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.
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AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman
feat: Slum Village