Once a notorious snooze-fest on stage, Dwele has finally found his legs as an entertainer and become more comfortable in his skin as an indie soul sex symbol (Who'd have thunk it?). The show I saw this spring at the Birchmere, just outside of Washington, DC, was one of the most entertaining I'd experienced this year. Dwele managed to keep the fellas on his side, while bringing legions of women to dance and sing with him for an onstage party. One lady even provided a comical encore while sitting at a piano as Dwele serenaded her with "Kick Out of You." He joked, danced and performed with a full band and two background singers who appear on the silky "If You Want To" from Sketches, one, J. Tait, a dead ringer for Sam Cooke in vocals and the other, Lloyd Dwayne, a showy doppelganger for Dwele with a wider range. The two hours of interplay between Dwele, the band, the supporting singers and his audience was nothing less than 60's chitlin' circuit magic. So, I came to this album with high hopes for Dwele as an evolved performer.
In some ways, Dwele is evolved. He's steadier in his sound than he was on his last album, Some Kinda. As a multi-instrumentalist and arranger, Dwele is still a jazz sophisticate but he displays a bit more liberation in his use of brass and percussive elements, if kept in a very narrow range. There are fleeting moments where he sing-flows for a few bars, as on "Travelin' Girl" before returning to his signature vocal stylings, but he appears less interested in representing his flow than in previous albums. Slum Village makes an appearance on "Brandi" and there is that rather obvious nod to the streets, "Body Rock," but overall the project has less hip hop influences than his auspicious commercial debut, Subject. Despite these minor changes, don't expect a fundamentally transformed Dwele on Sketches.
Dwele definitely has a formula at this stage, one liberally present on Sketches. The chic production here is always smooth and refined. Supporting vocals in doubles and harmonies are always used to set the mood, as Dwele's sing-talk phrasing keeps it all appropriately hip. The instrumentation is sublime, if subdued, as usual. Lyrically, it's a very hit and miss sketchbook of love musings, sometimes on the adolescent side. The Ray Charles catch phrase "make it do what it do" making an appearance not once but twice on the same album. Not exactly the insightful and revealing poetry of his previous classics, "Subject," "Old Lovas," "Weekend Love," "I Think I Love You" or even the ageless hook from "Tainted."
For fans looking for artistic maturity from Dwele, the songs that do hit the ear differently are those that find Dwele leaving his comfort zone, if only slightly. The cover of Bobby Caldwell's "Open Your Eyes" offers one of Dwele's best recorded vocal performances. The piano ballad, "I'm Sorry (Wake The Musical Baby)" is sweet and has the feel of the jazz work that filmmaker Spike Lee's father, Bill Lee, used to create for those early Spike Lee Jointz. The only radio ready single on this album, isn't the lyrically clever release, "I'm Cheatin'," it's the shoulder bumper "Feels So Good." The up-tempo "Body Rock" will make a good opener for a live show that now has a few more new gems worth hearing, especially in the hands of Dwele's insanely good band.
These spotlight tunes are the exception rather than the rule. Sketches, while pleasant, suffers from an abiding sameness Sketches has a consistent flow, with one song blending into another with little variation in keys or vocals. Consequently, little stands out, which is a major concern for an album of 21 tracks. Despite some maturing, a lot of Sketches is Rize, Subject and Some Kinda reworked and not the previously mentioned hits either (well "Love Ultra" is kind of "Old Lovas" with an Isley Bros. guitar garnish). It's ironic that at a time when newer artists like Jesse Boykins III and Peter Hadar are being so heavily influenced by Dwele's progressive soul stylings, he'd take to copying his earlier self too. The teacher has become his own student.
Stagnation is not necessarily a problem, from the early reviews Dwele's hardcore fans are pleased by Sketches. They already know exactly what they're getting when they buy Dwele: unobtrusive, urbane music to chill, smoke and make babies to. Interestingly enough, it's the same reasons their grandparents loved Miles, Coltrane, Hodges and Nelson generations before. Dwele is jazz for a generation who never got introduced to Roy Ayers, Bobby Humphrey, or Pharoah Sanders outside of a hip hop sample on a top 40 cut. Perhaps if they had, maybe they'd realize Dwele is increasingly becoming just another jazz fusionist producer/musician moonlighting from time to time as a soul singer. Mildly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson