VVIXk Magic (24K Magic) * Bruno Mars * Pop/R&B * November 18, 2016
If there is one thing that longtime fans of Bruno Mars are worried about with the release of his new album is that he will cater more to those people who came to post Super Bowl 48 and Uptown Funk. While we may not have been a household name before those monumental career moments, he wasn’t an unknown either. Unorthodox Jukebox, the album he released before the Super Bowl, had almost gone double platinum before his breakout and his first album had gone platinum as well. He had a large and loyal fanbase, something most artists with bigger name ID don’t always have, who understood that underneath that cute face and sensational performance presence is a songwriter who can tug at your heart strings as easily as he could move your feet.
The problem for him is that, despite all the success he’s has of late, only one side of him has really been on display. And with a larger audience that is immensely satisfied with that one side and willing to shell out money to see it, there is the possibility that he would go the easy route with his next major project and coast to an easy win. That’s never been his MO, though, and the first three tracks we heard had us interested in what he was offering. We just hope we aren’t disappointed.
1. 24K Magic – Starting off with that Roger Troutman talkbox over a sexy eighties beat, the track quickly transitions into bouncy eighties groove that will remind fans a little of the funk of Treasure but with the Uptown Funk bravado. Don’t expect to much singing in the verses, but the rapping works well as the lyrics are just the right tone for the kind of old-school flow he brings. And the lyrics really do shine on this track as they have a lot of over-the-top personality without leaving the listener feeling like rolling their eyes at them. The best part is that, using this as an opener, you get a lot of energy that serves to set the pace for the rest of the short set. A strong track.
2. Chunky – When he first performed this track on Saturday Night Live, it made us happy because it wasn’t in the same vein as 24K Magic. We knew that the album version would sound different because of the live band effect, but we are pleased to notice that it’s not that different. Giving that early nineties R&B style that reminds you of Teddy Riley and Tammy Lucas, we have the singer looking for the ladies with the curves who are ready to slide with him for some fun. The lyrics, which don’t have as much color (in the sense of funny lines and quotables) as the previous track, still links well to the previous single thanks to the fun tone and theme cohesion. The real seller for this is Mars’ vocals, which are engaging and just ooze charm. The harmonies add to the overall sound well and the addition of the female backup singers to do a little call-and-response make this imminently enjoyable. A standout track.
3. Perm – You immediately feel the James Brown inspiration of this track. The production is probably the most interesting part of this one because, unfortunately, this just a redux of 24K Magic…which itself is a redux of Uptown Funk. The song itself isn’t awful, though. Mars brings his charm to this one and you could imagine this being performed live with his slides and splits that we got to know during the Doo-Wops & Hooligans era. And the lyrics are full of solid funny lines and quotables that make sense with the theme a track about a woman letting her hair down, especially the chorus’ main point put some perm on it/You gotta relax. If this were the only song like this on the set, we would love it, but there is just too much repetition in the particular kind of track that it becomes really skippable.
4. That’s What I Like – This is the most modern-sounding track on the album despite still having that 80’s/90’s feel to it. People who are new the Mars may not realize that, despite the throwback feel of all his albums to this point, he is perfectly capable of making more modern-sounding tracks (i.e., Grenade, It Will Rain, and Locked Out Of Heaven). About Mars flaunting his wealth for the woman he’s into, this track brings bravado that has been a theme on this album but aims it in a different direction. This is a more romantic in overall tone than the previous tracks and brings another aspect of Mars to the forefront; the doting boyfriend. His vocals are master class for tenors who want to do songs like this as he doesn’t sound young or scared when asking for what he wants and giving it to his lady. Teamed with some sweet harmonies that meld well with the underlying beat, this one sneaks up on you with how much you end up liking it. A standout track.
5. Versace On The Floor – Reminding us a little of a mixture of The Jets and Atlantic Starr in sections when it comes to production, James Fauntleroy’s contribution to this set is the switch to the red light dance that many of us know so well. It’s that slow jam/babymaker that has it’s sex appeal without going down the rabbit hole of explicit by describing a night of romance with the woman he loves but he does it in a way that is very much about the lead up to the physical and not so much about the act itself. If you were just going by the title, you might have thought this was another dance/party track about people clubbing in their best, but the switch is welcomed. Vocally, Mars strains against the limits of his range a few times, but he never breaks them. It servers him well as it gives a little edge of anticipation to his voice that singing it more constrained might not have accomplished. Still, we could easily see how some listeners might not be to tolerate those moments when he takes things up in tension. It ends up being very repeatable despite that and a solid track.
