Critic’s Corner: Dawen – American Me

I fist heard of Dawen when I saw the MV for his single ‘Wake Up’. I was intruiged to say the least, especially considering not only do you rarely hear that brand and style of R&B from Asian American artists in general, but you also rarely hear it from now a days from any artist period. So when his debut LP American Me dropped back in September I was excited to hear it and picked it up right away. Over the past several months I’ve had the time to digest it fully and take in everything Dawen had to share. So how did the budding singer/song writer fair with his debut?

Let’s find out!

Welcome – The album kicks off with this vintage sounding number that doesn’t waste time in introducing the social commentary that will be heard throughout the rest of American Me. The arrangement switches up in the middle and quite frankly I like the second half more than the first. Dawen transitions into this bouncy raggae-influenced track. Sound strange? It kinda is but at the same time it still works.

Wake Up – This song speaks to the experience of nearly every Asian American and the stereotypes and generalizations faced all the time. The vintage synth complements the song well though the song feels surprisingly relaxed considering the commentary for people to “wake up”. Either way I’m really digging the throwback R&B sound combined with the message.

Ku Li – From a lyrical stand point, the content of this song is quite refreshing. Dawen sings of the experiences by Chinese immigrants who came to work on the US rail roads many years ago. He explores a lot of the emotional and social dilemmas faced by these early Asian-Americans. It’s not a catchy song nor does it really aim to be but it deserves to be heard.

Fresh Off the Boat – At under 2 minutes this song is more of an interlude than anything else. Judging from the title you can already tell what this song is about. It’s a very experimental sound that I think will go straight over the heads of most listeners… myself included. There’s some great moments of instrumentation here and there but let’s just say I won’t have this on repeat.

Hyphenate – Utilizing a spoken chorus, this song quickly becomes a bit redundant and tiring. It’s too bad because I really liked the background instrumental choices but I think this song misses the mark too. At this point, the social commentary is actually starting to get a bit stale and heavy handed.

The Americans – The song sounds more like a parody than anything else. It’s borderline goofy and witty that questions the reality of the “melting pot” this country claims to be. Using a classic 60’s type of beat and style it’s actually kind of a clever satirical piece but once again, this is probably not a song you’d listen to over and over.

Never Again – Here Dawen touches upon various social injustices and the tendency for many of us to overlook these issues because we aren’t directly affected. He encourages us to learn from the mistakes of the past. This song speaks on an important message and is deliberate about the implications of responsibility. I respect the message but it’s a tad strange to hear on this beat because it’s so beautifully orchestrated with a classic R&B vibe… not typically the platform one hears about such topics.

Put Your Swords Down – Once again, a great, smooth, jazzy R&B background is paired with the sobering topic of addressing the prejudices that is in all of us. I honestly haven’t heard this type of music since some of Marvin Gaye’s work. I really enjoyed this one, despite the contrast in sound and topic. It still felt like a more natural fit than some of the other tracks.

The Predicament – Starting with gorgeous, simple harmonies this song serves as a welcome change of pace, diving into personal relationships for the first time in the album. This is the kind of R&B song rarely heard anymore. It’s definitely more Maxwell than it is Usher. I’m sure your general audience appreciation will vary on that. I liked this one. It’s fresh, the lyrics are pragmatic and realistic but still in touch with the crazy qualities of being in love. Perhaps best of all, Dawen actually allows himself to sing the song.

I Hate Jay – For half the song Dawen sings in a falsetto that reminded me of Robin Thicke’s “Lost Without U”. He comes back down for the hook and it only further shows off this guy’s range, as he sounds great singing both high and low. But don’t go thinking this is a sweet, baby-making track… their’s actually a good deal of animosity and anger in the lyrics. It’s actually a pretty dark track.

Lament – As you can probably tell from the title, this is another heavy hearted track. It’s practically bluesy in it’s execution. I commend Dawen for his ability to express emotions and tones via his arrangements and melody choices. Much of the song isn’t even lyrical per se, but rather a lot of interjected vocal runs and licks.

