Thank God Bruno Mars doesn’t have to be what everyone else wanted him to anymore.
When he debuted six years ago, he came off looking a Jason Mraz-clone with his fedora, buttoned up flannel shirt and piano/acoustic guitar riffs. That and his debut album Doo-Wops and Hooligans seemed to conclude a tragic fate for Mars’ sound as simple, saccharine, and especially safe for general pop audiences. It was also boring. Mars is a great singer and a good songwriter, but his ballads are sometimes too mushy and his early pop songs are so vanilla they might as well come with graham crackers. Fortunately, super-success grants a bit of freedom and with his second album Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars started to strut out his influences and make them his own. Everything from The Police’s reggae-rock to Kool & the Gang’s funky R&B made Bruno loose, interesting, and especially fun. But Bruno still had schmaltzy (and even hilarious) ballads to keep his quote of safe songs for radio, so he just needed one more knockout hit to solidify himself as an untouchable independent superstar. Thanks to Mark Ronson and his guitar scratches, Bruno can now do whatever the hell he wants.
While songs like “Treasure” and “Uptown Funk” had Bruno strutting in the sounds of the 70s, his third album 24K Magic is the best 80s funk album Prince never made. It may only be a mere nine tracks and 33 minutes, but it’s the most fun on a pop album since Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION last year. Right off the bat, the title track kicks off the album with a bouncy groove relying more on synthesizers and electronic drums than bar band instruments. As he telegraphed with his performance at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, the album is influenced more by the ’80s boom of rap and funk bands like Zapp, The Gap Band and Dazz Band. “Chunky” plays out like a slowed-down version of “Treasure” that goes better with top-down cruising thanks to its hints of west coast g funk. “Perm” is Bruno doing his best James Brown impression with tight drums, horns, scratching guitars and a groove worthy of the dance line on Soul Train. Bruno also dips outside the decade, with “Finesse” being the best Bobby Brown song that Bobby Brown never made thanks to the New Jack Swing drums and background melodies.
He also lifts the groove and melody of “Baby Come Back” for “Too Good to Say Goodbye” as the closing ballad. In fact, five of the nine tracks are ballads on 24K Magic, though the ballads stick to the vibe of the rest of the album unlike Unorthodox Jukebox. “Versace on the Floor” is a pure ’80s slow jam with light keyboard and handclaps a la “Sexual Healing.” The closest thing the album has to a sound similar to the current pop charts is “That’s What I Like,” but even then it still sounds like a late 80s slow jam. None of this a detriment to the album, since the current pop charts are boring and terrible anyway. Bruno crafts dance-pop songs that aren’t aggressive or overbearing. He’s all about the groove sensual feeling.
Now free of pop expectation, Mars is allowed to be his own charismatic frontman leading the album. So who is the new Bruno Mars? According to 24K Magic, he’s a freewheeling lover boy draped in Versace with a hunkering for the ladies. Pretty basic, but he’s got a type of a way of saying it. “Chunky” is very cut and dry in what Bruno is looking for: “She got to shake her little something…If you getting naughty, baby, here’s my phone….Looking for them girls with the big old hoops/That drop it down in daisy dukes.” Bruno’s ego is all over the record, but it’s highlight is on “Perm” where the title comes from the line “Throw some perm on your attitude/Girl you gotta relax, ooh,” while sticking to the “love ’em and leave ’em” method with the ladies. The double punch of “Versace on the Floor” and “Straight Up and Down” shows a prime combination of sex songs, starting with taking it off and then going..well..it speaks for itself. 24K Magic is basically a party sex album, starting with a night on the town and ending with a morning in the sheets.
Should it be a detriment that 24K Magic is a short throwback album? If it was boring, yes. Thankfully, Mars packs enough charisma and fun grooves to make up for a lack of tracks. The album is bounciest, most enjoyable pop record of the year because of it’s simplicity. It doesn’t try too hard and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, kind of like Mars himself. For all of his boasting and strutting, Bruno comes off as a man who wants nothing but a good time. Not only does he make a good impression, but he makes you want more.