Release Date: Nov 18, 2016
Record label: Atlantic
Genre(s): Pop, R&B, Pop/Rock, Contemporary R&B, Retro-Soul
Anxiety is a mutha. Can you blame Bruno Mars for feeling entrapped by his own success? After netting a masterful opus like “Uptown Funk”, which garnered over 10 million downloads (and a couple of lawsuits), a bit of pressure rattled the pop icon. During the creation of his new album 24K Magic, Mars was worried about toppling his latest feat. Can we blame him? It’s like asking Jay Z to recreate The Blueprint.
Released four years after the multi-platinum Unorthodox Jukebox, 24K Magic -- or XXIVK Magic, if you're foolish enough to go by the cover -- might as well be considered the full-length sequel to "Uptown Funk," Bruno Mars' 2014 hit collaboration with Mark Ronson. On his third album, Mars, joined primarily by old comrades Philip Lawrence, Brody Brown, and James Fauntleroy, sheds the reggae and new wave inspirations and goes all-out R&B. This is less an affected retro-soul pastiche -- like, say, The Return of Bruno -- than it is an amusing '80s-centric tribute to black radio.
If you’re going to peddle nostalgia in this day and age, where history becomes a quick commodity and #tbt is practically an affliction, you have to go whole hog. Bruno Mars knows this: It’s exactly what he’s done on 24K Magic, a devoted resurrection of the soul, funk, and R&B of ’80s and ’90s. What elevates 24K Magic beyond pure pastiche relegated to wedding playlists is how well Mars, brimming with swagger and schmaltz, sells the flossy fantasy.
It’s good to remember the improbable things in life. For example: “Uptown Funk” vocalist and animatronic sequined suit Bruno Mars once sang the words “loungin’ on the couch just chillin’ in my Snuggie.” Every part of it is retroactively bizarre: the idea that Mars, the hardest-working embodiment of the “hardest-working man in showbiz” cliche, once attached himself to something called “The Lazy Song”; that he once aligned himself with flash-in-the-pan acoustic bros like Travie McCoy; or, more broadly, that he used to make pop in the 2010s that sounded like the 2010s. Much has been made of Mars’ childhood stint as an Elvis impersonator, with reason.
“I’m a dangerous man,” whoops Bruno Mars, more in hope than expectation, on 24K Magic’s opening track. As a wildly successful good-vibe merchant, Mars is only a danger to the sensibilities of people who detest his retro-fuelled buoyancy. For those who are on board, however, his third album will further the impression that he’s Barry Manilow in 90s R&B clothing: a writer of bothersomely memorable hooks, and a singer of great likability.
By any metric, Uptown Funk – Bruno Mars’s 2014 collaboration with Mark Ronson – is a brutally tough act to follow. Even if the song’s ongoing copyright cases prove expensive, this sharp funk throwback remains a record-breaking bestseller, an accolade with enhanced swag in a sales-poor era. The second most famous American to have grown up in Hawaii is also trying to equal or better another beast: his three times platinum (UK), Grammy-winning album of four years ago, Unorthodox Jukebox.
Bruno Mars's third album, 24K Magic, is a tidy, if derivative, antidote to today's overthought, overwrought pop. Unlike his scattershot debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, and 2012's Unorthodox Jukebox, which tested the singer's skills in ill-fitting genres like reggae-rock and 1980s hair metal, the nine songs here are surprisingly cohesive. Mars zeroes in on R&B from the mid-'80s through the early '90s, remaining extremely faithful to the era's themes of money and sex as well as the period's fat, flattening grooves.
Though 24k Magic is shorter than any Stooges record, human Super Bowl halftime show Bruno Mars still wears a lot of hats: giddy uptown-funk savant, bumping-and-grinding R&B time-traveler, Ashford & Simpson–esque quiet-storm balladeer. He also sounds like he's wearing airbrushed overalls too since the majority of the album hearkens back to the new jack swing and Cooleyhighharmonies of turn-of-the-Nineties charts ruled by Boyz II Men, Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown. The only thing America's greatest pastiche pop star is missing on his third album is the hooks to hang it all on.
“I’ll rent a beach house in Miami / Wake up with no jammies,” he winks playfully on ‘That’s What I Like’. In spite of these misgivings, it’s hard to stay mad at ‘24K Magic’ for long. Few albums designed to sound like a party actually play like one, but Bruno Mars has pulled it off with style. .
After Marvin Gaye’s family won a lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for copyright infringement over the hit “Blurred Lines,” it stood to reason that similar lawsuits would follow. In late October, that suspicion came to fruition: The Minneapolis band Collage sued Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson for copyright infringement, and claimed that the duo’s smash 2014 single “Uptown Funk” “deliberately and clearly copied” elements of Collage’s 1983 song “Young Girls. ” This lawsuit inadvertently highlighted one of Mars’ musical strengths: his uncanny ability to replicate the essence of familiar bands and styles.
The Bruno Mars way-back machine has been one of pop’s most reliable tools in the last few years, and it rarely falls short of complete, uncanny accuracy. His skill for manipulating the past has made him something of an outlier: a retro-minded soul singer, songwriter and producer interested not in strict nostalgia, but in illuminating old styles so they shimmer in a way that’s appealing to a listener not much interested in looking backward. This precision comes at a price, though.