Michael Kiwanuka, “Kiwanuka” (Polydor)
With his third album, Ugandan-British songwriter Kiwanuka has once again woven together a seamless song cycle that takes its sweet time in expressing hopes, fears and doubts. Produced by frequent collaborators Danger Mouse and Inflo, “Kiwanuka” bathes the voice of the singer — depicted as a Tudor king in Markeidric Walker’s album cover painting — in strings and lush atmospherics.
When the slowly unwinding “Cold, Cold Heart” from 2016’s “Love & Hate” was used as intro music to the hit HBO series “Big Little Lies,” it brought the folk-soul singer a larger audience. Patient Kiwanuka tunes like “Hard to Say Goodbye” and “Light” employ a similar strategy, allowing the listener to luxuriate in the wonders of the singer’s grainy voice, redolent of other genre-fluid soul men like Bill Withers and Terence Trent D’Arby.
But the music retains an anxious edge, as Kiwanuka navigates uncertainty and struggles with self-confidence on songs like “Living in Denial.” “Hero” draws inspiration from the life of Black Panther Fred Hampton, slain 50 years ago this December; it’s in part about police shootings, then and now, as well as the simple heroism of staying alive and present for those you love.
Kiwanuka makes unhurried music that exists outside current trends. That’s what makes it so valuable in the here and now.
Dan Deluca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Blanco Brown, “Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs” (BMG)
At 31, songwriter/producer Brown capitalized on Lil Nas X’s record-breaking, country-rap fusion “Old Town Road” with the irresistible “The Git Up,” a line-dancing anthem fitted with stuttering 808s. It reached the top 20 of the Hot 100 and portended this debut album, which adds nine other more-country-than-rap tunes.
Unlike Lil Nas X, Brown leans into his novelty smash with layers of his nasal register harmonized into Auto-Tune caramel and plenty of lonesome guitar. The opening “Temporary Insanity” puts Brown’s best foot forward with a twangy, campfire soul burner, and the gospel-inflected “Don’t Love Her” smoothly creates the illusion that all these disparate genres were bedfellows in the first place.
But “Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs” leans into its uncoolness a little too comfortably; the best pop takes some risks. So when “The Git Up” finally shows up as an encore, it’s a reminder that country-rap is just getting started and Brown is still figuring it out like everyone else.
DAN WEISS, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Lady Antebellum, “Ocean”
• Celine Dion, “Courage”
• Lil Peep, “Everybody’s Everything”
• DJ Shadow, “Our Pathetic Age”
• Juliana Hatfield, “Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police”