There are entirely too few soul musicians in this world of pop and circumstance, a fact that has led to a unique niche for the music of Mayer Hawthorne.
In the Michigan native's third studio album, "Where Does This Door Go," Motown is alive again, but this time Hawthorne infuses the sounds of mid-'90s rap and Steely Dan-esque yacht rock. Despite Hawthorne's misguided attempt to bring his roots into the mainstream with electronic hooks and one hilariously bad cameo from Kendrick Lamar, the record still hearkens back to the subtle sexual energies of the 60s and 70s.
Not so subtly sexual, the first track, "Problematization," is a 15-second recording of what sounds like two high schoolers making the most of their prom night in someone's dad's car, complete with a muttered reminder that the hook-up must remain secret.
The brief intro leads gleefully into the highlight of the album, "Back Seat Lover," an anthem of teenaged lust and empty promise. The thumping bass line can be easy to focus on, but the pop of "cheap backseat lover" grows unforgettable by the end of the song. This is Hawthorne in his comfort zone, making the baby-making music we expect with the cheeky playfulness we crave.
From there, the songs seem to open the titular door, venturing cautiously into this musician's genre-bending flavor. There's no doubt that Hawthorne's first recording experience outside of the producer's chair has led him further away from Smokey Robinson and deeper into the mainstream. Turning things over to Pharrell Williams and a host of other big-name producers supposedly allowed Hawthorne to explore his own artistic psyche, but it feels much more like a radio ploy.
In "Crime," Hawthorne tries to evoke the "just wanna party" atmosphere of Miley Cyrus and Ace Hood, just without the underwear and Bugatti. When Kendrick Lamar comes storming in for the third verse, you're left wondering if Ludacris could start giving lessons on hook-up rap. Hawthorne might consider leaving the door to party songs firmly closed.
He fares much better in "Allie Jones," nailing an airy reggae that veils a true set of lyrics. The tragic meditation on a woman's life dilemma is kinda heavy, but the decision to temper it with whimsical synthesizers and his trademark falsetto makes the track one of the most mature on the whole album.
In the accompanying commentary album, available for streaming on Spotify, Hawthorne reflects on his decision to keep the name "Allie Jones" rather than listening to executives who advised changing the title of the song to something generic. He says the track is based on a girl he knew in Michigan, and he felt that preserving the name preserved the story's authenticity. He also admits that the aching saxophone hook at the start of the track is in fact a toy megaphone, one of the many interesting insights afforded by releasing a commentary album alongside "WDTDG."
The title track and first single off the album doesn't appear till the last third of the 15 song collection, providing a dreamy soundscape that wouldn't be out of place on a Southern California yachtsman's boating playlist. It's easily overshadowed by the next song, however, when the quirky "Robot Love" begins to lay electronic counter-melodies over the funky rhythm section. "When we're making love / don't just treat me like a sex machine," Hawthorne begs, reminding his fans that he has his own love to make.
That is really what the whole album boils down to; Hawthorne has released two albums that fit a unique caricature of bespectacled soul revival, and now he wants to play. Although a few of his experiments come off as forced, "WDTDG" nevertheless serves as a testament to a retro artist who is not afraid to open new doors.