While singer Mayer Hawthorne and producer 14KT have history as members of Michigan’s Athletic Mic League, the Detroit area natives have taken divergent paths the past few years. Since 2009, Hawthorne has been R&B’s answer to Buddy Holly, the white guy with a 1950s wardrobe and penchant for nostalgic Soul. That aesthetic works for the talented Hawthorne; it’s clear he’s not some imposter with a guitar and a pile of Motown records. 14KT—born Kendall Tucker—is more understated, and has released a nice string of albums as of late, most notably 2013’s Nickel & Dimed, a patchwork collection of boom-bap instrumentals and obscure cultural references.
On the surface, a collaborative album feels unusual from Hawthorne and 14KT: They cater to completely different audiences and it seems challenging to merge those fans under one umbrella. Maybe that’s why Hawthorne and 14KT—under the name Jaded, Inc.—opted for a totally different sound on The Big Knock, a breezy collection of so-called “Beat Wave” that merges Hip-Hop, Techno and New Wave into one set. The genesis of the album dates back five years when, according to website Life+Times, the artists connected through a mutual love of New Wave.
“I would send [Hawthorne] stuff every now and then,” 14KT told the site. “Everything I would send him, he would send back a verse or a song, and we just kept doing that for a couple years until we realized, ‘Yo, we should just do a whole project.’” From there, Hawthorne and 14KT finished the album after a surge of inspiration in the studio.
That makes the result more confusing. For two artists with such synergy, The Big Knock feels incomplete and unfulfilling, a decent mixture of electronic funk that fails to reach its destination. Some of these songs never quite go anywhere and many of the ideas don’t fully translate to the finished product. There’s nothing wrong with having fun, but it’s as if Hawthorne and 14KT were in a rush to complete The Big Knock and kept every idea they envisioned, whether or not it made sense from the onset. Take “Half Moon Bar OK” as an example: Atop dark synthesizers and jaunty drums, Hawthorne infuses a ruminating lyric that doesn’t add much to the instrumental. “Half Moon” is about the groove, so the singer gets in the way here. The same goes for “Faded Photograph,” except this time, it’s the producer who stalls the song’s potential. The song feels like a bad electronic remix of a “Rocky IV” track; the composition is remarkably flat and dissolves beneath Hawthorne’s strong vocals. “Coconut Sofa” sounds like a retread from Prince’s 1984 vault.
Elsewhere, “People Change” works because of its scant, relaxed vibe. Finally, Hawthorne sounds comfortable as he tells the depressing tales of a misguided student and a wayward husband. Songs like “Come Down” and “Monster”—the beat for the latter comes from old J Dilla beat tape—work well because the instrumentals are layered enough to bolster Hawthorne’s echoed wails. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those moments and The Big Knock concludes as an uneven collection of songs, not a cohesive album. Musicians are supposed to evolve over time, so Hawthorne and 14KT should be commended for trying something different. But at the very least, new ideas should be flushed out thoroughly before they’re delivered for mass consumption. The Big Knock washes by and doesn’t stick; makes you wonder how things would’ve turned out with a clear focus.