On his debut, 2012’s Home Again, singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka seemed to arrive fully formed. Possessing a sense of timelessness rarely heard on contemporary recordings, Kiwanuka tapped into the golden age of introspective, soulful singer-songwriter material. A touch of Bill Withers, a hint of Van Morrison and other bits and pieces all seemed to serve as the base upon which he sought to stake his own claim. So pleasantly unpretentious was that album that it seemed to arrive with sort of quiet confidence rarely seen from a new artist, let alone one ascribing to a decidedly throwback aesthetic. Coming against the onslaught of retro-soul, with its revisionist take on history, Home Again felt like a breath of fresh air; a welcome respite from those relying more on affectation than artistry.

And yet it seemed Home Again existed in something of a vacuum, impervious to the world around it, destined to become a cult record known to only a few. Its gentle brilliance adhered to the decidedly anachronistic approach of crafting an album rather than a loose collection of singles and filler. This was music meant to be consumed as a whole rather than delivered piecemeal. It’s a bold approach that few artists today are willing to take, yet those who do all seem to possess much of the same quality, imbuing their work with the same timelessness that exists within the best of Dylan, the Beatles, Bowie, and a handful of others.

Four years later, Kiwanuka has returned with his proper follow up. Where Home Again often echoed its title sentiments and played with a certain familiarity that felt lived in, Love & Hate is the result of self-inflicted complacency within comfortable surroundings. This is not to say the album itself is a lazy retread. In fact, it’s far from it. Where Home Again felt inviting and insular, Love & Hate, like its titular themes, is a complex assortment of moods, tones and emotions, all delivered with a disarming confidence given the nature of the music itself. From the start, Love & Hate forces the listener to commit to the experience. Opening track “Cold Little Heart” rolls on for a full five minutes before Kiwanuka’s sandpaper and honey voice enters. At 10 minutes, it’s a bold opening statement that asks much of the listener and helps set the tone for the ensuing nine tracks.

Kiwanuka here still relies on a sense of timelessness rooted in the works of Withers, early-‘70s Marvin Gaye and Terry Callier to explore a broader range of emotionally fraught thematic material. The timeliness of a song like “Black Man in a White World” feels decidedly relevant today, given the state of racial relations in the wake of police shootings and heightened media attention. Yet it could have just as easily found a place on Gaye’s What’s Going On, its socially conscious message sadly as relevant then as now. And while Kiwanuka has yet to reach the same levels of lyrical profundity, his approach is very much in keeping with that of Gaye’s: resigned sentiments wrapped in soulful vocals and a powerful hook. With its gospel syncopation, handclaps and sparse funk guitar, “Black Man in a White World” plays like an upbeat, yet still melancholic, modern spiritual.

“Place I Belong” makes the connection more overt, serving as the most What’s Going On-esque track on the album with Kiwanuka employing Gaye’s wordlessly soulful vocalizations. It still fails to reach the same heights – an unfair, almost unattainable bar to begin with – yet its admirable aspirations help to place it roughly in the same league. And, as with many of the great politically-charged folk/soul recordings of the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, Love & Hate relies more on tone and feel than pop accessibility to convey its message – not to mention a particularly fiery guitar solo from Kiwanuka on the title track. This is not a sugar-coated panacea for the masses. Rather, it’s a stark reflection of the times in which we are currently living. Kiwanuka expects and deserves much from his audience, challenging them all the way through with a more mature, introspective and, at times, bleakly cinematic sound. Love & Hate is an impressive, if enigmatic, step.

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