Mark Ronson’s fourth studio album, Uptown Special, delivers a funky, intense and mystifying joyride that gradually transports the soul to early ’80s Los Angeles neo-noir a la the film “Drive.” Armed with carefully selected musicians who lend a bit of their own genres and identities to the tracks in which they are featured, Uptown Special promises an accessible vibrancy while still maintaining Ronson’s sophisticated and experienced production technique.
A significant narrative and continuity can be recognized in the album. After the sonic finesse that flows in “Summer Breaking ft. Kevin Parker,” a three-song blowout of uptown melodies follows, firing up the ambience. The album has the power to transport even the most millenial of our generation into the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s — all decades that Ronson says were instrumental and inspirational when it came time to craft Uptown Special.
The party gets started with “Feel Right,” a lyrically wild and playful track that has New Orleans-based rapper Mystikal spewing out words as if he’s keeping up with the rhythm of the trumpet horns. Although the Bruno Mars-influenced “Uptown Funk” is more upbeat and radio-friendly, the boisterous attitude of “Feel Right” brings out a very peculiar pleasure in the whole body that definitely deserves time on airwaves.
The album gains a coherence in both its melody and its lyrical narrative as the grooviness takes a backseat to something more meaningful. Ronson enlists Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon — not as an author but as a novice lyricist whose most significant contribution is the seventh track, “Crack in the Pearl,” a dazzling and chunkier expansion of the first track, “Uptown’s First Finale.” Hearing the haunting, dribbling sound and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica takes the audience from funky New Orleans back to trippy Los Angeles. “Is this how you pictured it? / Is this how you thought it would be?” sings Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt in “Crack in the Pearl.” His Sting-like vocals add mysteriousness to the story behind these questions.
How the album came together in such a cohesive form is a mystery — even to Ronson himself.
“I was a bit clueless at the beginning of the process and was just kind of pretending not to be,” Ronson said in an interview with Stereogum. “You know the record company will check in every now and again and ask about what kind of record you are making, and early on I’d just be like, ‘It’s a rap record and a kind of global pop record, whatever whatever’ — basically just making up shit because I didn’t know what to tell them.”
Perhaps abstaining from setting a concrete development path allowed Ronson to come up with the eclectic sound so present and palpable in Uptown Specials. The 39-year-old has been a mainstay in the music industry for 15 years, and his longevity and skill have allowed him to form connections with other industry power players (Bruno Mars, Amy Winehouse). Though Ronson’s skill as a music producer lays the foundation for the album, it is his powerful friends who really allow the album to be rhythmically resonant, a result not totally lost on the producer. “I remember saying to Bruno, ‘Can we really put ‘Funk’ in a thing in 2014?’ ” Ronson recalled. “(Bruno) was like, ‘Yo, we’ve got to own it.’ ” And so they did.
Ultimately, the album can be construed as a departure from Ronson’s synthpop music, which can be heard in his 2010 album, Record Collection. Instead, Uptown Special sounds musically closer with his most recognizable work in Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black — to whom he dedicates this album. Ronson obviously excels when he fuses old-time funk and R&B with modern synthesizers, but the addition of a narrative element doesn’t seem to fit in all these energies. Ronson’s inclusion of Chabon in the crew is more of a personal decision rather than a creative one, and it is still a nice quirky surprise. Maybe that’s what makes Uptown Special special.
Uptown Special is now available on iTunes and wherever CDs are sold.
Contact Majick Tadepa at [email protected].