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 not all that surprising when you consider Mars began his musical career in his family’s band as an Elvis impersonator. The man has charisma and charm in spades, traits that have helped boost him to the top of the charts and turn the most idiosyncratic of lines into instant slogans. (Radio listeners will remember the Michelle Pfeiffer and dragon lines from “Uptown Funk” — whether they want to or not).
Mars’ powers are on full display on 24K Magic. There are only so many contemporary male performers who can confidently exhort you to “put your pinky rings up to the moon” or pull off a come-on like “activate your sex,” as Mars does with relish on “Perm”, a joyously salacious track indebted to James Brown. What prevents Mars from tipping over into corniness (or douchebaggery) is the occasional sprinkle of humor, as on the impressively cocky line “I got Alicia waitin’, Aisha waitin’/ All the eesha’s waitin’ on me,” from the outstanding “Calling All My Lovelies”.
That track might be the crown jewel of 24K Magic, the most lush and layered record of Mars’ career thus far. It’s his plea to a woman who’s ignoring him and forcing the Lothario to settle for the other ladies he’s got in his contact list. The various synths (some pillowy, some buzzy), dramatic piano plunks, and Mars’ lower register in the verses and melodious falsetto in the chorus all cohere into a song of seduction that straddles both frustration and confidence, the song that best captures the album’s tight songwriting.
“Calling All My Lovelies” also features the only guest on 24K Magic: the actress Halle Berry, making an unexpected and unobtrusive appearance with a dreamy voicemail message. Berry’s appearance hardly qualifies as a feature, evidence of Mars’ refusal to compromise the quality of his songs just for the sake of roping in an old friend or fellow artist — well, save for a voicemail. Mars is certainly no stranger to collaboration — just ask Mark Ronson or Adele — but for his own album he is refreshingly judicious, pulling in big names to work only as architects. Prominent new jack swing producer Babyface worked on the album closer “Too Good To Say Goodbye”, while “Straight Up & Down” boasts a T-Pain co-writing credit.
24K Magic, standing at a frills-free nine songs and 33 minutes, was rigorously constructed and produced to one end: putting Bruno Mars in the spotlight. The vocalist stands front and center, whether supported by the enthusiastic chorus of backing vocals and punctuating ad libs on “That’s What I Like” or the snappy percussion of “Finesse”. This ornately set stage would have been fruitless without a skilled performer to fill the space, and larger-than-life personality aside, Mars is up to the challenge. He’s got the pipes and he’s willing to push his vocal limits, as he demonstrates on the giddy “That’s What I Like” and the astounding “Too Good To Say Goodbye”. And in an age of mumble-mouth and indie pop voices, Mars’ clear, unapologetic tenor is a blessing. Although his wordiness doesn’t always work to his favor — the title track and lead single is a little lopsided, with packed verses and a comparatively banal second half — Mars’ crystalline enunciation keeps you looped in and listening.
So far, Mars has mostly been a singles artist, whether it was with initial breakout tracks like “Billionaire” with Travie McCoy or monster hits like “Just the Way You Are”. 24K Magic is his first album that works as a statement, and while it’s unclear if it will see the runaway success Mars has enjoyed in the past, the coherence and variety of the record’s sound and lack of any obvious dud point to the strides that Mars is making as a songwriter. Throughout 24K Magic, Mars is unabashedly immodest about the accoutrements of his fame, whether it’s the designer clothes discarded on bedroom floors or the “Cuban links, designer minks, Englewood’s finest shoes.” It won’t be long till he leverages on his artistry for bragging rights — the stuff that’s truly priceless.
Essential Tracks: “Perm”, “Calling All My Lovelies”, and “Too Good To Say Goodbye”