Dwele - Topic

Subject Play

Dwele, first heard on the cool, relaxed chorus of Slum Village's "Tainted," isn't a leather-lunged shouter or, the likely guess, a silky-smooth crooner. Blessed with a fine, sensitive voice, he's a Marvin Gaye disciple, and like his influence, he has his own ideas about production and performance. That stubbornness makes him a difficult artist to pigeon-hole but an easy one to enjoy, especially for listeners tired of hearing constant repetition in R&B. Mostly self-produced and recorded at his home in Detroit, Subject favors the gauzy beats-and-bliss production style of Slum Village auteur Jay Dee. Though it's a familiar format, it's one that works well as a bed for his vocal style, which uses odd cadences, extended phrasing, multiple layers of vocals, and often his own whispered responses to his main lines. Halfway between R. Kelly and Madlib, Dwele writes toward R&B stereotypes but really makes the songs his own. On the title track, unsurprisingly a self-production, he accomplishes a rare feat, pulling off an inspirational song that truly sounds inspired. Dwele doesn't sound quite as interesting when he's not producing himself; a pair of outside productions, the single "Find a Way" and "Money Don't Mean a Thing," are intelligent, sensitive jams, but they make it clear that Dwele's talents don't tend to the anthemic. Like Gaye before him, he sounds more content and more inspired when the reins are in his hands. ~ John Bush, Rovi

Some Kinda... Play

Subject went over well with R&B lovers who prefer the legacies of fully clothed '70s soul singers over, say, bare-chested Usherites. It didn't do nearly as well commercially as it deserved, peaking somewhere in the hundreds of the Billboard 200 chart and spawning only a pair of singles that didn't even skip far up the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. That hasn't affected Dwele in the least, thankfully, as Some Kinda... contains no stabs at crossing over, not a single shot at appealing to a younger audience that relates more to raging hormones and rampant hedonism. (This is an album with a guest appearance from Boney James, a white saxophone player with a fan base heavy on 40-something black women, rather than a Juelz Santana or even a Kanye West.) Some Kinda... is a little less commercial, more relaxed, and more spacious than the debut, though not short on attractive and addictive songs. Like Tweet's It's Me Again, released earlier in the year, the album has lengthy patches of slow and mid-tempo material, but they rarely risk slipping into the background. At nearly an hour in length, the album would be tighter and more immediate with some trimming, but Dwele's chops as a songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer are always in effect. He also smartly stitches the songs together with a series of thematic interludes/skits that don't annoy, just so the album doesn't come off like a bunch of songs haphazardly splashed onto a disc. Crews like Sa-Ra and Platinum Pied Pipers might be taking R&B into often-thrilling levels of doped-out abstraction, and fellow do-it-all studio rat Raphael Saadiq might be waving the flag for "tasteful soul" (despite also operating on the fringes), but Dwele is the ideal middle ground between the two camps, matching swirling, buttery productions with often-masterful songwriting. Even Mike City's work on "I Think I Love You," the song closest to resembling a conscious bid for chart action, fails to one-up the all-Dwele songs. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Sketches of a Man Play

