Where the hell is D'Angelo?
Aside from being the R&B version of Waldo, some might argue that Voodoo set the current standard of what an attempt at a classic new soul album should sound like. You can listen to the whole thing over and over again without wanting to smack a producer upside the head for thinking anyone would ever buy such whiny gibberish. While it wasn't exactly an album chock full of baby-making music, it was close. Maybe not as close as D's Brown Sugar, but way closer to what Maxwell wrought with Urban Hang Suite than much of what has graced the radio or used CD bins at record stores (and possibly everything in between) in the last 10 years.
Music fans with a hankering for a genuine and sincere troubadour may never know the answer to the question posed above -- and with D'Angelo missing in action and Maxwell getting accustomed to his role as sexpot/sensitive crooner, there's no telling what's next for men in R&B. The sensitive thug thing has run amok. Sure, R. Kelly still sells records, but his credibility is urine-tinged. There's Ginuwine, who really wants to be in someone's jeans and has probably been successful in that endeavor since "Pony". Usher's still a baby-faced mack who smacks of pop corruption. And while Donnie certainly made a splash this year with "The Colored Section", he is more of a front man for the gospel musical fans, his penchant for fresh metaphor notwithstanding.
The reason all of the above are important for Dwele, the 23-year-old underground sensation from Detroit, is that where some of them have failed, Dwele succeeds.
Like the heavy-handed philosophy of The Matrix Reloaded states, everyone serves their purpose -- and after a deluge of the sensitive thug philosophy that may have given rise to the prevalence of pink doo rags, the nostalgic frolicking of Musiq Soulchild, Bilal's uneven but beautifully complex musings on the deeper side of relationships, and, to some extent, Raphael Saadiq's contextualization of the plight of a young black man on his much anticipated solo album last year, we've now evolved to the Neo of this New Soul Movement. SWV put it succinctly: "It's About Time".
Dwele -- (his whole name, Andwele, means "God has brought me" in Swahili) -- started his journey into music after his father was shot in front of his family's Detroit home when he was 10. He was originally a rapper and serendipitously began experimenting with singing. He's worked with fellow Detroit natives, Slum Village, and was recruited to lend his sweet singing voice to Bahamadia's last album, BBQueen. Gentle, pleading, and soft, but still sensually masculine, his voice is as crisp as a fall breeze on his initial work.
But could Dwele stand alone?
His approach is refreshing on Subject because he's, for the most part, subtle. Not only can Dwele blend poetry, seduction, and hip-hop flawlessly, but it seems his days as an MC have taught him to make the most of the nuances of an uptempo beat. There is little left to be desired on this 15-track album. It becomes clear halfway through the album that his mid-range voice has its limits, but he doesn't try to push those limits, which steadfast music lovers will undoubtedly appreciate.
Tender and beautiful moments are ever-present on this debut, starting with "Truth", a funky, if confusing, foray into the complexities of relationships ("Now we've got hard times / Now there's no love at home / When separate we feel so alone / But we can't stand to be together"), to "Without You", which is undoubtedly a song that would do well on the charts during the summer. While there are some blatant missteps, no lasting mars overshadow Dwele's apt blend of form and inspiring soul.
At his best, he wields his delicate alto with expertise on the lovely standout ballad, "Kick out of You", which leans toward an intricate blend of jazzy soul in a sweet, understated way. The interludes speak directly to his Detroit heritage (in "Whoomp", he honks and yells out a spirited, "What up, doh?") and his legacy with "Poppa yo". "Day at a Time" is an ode to patience that includes a lovely flute and a beat that evokes the spirit of Lauryn Hill's "Sweetest Thing".
Everything in between is nuanced and layered with lovely harmonies and endearing lines. If there is room for criticism of this debut it's that sometimes Dwele relies on trite lyrics. Simplicity is great, and there's not enough of it. But on "Possible" ("Patience / I was born with plenty / So if and when you're ready / Have some faith, girl / And we can step out on faith") there is more of this than necessary. Simple choruses are Dwele's forte, which isn't bad, but it can get repetitive.
While we're on the subject of bad moves, "Money Don't Mean a Thing" is the worst song on this album by far. It seems to be an obvious reach for some semblance of a "club hit" and manipulates Dwele's beautiful voice in a way that makes him sound very similar to (gasp) Horace Brown. Not only do the lyrics rate somewhere below mediocre, but the music lazily plods along, unlike most of the disc's other, pretty tracks.
That said, "A.N.G.E.L" is one of the shining stars here, although it only lasts for a couple minutes, and the title song, "Subject", is both a delicate and layered trance-inducing groove track.
If there is anything transcendent about Dwele, like D'Angelo or any of his new soul predecessors, it's that he is genuinely talented and, above all, refreshing. Subject, like Brown Sugar, is the type of album that can and probably will be played on repeat without wearing on any music listener's nerves -- if anything, it's inspiring during each rotation. If the prince of neo-soul should stay missing, Dwele would make an endearing replacement. Comparisons and contrasts aside, Dwele, on his own, is the Neo of the R&B game right now, and if he keeps doing what he's doing, he could save us all from the Matrix that R&B is bent on becoming.