By Jordan Owen
I’m late to the party on Bruno Mars- for all the high praise he’s received throughout the modern music press I’ve really only ever heard his early hit “Grenade” and that’s about it. So his stuff has always been on my “to-listen” list even though I’m largely disillusioned with much of what’s come out of the whole confluence of R&B/Hip-Hop/Funk/Soul for the last decade and a half. Heck, I was in high school when Mariah Carey’s “Honey” was burning up the charts so I have heard that song about 5,000 times and to this day I cannot tell you what the hook is. Most modern R&B singers like Mariah don’t sing- they do a kind of “ghetto yodeling” that really gives a new meaning to the term “scat singing.” It’s a toneless, autotuned wailing that does nothing to capture the soul for which the genre is named and known. This kind of crass music industry cynicism, punctuated by the decades stale marketing gambit that is white record execs bestowing astronomical riches on poor blacks so that the public at large can watch in morbid fascination as they blow it all on obscene displays of material prosperity and gradually turn into professional buffoons with their chronic lack of self awareness keeping them from realizing that they’re being played up as modern day minstrel punchlines, has put a generation-long cap on R&B, keeping it from producing the kind of genre-defining iconoclasts like Prince, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson that made it such a warm and intoxicating realm to begin with.
Mercifully and with great pleasure, however, I can say that a true artist and the kind of talent that legends are made of has emerged in the form of Bruno Mars. As I write this review I have just completed two full playthroughs of the new album, “24k Magic.” The first was while I browsed the shelves at Barnes & Noble, the second was while I drove through the neon sprawl of the greater Atlanta area and both times I was transported out of the current dead-end that is the contemporary music industry- where record companies are throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks while venues have taken over the time honored tradition of screwing the artist out of money- and blasted back to a time when gold records adorned the walls of towering skyscrapers and the music industry relied on the compositional prowess of actual songwriters and the performances of live musicians rather than the infantile attention whore drooling of internet assclowns set to the lifeless beat of a department store keyboard demo button.
When the opening title track of “24k Magic” hit my ears I was at first sure that all my bracing for disappointment was justified- the first thing you hear is a heavily processed vocoder voice and I was sure that I was in for another Kanye West infected tragedy. But I quickly found that this was not the case. Bruno uses the effect to great effect, evoking a throwback to the glory days of Roger Troutman and Zapp in that glorious synth heavy period where R&B was first coming to explore the versatility of the digital world but before it could be bastardized to give talent to the talentless.
The first two tracks are a delicious blend of the call-and-response choruses of Michael Jackson and the open-ended house party jam feel that made Prince’s concert band such a crowd pleaser. Track three “Perm” brings out the horns heavy, uptempo boogie of Morris Day and the Time, evoking memories of Day’s signature side-to-side dance steps. This retro feel- with frequent homages to the glory days of James Brown- continues on “That’s What I Like” though the latter track has a vocal delivery more reminiscent of Frankie Valli. Just under halfway through the album and it’s already apparent that Bruno Mars is a learned virtuoso, able to cop the best traits of the masters and deliver them with effortless poise.
But Mars does something altogether more stunning with this new batch of soon-to-be classics: he looks at the wasteland of contemporary hip-hop pastiche and finds in it the beauty and majesty that has for so long eluded other pretenders to the throne. Yes, this is an album rife with the kind of Krsytal-Maybach-diamonds-on-your-timepiece lavishly depraved opulence lamented by Lorde but now it’s infused with the kind of sincere musicality that makes it sound like the fantasy-made-reality triumph of genuine artistry. There’s a sense of dignity and class about the record that allows the listener to feel as though they’re attending an upscale, invitation-only orgy in the penthouse suite of a posh W hotel rather than a glorified backyard BBQ sex party by the pool of a gaudy mansion that’s one crummy sophomore LP away from being repossessed. In other words, Bruno has taken that brash ghetto swag swagger that, admittedly, does offer a lurid appeal to even the stuffiest of white conservatives and elevated it to a new height- one that is replaces the crass with the exquisite and bravado with true boldness of character without abandoning the baseball cap and gold chains cool from whence it came.
“Versace On the Floor” is a perfect example of this opulent-excess-made-erudite-and-classy chic that Mars has innovated. This is power ballad that combines a sincerely sweet, sentimental Stevie Wonder-esque melody with only the most subtle dash of roguish cheekiness. The next track, “Straight Up and Down” throws down the kind of AOR soul that put smooth jazz on the map in the 80’s and does it well. “Calling All My Lovelies” has that synth-pop meets layered harmony vibe that the Manhattan Transfer explored on Mecca for Moderns and takes me back to that early-90’s era when Andy Sidaris was doing his best work. The Transfer influence can be heard again on “Finesse” but it’s “Too Good to Say Goodbye” that closes out the set with the album’s definitive show stopper. Seal, The Temptations, Sly Stone, Prince and MJ are on full display in this power ballad that puts aside the cocky swagger and lays naked an impassioned plea for the return of a lost love that, somehow, is warm and uplifting enough to make existing couples say “that’s our song.” The melody is soaring and complemented by a chord progression that changes the world of our inner headspace from day to night, sunrise to sunset, all in the width of a cymbal crash.
I don’t normally like to do track-by-track reviews like this but “24k Magic” is an album that fires on all cylinders from start to finish with absolutely no weak spots to be found. If there is justice in the world and enough integrity left in popular culture to still embrace true greatness then it is time to welcome Bruno Mars to stand proud in the pantheon of all the aforementioned soul music gods. Each of these songs could be- and deserves to be- a top 10 single. “24k Magic” is an album to played and cherished for decades to come and a shimmering beacon on the horizon of the vast arid expanse that has been this century’s popular music.
Bruno Mars hasn’t just given us a stunning throwback to the pop sensibilities of yesteryear- he’s taken everything that made the classics great and used them to shine a beacon of hope onto the lackluster pop world of today, showing us the path to a new renaissance in urban cool. 24 karat golden magic? Absolutely positively goddamn right. Thumbs up.
Ps- I just listened to “Honey” again- I still can’t figure out what the hook is in that song!
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