Bruno Mars has written some mega-hits — more mega-hits than most of his peers. Few artists have achieved the Mars effect: that is, releasing multiple singles that have been incredibly popular, often going platinum, from early hits such as “Grenade” to more recent (and even bigger) singles such as “Locked out of Heaven” and “Uptown Funk.” From his power-pop ballads to funky, ‘80s-reminiscent tracks, Mars has been successful and influential as a pop artist who is highly capable of adapting his sound to different genres and eras of music, a connoisseur of nostalgia.
There are monumental expectations on him for 24K Magic, Mars’ first album in four years. As always, Mars puts on an incredible show — the production and consistency of the album is as high quality as ever. Yet the album is more of a departure from expectation than it is one that succumbs to it: Mars takes some of his most notable songwriting traits — catchy hooks, cheesy lyrics — and swaps them for musical depth, fully engaging himself in a new musical era rather than continuing on the path he was once on.
Channeling Michael Jackson-esque groove and James Brown funk doesn’t hurt. This album focuses on ‘90s R&B — though, as always, other influences reign apparent on certain tracks. “Perm” sounds like it could be James Brown’s take on the musical ideas of the ‘90s, with all the instruments acting as percussion; the horns are bright and precise, punctuating each phrase like a musical exclamation point while the drums punch hard on every beat.
Meanwhile, “Versace on the Floor” acts as an homage to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” era, with smooth synthesizers and electric piano parts. It takes his ballad style, reminiscent of songs off his debut Doo-Wops and Hooligans, and flips it on its head, reverting back to older ballad styles without being tawdry.
But in a lot of ways, Mars faces unique challenges. The most apparent one, which becomes obvious on this album, is Mars’ departure from his dependence on hooks. For the most part, Bruno Mars’ career is built on foot-tapping melodies and memorable lyrics. 24K Magic fights this image, instead opting to build depth and complexity into each track. There’s a fine line between these two extremes, though, and in the end, the decrease in catchy taglines and singable melodies dissociates Mars from the popular elements that have built his success.
With that said, the tracks on 24K Magic are exciting and new, an interesting departure from earlier sounds by tackling new musical ideas. By fully plunging into late ‘80s and ‘90s retro-soul in sound and in production, Mars lands strongly on his feet with an album that innovates through his consistent sonic nostalgia. By taking bits and pieces from eras that have inspired him, Bruno Mars has created an album that not only pulls at our nostalgic heartstrings but also excites us with innovative content.
The first and most obvious standout is the eponymous lead single, “24K Magic.” It’s arguably Mars’ most fun song and a logical followup to some of his past hits of similar style. “Chunky” has a laid-back groove that is unparalleled on the album, with a chorus that plays call-and-response between Mars’ voice and a funky synth line. Later on the album, “Straight Up & Down” takes it down to a more relaxed feel, a smooth and sexy track that goes heavy on vocal harmonies and electric piano. “That’s What I Like” balances fun and suave perfectly — the lyrics reflect Mars’ star status while the instrumentation has a slow groove that maintains his cool mood about it all.
Complex pop is not as common as it was decades ago, but now with the resurgence of musical styles from the ‘80s and ‘90s, there has been a huge movement toward something much closer to pop-fusion than pure pop. Bruno Mars epitomizes this, working as an ambassador of soul to bring funk back into pop music — and for the new pop-fusion that we’re moving toward, Mars is our best representative.