When Mayer Hawthorne first released his debut album, A Strange Arrangement, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding his right to make music. After all, he’s a white soul artist. On what planet could he channel the same feelings of oppression, desire and heartbreak as soul staples like Smokey Robinson and Teddy Pendergrass? What right did he have to appropriate a genre popularized by disenfranchised Blacks in Detroit? Fortunately, Stones Throw Records, a label that’s been a haven for hip-hop misfits since its conception, gave this guy a chance. The result was an inspiring take on some of the universal aspects of Soul as a genre and culture.
Man About Town sees Hawthorne glide over some of the smoothest productions this year. While the overall instrumentation doesn’t necessarily feel outdated in 2016, the timbre and texture of the album pay respects to ’60s and ’70s Motown greats. You get the sense that Hawthorne has a deep appreciation for soul in a musical sense: it’s not quite conservative enough be church music but not aggressive enough to be hip hop. At its best, the album recreates some truly Al Green-esque melodies — the ones that just seem to sparkle in your headphones as you’re listening. At its worst, it sounds like some Chromeo saxophone bullshit.
Hawthorne’s chameleon-like musicianship reveals itself in the self-titled intro, which immediately brings comparisons to “Bohemian Rhapsody” to mind. Moments like these make the album feel like an approximation for a time that came before him; even though he’s a grown man pushing 40, it feels like it was made by one of those millennials born in the “wrong” decade. Though the album is hypnotic at its peaks, I have to wonder why anyone would choose to listen to this over the Motown originals he imitates.
“Breakfast in Bed” is one of the highlights of the album precisely because of its honesty. It tries less to be a Stylistics record and more to be an authentic Hawthorne one; he sings about eating breakfast in bed with his girl. These moments of authenticity show how Hawthorne can be an actual participant in his genre. It’s an honest record, arranged with ornate bridges and hooks in the spirit of true soul classics.
“Lingerie & Candlewax” is probably the most contemporary-sounding record on the album; the electronic drums stand out immediately. It has shades of Anderson .Paak’s feel-good, neo-soul album earlier this year. If Hawthorne insists on making soul music in 2016, .Paak is the type of forward-looking artist he should be looking to. It doesn’t pretend to exist in a different time, yet checks all the boxes of emotions conjured by the genre. The song also features a gorgeous hook that blends 808s with choir vocals, a mean bass riff and imagery of hotboxing a Cadillac. Nice.
Despite all of the glittery instrumentals and vocals, the album still has moments where it feels inescapably contrived. In a way, Mayer Hawthorne is to soul what G-Eazy is to rap. He’s the white guy that just wants to participate in a culture that doesn’t belong to him. But unlike G-Eazy, he’s honest, harmless and fairly innocuous. There’s small nuances in every song that reveal his deep appreciation for the genre; you simply can’t fake the quality of the accompaniment on tracks like “The Valley.” The drums provide the pulse, but the man behind the microphone has to bring the soul.
Hawthorne will never be as great as his idols, but he’s been undeniable in carving out a position for himself in the genre’s soundscape. Many will argue that he’s a classic example of the gentrification of Black music, but I think he has good intentions. The music is still very much the product of his personal experience but packaged in a medium that he just has genuine admiration for. I guess white guys can have soul too.