6. Straight Up And Down – Sampling BabyI’m Yours by Shai for the production and some of the vocal flourishes, this track is more what we expected from Versace On The Floor. All about having fun with his lady and just enjoying the night together. It still has the sexual component to it as the wordplay on this one could easily be seen as talking about dancing in the bedroom. This is the only track in the set that feels like filler despite how well it fits in the thrust of the album so far. It’s not a bad song by any means, but this is the first in the set that feels like it doesn’t have the distinct personality that everything else before it had. Even Mars’ vocals aren’t completely saving this one despite how engaged he and The Hooligans are with the material. It’s not worth skipping, but it does fade into the background little while it’s playing.
7. Calling All My Lovelies – From the second this track starts, you feel it. There is something very Ready For The World mixed with Dazz Band to the production and the underlying beat that immediately lets you know you’re in for something a little different than what you’ve been getting from some of the previous tracks. The interesting thing about this one is that Mars isn’t taking full lead on this one. We’re not entirely sure but we think that the main vocal we’re hearing on the verses is Philip Lawrence, who’s been a member of the Hooligans and has a heavy writing presence on this album. The Ready For The World quality extends to the initial vocals that Lawrence lays down, but Mars adds the flavor with the backing vocals and a gorgeous-sounding chorus. Add to that a punchline for the entirety of the track that doesn’t feel out of place or cheapen the experience and you get quintessential Bruno Mars on this one. A standout track.
8. Finesse – Giving all the New Jack Swing that you can take, this could easily have replaced Straight Up And Down as it has the same general theme about having a good night with your lady, but focusing on how you feel like you can conquer the world when you’re together. The highlight of this track is the luscious harmonies that dominate from top to bottom on this one. One thing about Mars is that he is never afraid to take a little bit of a backseat when it comes to vocals, even on his own material. It’s not that he’s a non-presence on the song; he leads the verses and you can hear him in the backing vocals, but he has the ability to make it not feel like seven layers of Bruno despite that. You call clearly hear his band putting in their work and it makes the songs more enjoyable. The lyrics are pretty straightforward, but for a track like this, they don’t have to be. This is just a sexy relationship jam and a solid track.
9. Too Good To Say Goodbye – With writing assistance from Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, this is that heartfelt track that we have been waiting for the entire set. About Mars asking the woman he loves to stay and work things out after a bad moment in their relationship, this is one of those tracks that kills you with its earnestness. The sound of Mars’ vocals are those that strain the limits of his range, but that sound puts in the emotional resonance. The lyrics seem to come from a place of honesty and have just enough imagery to them to make it more than a platitude fest while still being connectable to a multitude of listeners. The production has the Babyface sound hovers just to the north of country before swinging back to R&B. The throwback element of this is far more on the choruses than in any other place, but it still fits the album and is a good note to go out on. A solid track.
If there is one thing that you can say about Bruno Mars is that he always brings the party. No matter what era he’s aiming for with his music, he always knows how to match tone and theme with production and lyrics, a more complete musical idea to the table than a lot of artists. And while he’s not the only singer to decade-hop with the styles of his albums (Robin Thicke and Mayer Hawthorne tend to do throwback-themed albums as well), his are probably the best known for doing it in a way that feels more charismatic than most; because when he’s into it, you get into it. This album is no different in that respect and is one of those projects you can put on and just have fun to.
The issue with this, though, is that if feels incomplete. Despite having fun on his previous sets, we still got songs like When I Was Your Man, Liquor Store Blues, and Young Girls that brought a little introspection and heart. His projects have never been long (the deluxe editions are usually what took them over ten tracks), but you could never call them one-note. Too Good To Say Goodbye just isn’t enough to flush this out to more than a party album…not that it needs to be. The singer is probably going through the biggest peak of his career (thus far) and he deserves to celebrate it. In fact, we get the feeling that’s what Mars was going for as this feels like something that would be amazing if you was it performed live; an album dedicated to letting his fans join the basement party he’s been having for the past couple of years. We just hope that the re-release (that we think will inevitably come) will include the more heartfelt songs that we also loved from him.