Typhoon 8 – I liked how the song starts but I’m not crazy about how it’s ultimately carried out. It’s all a little to “elevator music” sounding for my tastes. The song definitely gets lost among the 16 tracks on the album. Doesn’t particularly stand out and serves best as background music.

Get Enough – The intro starts off with a cool jazzy bass line, followed by some great keys. As for the vocal style choices, I think it could have been done better. They clash with the great instrumentation. I think they are layered too heavily and unevenly, not doing the back track any justice. I think this is another song that had potential but ultimately missed the mark. Plus the arrangement switch up was just plain awkward.

Just You – My first thought when I heard this song was: John Legend – Ordinary People. Dawen keeps things simple here and is only accompanied by a piano. He doesn’t convey emotions with just his voice as well as John Legend but he does a pretty decent job. It’s a nice change of pace but I wouldn’t consider this a highlight of the album.

Rusted Hands – I thought this song was all over the place. The arrangement felt a bit sloppy, the vocal mix down uninteresting, and the instrumentation a rehash of whats been done already earlier in the album. One of the weaker cuts on the LP for sure.

My Cup It overflows – This song serves as a nice reprise and close to the album but it’s pretty clear things really lost steam by this point. The track is harmless enough though I can’t really say its memorable in any way. Pretty but a bit dull is probably the best way to put it.

I know it’s taken me a long time to post this review, but procrastination aside it really did take quite a while to fully appreciate and chew on this piece of work. If anything, I can definitely say this will likely be one of the most unique LP’s you’ve heard in quite some time. It’s also very, very serious. There are glimpses of humor and satire here and there but never would I classify this collection of work as ‘feel good music’. Rather than conforming to R&B and Pop trends, Dawen blazes his own path delivering an album that is part social commentary and part relationship oriented. Interestingly enough, this dualistic approach is both refreshing and tiring at the same time. The themes and topics got repetitive and a bit dull as things progressed. It’s pretty clear he did not set out to make a catchy album, but rather a very thoughtful and sincere one. But it is those same emotions that are required to actually appreciate most of the songs. I’m not too sure many of these tracks would do too well on a shuffled playlist on your iPod. That being said I appreciate the fact that Dawen spoke on some of the topics that he did and that he stayed true to who he is as an artist. You could say Dawen is a mixture of Marvin Gaye, Maxwell, and perhaps a touch of John Legend and Robin Thicke. At the end of it all I would say this album is interesting for a listen, at least once, though there are definitely a few stand out tracks on there.  If you’re looking for something to take in over time, that speaks to a lot of important topics and pays homage to the R&B sounds of yesteryear, I think you’d enjoy this one. For those of you looking for something to jam to and kick back for an easy listen, you may want to sit this one out.

Must Listen: Wake Up, Ku Li, Put Your Swords Down, The Predicament

a-Tunes Score: 7.5/10

8 thoughts on “Critic’s Corner: Dawen – American Me

  1. As someone who really loves the R&B sound of the 70’s and 80’s, Dawen’s “American Me” was a most welcome addition to my collection of music.

    In Dawen, I see an passionate Asian American talent who is carving out his own path. I love his style. I love that his lyrics tackle the world around him, his beliefs and his life experiences.

    I would love to see more from Dawen and can’t wait to see and listen to his next collection of songs.

  2. Thanks for the write up A-Tunes. It is a thoughtful review. Keep listening and enjoy the album. It will keep growing on you.

  3. Dope review.

    I caught his show when he first came to LA earlier this year and I became a fan. He is extremely talented.

    His album is a good representation of his character. He bleeds passion into his tracks and I respect his struggle to intertwine r&b and his roots.

    He is a great addition to the Asian American music scene in Los Angeles and I am definitely looking forward to his next album.

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