Bruno Mars’ ’24K Magic’: Album Review

Patrick Bowman | November 21, 2016 4:00 pm
Personally, the moment I knew Bruno Mars was for real was when he performed “Uptown Funk,” his mega hit collaboration with Mark Ronson, in curlers on NBC’s The Voice while the white Lincoln Town Car from the song’s video idled in the background. For a guy who has made a habit of performing his most James Brown-esque songs on live TV — especially at the Grammys, where his classic R&B inclinations and showmanship is properly appreciated by the many boomers producing the show, and voting on the awards — while the bulk of his catalog that has scored on the charts is of the nondescript, earworm, oh-god-make-it-stop banal pop variety, this was a promising development.

The track was just starting to pick up pop chart moment that would lead to crazy accolades, like being the fourth most streamed video on YouTube ever, and Mars seemed to finally embrace the most palatable and exciting part of his musical persona — the part that is both extremely reverent and extremely literate in R&B history, with roots in the years he fronted his father’s exquisitely coiffed Hawaiian bar band with a bunch of Brooklyn transplants.

For Mars’ third album, 24K Magic (released ), he’s going all in on the flamboyant revivalist bent of the ’70s-tinted “Uptown Funk” by moving his influences up a decade, focusing squarely on the most unrepentantly cheesy-yet-somehow-the-coolest late ’80s/early ’90s R&B. Gone are any traces of the mass-appeal-engineered pop songs like “Just the Way You Are,” “Gorilla” and “Locked Out of Heaven,” and in their places are head-stunningly accurate pastiches of Bobby Brown, Blackstreet and Jodeci, with Mars himself relishing every moment he gets to play the golden-voiced lothario dripping with swag and Versace. The record, which runs a lean and mean nine songs at 33:29,  showcases just how good Mars has gotten at mining the music of his youth, this time trying to replicate the adolescent dances that stand etched in his (and my) memory: “There’s nothing more joyous for me than those school dances,” Mars said in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “Slow-dancing at the Valentine’s Day banquet with the girl you have a crush on, and the DJ spins ‘Before I Let You Go,’ by Blackstreet. And the shit is magical, and you think about it for the next eight months.”

Album title track and lead single “24K Magic” plays like a slicker, shinier version of “Uptown Funk,” all twinkling G-funk synths and Gap Band bass lines — accompanied by another video that is approximately 95% stunting — while Mars leans again on the rapping/sing-songy call and response structure of “Uptown,” but this time leads to probably the best chorus hook he’s ever written. Pound for pound, “24K Magic” is a better song than “Uptown,” stronger in production and composition, and just effortlessly cool through the aforementioned chorus. But where “Uptown” has a tossed-off vibe, like Mars and Ronson banged it out in one studio session, “24K Magic” feels fussed over in the best way; every little production flourish (like the vocoder backing vocals and record scratching in the bridge) and progression is in its right place, with almost no fat to be found.

The rest of the album is constructed with a similarly discerning eye, such as the “Peaches And Cream”-era 112-aping bump “That’s What I Like,” or “Finesse,” a track that sounds like it was coated in New Jack Swing, from the Bel Biv Devoe snare that opens the song to the very Bobby Brown vocal impression Mars plays out on the track. The mid-tempo playboy song couplet of “Straight Up And Down” and “Calling All My Lovelies” hit the perfect cross section of innocent seeming and suggestive, while Mars luxuriates in the pillowy, garish production. Part of the charm of 24k Magic is that Mars’ enthusiasm and eagerness to please — traits many have used as criticisms against him in the past, “trying too hard” — is somehow folded into a coolness that oozes out of every lovingly re-created R&B trope from the past.

This concoction of vibe crescendos with the album centerpiece, “Versace On The Floor,” an XXL pastel-colored ballad that echoes the best emotional histrionics of Boyz II Men. But it’s during the course of “Versace On The Floor” that Mars’ reverence for the genre he loves almost tips into the uncanny valley of facsimile, playing like it could be a weird fever dream Google AI would dig up after watching every R&B video MTV aired from 1989 through 1994. That said, Mars, ever the showman, never lets the seams of his recreation pop, even while in some other universe 24k Magic could be transmogrified into Kidz Bop 90s R&B.

In the end, I believe him when he sings, “Let’s kiss until we’re naked,” on “Versace.” And that’s all that matters.

Idolator Score: 4.5/5

Patrick Bowman

Keep up with more pop music news by hitting us up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.