City Paper is not for tourists
Dwele sure knows how to play up that boho-sexy neo-soul thing. “All I ever needed was a subject,” he sings repeatedly on the title track of his new Subject, sounding very much like an idealistic poet battling writer’s block. “Like a song from one to another/I feel so right inside when an idea comes to me about you.” Later, at the beginning of “Without You,” we even get a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse of the artiste at work, pondering verses for his next cut. Amid the sounds of shuffling paper and scribbling pencil, Dwele thinks out loud”Hmmm…palm trees…green…”before the song kicks in: “Palm trees/Green leaves/Colors in the fall/Happiness of spring.”
As if all that poeticism weren’t enough, the Detroit-based crooner’s also got a breathy, mellifluous voice and a cool, Afrocentric given name: Andwele (Swahili for “God has brought me”) Gardner. And when it comes to accompanying his flowery verse and come-hither vox, Dwele does it up blue-lights-in-the-basement style with flickering Fender Rhodes, buttery bass lines, and subtle hiphop beats. If Subject came with chocolate-scented incense and lavender body oil, you would have the perfect sex-o-matic kit to turn any low-budget night into an enchanted neo-soul evening.
It’s really too bad that Subject didn’t come out about eight years ago, when D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu were pioneering its sound. The neo-soul scene has grown considerably since D’Angelo hit the streets with a love song to marijuana, and Badu both seduced and confused the hell out of the R&B world with her numerology-laced jam “On and On.” It’s no longer enough to be young, gifted, and black with a predilection for ’70s R&B and blowout-comb hiphop; you have to distinguish yourself from the pack, either by exploring neglected themes, as Donnie did on The Colored Section, or by tweaking the sonic paradigm, as Vikter Duplaix did on International Affairs. As solid and charming as Subject is, it rarely does either.
But Dwele’s extremely late arrival isn’t entirely his fault; he’s been signed to Virgin since 2001. And despite the sticker affixed to Subject, this isn’t his debut; it’s his major-label debut. 1998’s self-released debut Rize was an underground favorite, and he first began to gain widespread notice last year, with his guest appearance on Slum Village’s breakthrough single, “Tainted.” By the time Virgin got around to releasing Subject, Dwele reportedly had recorded enough material for three albums.
Except for the club-banger “Sho Ya Right,” the reflective “Twunøeanunda,” and the global shout-out “Poppa Yo (Intro),” Subject is basically a song cycle, wherein Dwele finds his muse, jilts his muse, and spends the rest of the time justifying himself. In fact, the kiss-off song, “Truth,” comes early onit’s the second track. “I lied,” he confesses. “I said you were the truth/You took it as the truth/And now I got you/But I don’t want you like that/There only lives one love/And of that you can’t compare to.” After further explaining why the couple must break upincluding arguing against bringing a child into a doomed relationshiphe ends the song with, “But now that/We broke up I’m thinkin’ this might have been love/It could’ve been love/It’s just my luck.”
When Dwele isn’t kicking his beloved to the curb, he’s mostly singing of sweet seduction or lost love. On “Find a Way,” he delivers puppy-love sentiments such as “It used to be that we would be the best of all friends/It turned to be l-o-v-e and I was your man/So you were my lady friend.” On “A.N.G.E.L.,” he plays unrequited lover with the best of them: “She’ll never know that she’s the reason that I wrote this rhyme/And I bet she’ll never care.” And on “Hold On,” he outpurples even himself: “Please don’t resist/Let those harmonies to me escape your lips.”
If Dwele doesn’t really hit the love thing with any new ideas, he does dress up his material with well-crafted, down-tempo arrangements that have all the lushness of vintage Quiet Storm soul. The songs’ instrumentation and execution consistently sound more grown-up than the lyrics. That’s especially true of “Twunøeanunda,” in which Dwele sings about needing a fake ID to get into a club against a backdrop of dance-floor bass and cocktail-lounge electric piano.
At least Dwele doesn’t try to play grown-up by fronting thug erotica or delving into pimp lore. Still, he’s prone to the occasional playa move, as evidenced by “Money Don’t Mean a Thing,” in which he tries to lure a woman with the lines “I got a house on the hill with 17 acres around me…/And I can call two or three girls at the same time to make love to me” even as he concedes, “But I still feel lonely.” Even more telling is “Lady at Mahogany,” in which our ever-poetic narrator has a serious conversation with his girlfriend about the future of their relationshipand then goes out clubbing with his boys to meet new “subjects.”
With Subject, Dwele shows that he’s got the charisma and musical ability to play the neo-soul game, even if he has yet to come into his own. He’s definitely worth keeping an eye on as he grows and progresses, but for now Dwele needs more than just new subjects; he needs better songs. CP