By Chad Hoyle (@chadillacgrilz)
Long before Justin Timberlake had the Tennessee Kids, Mayer Hawthorne was crafting his own version of retro soul, rife with falsettos, big band sound, and lovelorn lyrics. Certainly ahead of his time in terms of trend, the Detroit native with origins as a hip-hop DJ and a penchant for Motown has remained relatively under the radar despite releasing two strong, yet niche, solo albums.
With his newest release Where Does this Door Go?, Hawthorne has drawn on a multitude of musical influences to create something remarkably refreshing and never alienating.
At its core, WDTDG is still a soul album, but Hawthorne has expanded beyond the live instruments that dominated his earlier albums by incorporating more digital effects, beats, and samples to enhance his strong songwriting prowess. To further hone his craft, he’s enlisted a slew of new producers including the hip-hop team of Warren “Oak” Felder and Steve “Ace” Mostyn, whom have collaborated with the likes of Miguel, Jennifer Lopez, and Alicia Keys. Most notable are the efforts of Pharrell Williams, 2013’s producer with the Midas touch, whose influence on the album is unmistakable. Increasing the divide between Hawthorne’s earlier works and his newest project is the inclusion of rapper Kendrick Lamar, who pleasantly contributes his rhymes on the track “Crime.”
The album plays like an amalgamation of influences and never maintains a consistent style, but somehow still feels cohesive, mostly due to Hawthorne’s powerful vocal talents. In effect, the juxtaposition between styles from track to track eloquently succeeds in keeping the overall listening experience fresh and unique. Hawthorne includes enough variety to satisfy fans of his earlier material while expanding his audience base beyond the world of soul. For example, the album’s first musical track “Back Seat Lover” is a call back to his earlier albums and features a heavy soul influence that, along with tracks like “Reach out Richard” and “The Stars are Ours” (both produced by Pharell) harken back to the sounds of nu-soul pioneers Steely Dan. To counter that, songs such as “Allie Jones,” “The Only One,” and especially “Crime” feature backing tracks that are unmistakably rooted in hip-hop, yet remain silky smooth and in line with the overall aesthetic.
WHAT THE WIFE THINKS: "I like it- definitely sounds more more hip-hop than his old stuff."
The album never leans heavily on any particular style or lets the songs go on too long, which was one of my detractions of JT’s foray into the nu-soul genre. Granted, Timbaland’s beats are hard to criticize, but at times that album felt tired and I kept yearning for more variety. WDTDG manages to exceed The 20/20 Experience (Part 1) in terms of tone, memorability, and above all, fun. In fact, even the weaker contributions to the album, such as “Corsican Rose” and the slow jam album closer “All Better” don’t interrupt the overall flow and remain must-listens.
Hawthorne has stated, "I truly did not give a fuck on this album…and it was very freeing for me.” The liberation from a particular genre and the freedom to find inspiration wherever it seems fit has allowed him to craft his finest album to date.