The level to which I am a fan of Bruno Mars has been well-documented in prior blog entries. When I first saw his melt-worthy mug on The Voice several years ago, I was enthralled. Then I started to listen to him sing, and I was seriously pulled in. Then I began to understand this artist’s deep and broad musicality, and I was impressed. But once he seduced his way through “Gorilla” at the 2013 VMAs, I was done for, and…well…reduced to full-on crush level, let’s just call it like it is. I downloaded both Doo-Wops and Hooligans and Unorthodox Jukebox at a clip shortly thereafter and have been listening closely ever since.
So you can imagine my almost irrational glee upon knowing that, after a four-year incubation period, Mars’ third album was finally ready for prime time. Bruno Mars is a perfectionist; for this reason, I could easily imagine him tweaking, correcting, and retooling his songs umpteen times in order to make them meet the expectations of his gifted and self-critical ear (“not yet, not like this, let’s do it a different way”). Hell, he has even admitted that “Uptown Funk” was close to the trash can on several occasions, until he, Mark Ronson and the team finally found the right button to push to make a musical monster piece.
I heard the single “24K Magic” first, like everyone else. I’ll be honest to say that 90s-era R&B like the kind Mars salutes across this album is not my most favored genre or my strong suit in terms of musical knowledge. However, this song has a groove that even the unindoctrinated can love, along with slick electro-funk and the tightly woven and pristine hooks that Mars is so famous for being able to pull out of thin air. It’s not a blockbuster for me, but a good song and an expertly-crafted one nonetheless.
Bruno and the gang also made available to us a second song from 24K Magic prior to release in exchange for a pre-order of the album. That selection, “Versace on the Floor,” has become one of my favorite tracks of this effort. It’s the slow jam, the sexy jam, the one in which Mars tells his girl “I love that dress but you won’t need it anymore” with a plaintive cry of a vocal that’s just wow, and croons in that sweet and seductive voice of his to “just kiss ’til we’re naked.” Straight up, no shame in it at all.
My view from the floor (with a little help from my iPhone), Mannheim, 2013
That a line as openly intimate as this last one, instead of being tucked shyly away into a single verse, is part of the central refrain and major hook of the song reflects a quality we learned about Bruno on the last album. He’s sexual, and not afraid of that fact. We got a sneak peek of this characteristic in “It’s Our First Time” with the purred lyrics “Like ice cream on a sunny day / Gonna eat you before you melt away.” Later, on Unorthodox Jukebox, Bruno took it all off and bared his sensuality like a tattoo right in the middle of his chest, the same one on which his sex partner was bang-banging during the wild coitus of “Gorilla.” He revels in the sex factor in that track; the ridiculously good extended live version of the song rises at the end from simmering foreplay to a thinly-veiled metaphorical and musical climax. Glaring sexuality pumped through one hell of a well-written song–a heady combination to say the least.
There’s a lot of naughty going on in 24K Magic as well–not quite as hard-core, but still a frank and celebratory attitude toward the delights of the flesh. Andy Cush from Spin summed it up pretty tidily in saying “…well, look, Bruno Mars just seems like a guy who really likes to bone” (“These Are the 9 Horniest Lyrics on Bruno Mars’s 24k Magic” November 18, 2016). Case in point? The song “Straight Up and Down.” The first time I listened to it I said to myself, “Dang. Is this song about what I think it’s about? Dang.” There’s a triple entendre in the title, but suffice it to say that one meaning towers over the others. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the one referenced by the lyric “I put you on and now you’re feelin’ right.” Yep. And of course, it’s wrapped in the same smooth, catchy kind of melody that now has me singing to myself in line at Target about kissing until we’re naked. Thanks Bruno.
I’m talking a lot about lyric in reference to an album that is painstakingly crafted and exquisitely produced from a sonic perspective, but there’s a reason for that. Bruno Mars is truly a witty little shit, and you can tell that he and his partner in crime Philip Lawrence had an effing blast diving into the feel of 24K Magic and making pimp-worthy words to fill it with. It’s one-liner after one-liner here, and they’re all fabulous, like this call-and-response bit that kicks off the song “Perm”: “It’s my birthday / No it’s not / But I still look good, though / Hot comb hot.” Oh and let’s not forget the unavoidable penis reference from the title track: “So many pretty girls around me and they’re wakin’ up the rocket.” Classic. Hilarious and classic. And it appears we’ve graduated from carrot to rocket this time around. Congrats on that, Bruno. Well done, indeed.
Groove reigns in 24K Magic, and tracks like “Chunky,” “Finesse” and “That’s What I Like” will get you singing and shaking. My favorite song on the album, “Perm,” is simply sick in construction, layering and funk. It’s straight-up (no pun intended) James Brown, and Bruno can clearly work some James Brown. It’s all here–a killer beat, the fullness of the horn section, the soul, the stank. “Perm” is impeccable down to Bruno’s guttural funk screams, and I can’t get enough of it.
Here is where yet another of Bruno Mars’ gifts as an entertainer comes into play–his band of singing/dancing/gyrating virtuoso musicians is absolutely top-notch. And seriously, how DO you execute multiple hip thrusts while playing the trombone? Having seen the Hooligans bring down the house during the Moonshine Jungle tour in Europe, I can just imagine how insane a song like “Perm” will be when they preach it live onstage. And the choreography? Just shut up, Bruno.
Mars has said in interviews that he shaped the flow of 24K Magic deliberately, to tell a story. I get that when I listen. It seems to be the tale of a player who finds the party, sees the girl, charms the girl, seduces the girl, gets Straight Up and Down with Versace on the Floor with the girl, after getting busy gets shut down by the girl, reparties with the girl, then loses her for good just as he realizes what she means to him.
Here’s where Bruno the romantic shines through. After all this swagger, the bravado, butts and grinding and strawberry champagne and pinky rings, it’s all about love. The final song on the album, “Too Good to Say Goodbye,” directly contradicts the eight tracks before it by laying bare the lover under the player with an earnestness and a sweetness that is an essential part of Bruno Mars. This song, a Babyface collaboration, is (duh) skillfully written. The lyrics are lovely, and Mars’ vocal skills are on fire throughout this gymnastic ballad. I have to be honest–the electronic bits at the beginning and end threw me off, and the busyness of the arrangement, for me, took away from the lyric and music that are the real power here. I would love to have heard this song as a stripped-down piano or guitar ballad; I think the stark counterpoint in tone to the rest of the album would have packed a real wallop. Even so, it is still a very solid song and a master class in vocals.
At the end of the day, 24K Magic is a glowing example of a virtuoso craftsman at work. While Mars went for a story-telling lane and a thrill ride on this trip, and chose to stay close to an R&B sound from history that some may feel tends toward the cheesy, these are damned tight songs that will make you sing along and will for sure pull you off your butt to dance. Perhaps even at Target. Just don’t drop your Versace until you get home, though.