There’s a certain stigma that seems to make itself more strongly felt to artists working in the R&B field than in other musical genres: the shadows of legends like Al Green, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye loom large over any contemporary artist’s work, usually to the point of ridiculously unfair expectations and comparisons. Perhaps it’s the market-driven nature of pop music—R&B hasn’t seen a move to independent means of production nearly as strong, or at least as wholly embraced, as in rock, jazz, or hip-hop—or laziness on behalf of the critical establishment, but discussion of any male R&B artist’s work has invariably referenced that holy trinity for the better part of 15 years. It’s a sad reality, and one that hasn’t spared even the handful of singers who have proven themselves as entities working far beyond the sphere of any one linear influence.
Detroit native Dwele (neé Andwele Gardner) isn’t ready to attain that elite, influence-free status just yet, but with his second full-length release Some Kinda…, he makes a powerful stride in that direction. Improving upon the solid, yet unfocused collection of songs on his largely self-produced debut Subject, Dwele delivers another set of smooth and soulful tracks unified by instrumental interludes and a loose conceptual theme that falls somewhere to the right of D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Andre 3000’s The Love Below. Yes, those contemporary cornerstones (whose merits are, of course, as debatable as those of any other perceived classic) are far more accurate gauges with which to measure the impact of what Dwele has created; and even if he’s more conservative in referencing the masterful flow of the former and the narrative thread of the latter, it doesn’t diminish the relevance of the finished product.
As with his debut, Dwele’s musical skills are at the forefront of Some Kinda…; he produced all but three of the record’s 15 tracks, handling nearly all vocal and instrumental duties in the process. But where such a self-directed approach would lead some artists—no matter how accomplished they may be—into a bout of creative claustrophobia, Dwele succeeds at keeping a tight presentation from beginning to end. Furthermore, the three tracks that do feature outside production work—Mike City’s “I Think I Love U”, G-1’s “Know Your Name”, and Jay Dilla’s “Keep On”, which also features guest vocals from Dilla’s former group Slum Village—blend in seamlessly with Dwele’s mellow vibe and basic concept.
To summarize, Some Kinda… tells the story of a man who steps out on his significant other—with her friend, no less—only to realize in the process that she is the love of his life; man and love reconnect, amends are made, and the couple grows old together without losing the blissful soul connection that brought them back together in the first place. It’s certainly an optimistic story, but that doesn’t make it any less commendable, especially in the context of so much “I can’t help myself” playa-ism that gets glorified in contemporary R&B. But what’s more admirable is Dwele’s narrative skill in spinning the story: the first third of the album teases the listener into thinking that it’s just another set of songs about a man who can’t commit, then flips to the humbly righteous perspective that concludes the tale. Overall, the record’s theme is a lot like real life—simultaneously complicated and universal. And while it’s best left to the man himself to define his intentions, it’s difficult not to see some sort of challenge to the status quo of contemporary R&B in the positive message Dwele has constructed.
Regardless of intent, Some Kinda… is an incredibly strong record that stands up in its entirety or as a collection of individual songs. Sure, Dwele still has a few things to work out—like “Wake the Baby”, which not only does sound uncannily like Marvin Gaye, but also enlists the dubious guest services of Boney James (note to Dwele: next time, stick with the Detroit pride and give James Carter a call). But considering that he’ll craft at least one more record before D’Angelo gets around to finishing that Voodoo follow-up, Dwele is the man to watch for R&B that pushes the creative boundaries of what is pop-culturally acceptable—and don’t be surprised if his next record is an unconditional masterpiece.
// Notes from the Road
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