but he cradles his with the soft-focused production of Paul Butler (of the criminally under-appreciated Band of Bees) and Dan Auerbach (of some band called The Black Keys).
"Tell Me a Tale" floats a lilting flute line and swelling, sublime arrangement. "Rest" features a taut and restrained bass and drum groove, minimal guitar slides and a melancholy vocal. "Any Day Will Do Fine" has got a bluesy, sly grind shuffling under Kiwanuka's crooning. "Worry Walks Beside Me" sounds like the kind of jazzy music you'd hear in the coffee shops of imagined, hepcat dreams (and as a criticism, let's go ahead and acknowledge that Home Again is being peddled in Starbucks). The warm analog production makes the record sound like it could've been recorded live at the Bitter End in 1972, at a time when the lines between songwriter and performer were blurred and hazy.
Ocean's record is a different beast in some respects, with a modern feel that has earned its most overt songs some radio play on urban radio. But like Home Again, it's a singer/songwriter record at heart, and its considerable charms are the stuff traditional soul music.
The cracked and raw "Thinking Bout You" is pure confession, with Ocean singing in a wounded falsetto, "I've been thinking 'bout forever" as a simple beat and languid synths drive the point home. "Super Rich Kids," featuring Earl Sweatshirt, tells a tale of entitled upper-class youth cutting loose over a piano groove and jazz-fusion horns (Steely Dan, anyone?).
There's glossy R&B ("Pyramids"), New Wave-tinged pop ("Lost"), a smooth jazz collaboration with John Mayer ("White"), and a 40-second bit of Todd Rundgren-via-Al Green lo-fi pop (the cover of James Fauntleroy's "Fertilizer"), and slap-bass funk ("Monks"). You might be sick of hearing out it, but it's hard to get around how good the album feels to talk about. How long has it been since a pop record felt this universal?
Kiwanuka and Ocean have both arrived with sounds that draw inevitable and lofty comparisons. Kiwanuka's reference points include names like Bill Withers, Terry Callier, Van Morrison, and Otis Redding, while Ocean draws parallels to Prince, D'Angelo, Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman, and Shuggie Otis. Both seem perfectly confident to step into the same sections of the record store as those artists. All the pre-debut EPs and mixtapes built up to these remarkable debuts, as did the intensive work they did before putting out records with their own names on the cover (Kiwanuka worked as a session guitarist for British rappers Bashy and Chipmunk; Ocean's a member of the Odd Future collective and has penned songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend, Brandy, Beyonce, Kanye West, and Jay-Z.)
Most importantly, both records feature the kind of songs that transcend blog buzz and hype. Ocean's incredible "Bad Religion," a swooning, sweeping ballad and Kiwanuka's "I'm Getting Ready," a hushed prayer of a song, are the kind of timeless songs that don't posture, don't sweat the details. They work because of their truths, and they sound classic not just because they're built like classic songs (and both are, with shades of ancient spirituals and The Beatles) but because they feel emotionally classic, scratching that indefinable itch we can't quite reach on our own.
"If it brings me to my knees, it's a bad religion," Ocean sings, and Kiwanuka answers with "Oh lord, I'm getting ready to believe."
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