First Thoughts: Bruno Mars, '24K Magic'
Mars recreates new jack swing, strikes (24k) gold, and makes album number 3 a magic moment.
Bruno Mars provides a silver lining in this post-election era, re-creating a melange of genres like funk, pop and new jack swing for a nine-song offering that can very well be considered the closest thing to Thriller for this generation. But in no way is Mars trying his hand at the King of Pop’s bedazzled soundtrack. Instead, what he actually does is draw a line in the sand between his infectious uptown funk and the formulaic, monotonous pop that fills up Top 40 radio.
Over the course of 33-minutes, the singer, who famously got his start as a child Elvis impersonator that wowed tourists in Hawaii hotels and is able to channel anyone he chooses (like Michael Jackson, for example), embraces his role as pop’s time-traveling-savant — riding a cool wave of Cooleyhighharmonies, 12 Play-y balladry, and Morris Day and the Time-meets-James Brown funk — to create his most self-aware album to date.
After two studio albums of sonic-surfing, 2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans and 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, the walking Super Bowl halftime show established himself as a pop golden child — one who is capable of spit-shining analog-soul era sounds and flipping them into aural modernity, while also having the ability to swoon an entire nation with his silken tenor and elastic-voiced, infectious charm. The same way he is able to allow us to revisit the past, he also maintains a rare ability of stepping out from those shadows and shining brighter than 24k of gold as an artist in his own right. In a world post “Blurred Lines,” pop’s fixation with recycling is endlessly made and quite frankly one tired point. Besides, no one says the same when the technique is lifted in R&B and hip-hop (Hello, Game’s 1992).
Despite the ongoing arguments, the salient fact is that Mars is exceptionally good at sonic era-surfing. He’s the walking pop-funk composite of Puff Daddy and Bad Boy era, wherein he takes influences from the past to “make classics, hotter than acid.” Six No. 1 singles. 30 weeks atop the singles chart. Two albums with over 26 million sales worldwide. Four Grammys (so far). All that said, and as conveyed above, the streak continues on 24K Magic.
Revitalizing the glittering ’90s sonic gumbo, otherwise known as new jack swing, that impresarios like Teddy Riley and the duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis made in vogue for Bobby Brown, Janet Jackson, and Keith Sweat, and the kind of Cali electro, g-funk sound that allowed Zapp & Roger Troutman to give maximum bounce to the ounce, as well as the pop-funk of The Gap Band, Mars explores much of the era’s perennially underrated subgenres to create one gorgeous soundtrack.
It’s a ballsy move for the singer to rely on the sound of his biggest song of his career (“Uptown Funk”) and stretch it out on his sonic canvas for his first studio album in four years, but it’s also hard to think of a person who would be better to pull it off. Much truncated in sound than his previous works (Unorthodox Jukebox utilized elements of disco, funk, and rock), here the singer lets his vocals take front and center, while the backdrop — handled by his production house aptly known as “Shampoo Press & Curl” (formerly “the Smeezingtons”) — makes things wholly gel. Here, Mars employs a subtler mixture of fast and slow — there are fast songs with caressing vocals (“Finesse,” “That’s What I Like”), mid-tempo songs (“Calling All My Lovelies”) and slow songs with a commanding undercurrent — and a song or two that highlights pop music’s most exciting instrument: Bruno Mars’ voice.
“Versace on the Floor,” the album’s undeniable centerpiece, is a spot on example of the latter. Here, the singer steps into a pair of soul balladeer shoes, delivering the kind of soaring vocals that quiet storms were built on. Other examples of this are on the molasses-dripping groove of “Calling All My Lovelies, which features a rare appearance by Halle Berry, and the big closing ballad of Luther Vandross-like heart-rendering emotion and heaven’s gate reaching vocals “Too Good to Say Goodbye.” Written with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, “Goodbye” soars high and closes out the brief album (timed at 33 1/2-minutes) on a graceful note.
Where other pop artists rely on stuttering EDM effects, a string section or booming blasts from a synthesizer, the sheer vitality of this musical setting is a clear example of Mars’ winning ability of only needing to sing to convey deep emotion. However, we would be remiss not to mention how 24K Magic can get too caught up in its throwback aesthetic for listeners to connect emotionally. Still, its damnably catchy grooves manages to create much-needed aural escapism from our nation’s recent series of events.
While some will have things to say about originality when discussing this album, overall on 24K Magic, Mars embraces his talent as the nostalgia curator, colliding the past and present for an overall zesty LP whose blinged-up, sumptuous workouts don’t obscure the winning charm of the man with the Midas Touch.
If the words (and tweets) above don’t do enough justice, let the following three records shine through.
As one of the album’s many damnably catchy numbers, “Finesse” resurrects the new jack swing era for a total of three-minutes and it’s just as much a trip back to the 90s charts as it as an irresistible earworm.
“Calling All My Lovelies
Calling all ‘eshas, Bruno sorts through his rolodex on this low tempo love song that is as slick as the Versace garb he sports throughout the “24k Magic” video. He saves the best for last here, calling up Halle Berry’s phone, which hits voicemail. The guy manages to make getting curved by Halle Berry cool.
“Too Good To Say Goodbye”
A sheer highlight, this closing ballad is everything. “You’re more than my girl, you’re my best friend,” Mars opens up on the album’s closer. The plea is a heart-tugger and allows perfect room to showcase Mars’ prize-worthy vocals.