The downward gaze beneath the Old English D is not the only nod to the late Jay Dee on Sketches of a Man, the third album from the low-profile supplier of hooks for Kanye West's "Flashing Lights" and Common's "The People." Just as its cover bears a likeness to Dilla's Donuts, the 78-second "Workin' on It" re-creates the beat from that album's "Workinonit" and throws in traces of several other Dilla productions, including "Nothing Like This," "Two Can Win," and "Stop." A cover of Bobby Caldwell's "Open Your Eyes," a song sampled on Common's Dilla-produced "The Light," is another evident tribute. (A few years earlier, an incognito Dwele fronted a Platinum Pied Pipers update of the same song.) Make no mistake, though -- this is a Dwele album, however justified he would have been in making a thoroughly Dilla-themed affair. Sketches of a Man is both a step back and a step forward for the singer slash songwriter slash producer slash instrumentalist. Its high percentage of one- and two-minute slivers, which hold some of the album's best ideas, are a throwback to the widely circulated Rize demo. The significantly decreased reliance on his signature Rhodes play, as well as the new dimensions added to his beat-making approach, however, are bold steps. Nothing from 2005's Some Kinda... would have sounded out of place on 2003's Subject, but a few tracks here would have been curve balls on either release. The stuttering boogie of "Feels So Good" and the slow-motion percussion whirlpool of "If You Want To" -- where strings-driven theatrics are enhanced by layers of percussion gently batted and swirled back and forth -- double as changeups and standouts. Set closer "Body Rock" is another pleasing surprise, where Dwele flips classic Mint Condition. Even considering its differences from what preceded it, Sketches of a Man is Dwele through and through, hardly a "beware" proposition for those who came to love his past releases. Few active singers can sharply convey bitterness, bliss, and all the emotions in between with such minor yet moving vocal modifications. And his words are as perceptive and inimitable as ever here, regardless of which relationship stage is being covered, or whether the focus is on one night or a lifetime. Most cleverly of all, some role playing allows "I'm Cheatin'" to detail a fling within a monogamous relationship. It all adds up to the third consecutive low-key gem from one of modern R&B's most unjustifiably undervalued talents. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Greater Than One Play

Each Dwele album should have greater, Maxwell-level anticipation. The singer should headline over the majority of contemporary R&B stars instead of open for Maze. (That's not a knock on Maze.) It's not like Dwele isn't in a comfortable spot, though. His releases routinely debut in the Top Ten of the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and he's allowed to continue recording with no detectable creative restrictions, as heard on Greater Than One. Once he got deep into the making of this, his fifth album, he noticed a pervasive "'80s" feel. In this case, '80s often means the sophisticated type of R&B-jazz hybrids -- the mellow grooves -- actively played on Detroit stations like WJZZ during the earlier part of that decade. While that has always been part of Dwele's sound, it's a little more pronounced here; there are instances where he could easily slip into some Pieces of a Dream or, given the continued presence of his brother Antwan on trumpet, anything featuring Seawind's Jerry Hey. On "This Love," produced by Prince "BlkMagic" Damons, the sound shifts from 1980/1981 to 1982/1983-style midtempo boogie with chunky synthesizer bass, and a little high-pitched wriggle. There's some electro-funk bounce to "Patrick Ronald" (long for a certain brand of tequila, featuring Monica Blaire, one of album's several Detroit guest stars) and "Special," too. If anything, the album is looser, more relaxed and mischievous, than any Dwele album that preceded it, which is saying something. The majority of the songwriting, as usual, concerns adventures in mature bachelorhood and courtship. Dwele continues to appeal to both female and male listeners -- no pandering, no forced masculinity to be heard. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

W.ants W.orld W.omen Play

Dwele organizes the songs of his fourth album into thematic thirds. The conceptual presentation isn’t merely cosmetic. If it was pre-planned as a means to foster a set that is distinct, not just lyrically but also sonically, in relation to Subject, Some Kinda…, and Sketches of a Man, it worked. The opening third is mostly lighthearted and gets a little steamy in places. In “I Wish,” over a surprisingly frictious beat, Dwele directly addresses his predicament as a low-key cult artist: “I wish I had a dollar for every dollar you think I have”; “I wish I made music that appeals to the masses/Instead of writing lyrics that require poetic classes.” During the lengthy interlude between “Dodgin’ Your Phone” and “Dim the Lights,” Dwele goes back to his roots by slipping into MC mode. While it’s doubtful he will pull a reverse Phonte and join a rap group, he’s convincing with his swift, droning flow and leaves the vocal hook to Raheem DeVaughn, whose socially oriented Love & War MasterPeace could have been a contemporary inspiration for the album’s outward second segment. Dwele delves into economic desperation and survival in the physical sense, but tempers his cold realism with an uplifting tribute to his hometown. The first two-thirds are strong, but the closing third gets back to what Dwele does best of all. The last 20 minutes contain a handful of his sweetest love songs, and they possess that all-too-scarce combination of cool confidence and genuine empathy -- not to mention the kinds of relaxed grooves that reveal nuances with each listen. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi
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