24K Magic – Bruno Mars
24K Magic: It’s good to remember the improbable things in life. For example: “Uptown Funk” vocalist and animatronic sequined suit Bruno Mars once sang the words “loungin’ on the couch just chillin’ in my Snuggie.” Every part of it is retroactively bizarre: the idea that Mars, the hardest-working embodiment of the “hardest-working man in showbiz” cliche, once attached himself to something called “The Lazy Song”; that he once aligned himself with flash-in-the-pan acoustic bros like Travie McCoy; or, more broadly, that he used to make pop in the 2010s that sounded like the 2010s. Much has been made of Mars’ childhood stint as an Elvis impersonator, with reason. The same talent that allowed a squeaky 4-year-old to channel, uncannily, the King’s gruff bark and distant whiff of scandal is the talent that allows Mars to inhabit whatever he wants. He’s as convincing a cheeky horndog (early hits with his production group the Smeezingtons include Flo Rida’s cheesy-sleazy hit “Right Round” and Mike Posner’s dubiously conceived “Bow Chicka Wow Wow”) as he is a worshipful loverman (the chaste stretch from “Nothin’ on You” through “Grenade”); he’s as eager an omnivorous music fan (the Unorthodox Jukebox era remade Billy Joel and the Police as faithfully as any R&B or funk referents) as the comparatively laser-focused revivalist of 24K Magic.
Also improbable: that “Uptown Funk,” still inescapable at weddings and stadiums near you, still has life in it, let alone an album’s worth. The title track to 24K Magic is all but an explicit retread: YSL swapped out for designer minks, Chucks for Inglewood’s finest shoes, corny “dragon wanna retire, man” line for corny line about red getting the blues, “Oops Upside Your Head” biting swapped out for only slightly less lawsuit-prone Zapp voiceover vocoders. What it lacks in a hook it makes up for (almost) with vibe, and more importantly, earnestness.
24K Magic, the album, sticks to the same well-trod path. It often comes off as a one-man recreation of Mark Ronson’s similarly retro-fetishist Uptown Special—Ronson himself was tapped early on as a potential collaborator—with one key difference: all roles here are filled by Mars. Aside from a couple guest production jobs by former collaborators Jeff Bhasker and Emile Haynie, the album is largely produced by Shampoo Press & Curl—a mildly reorganized incarnation of the Smeezingtons. And as Mars boasted in pre-album press, there are no features. The idea is that he needs no features. He’s become practically all things to all people—he has enough session-wonk credibility to appeal to the Grammy-voting industry types who’ve adopted Mars as a standard-bearer for Real Musicianship; he has enough pop and R&B cred to keep the radio listeners around; enough showmanship to pull off a Super Bowl halftime performance while barely into his career; enough wedding-reception goofiness to ingratiate himself to anyone left over.
The line between lovingly recreating the music of the past and cynically 3D-printing it for easy profit is fine and much fretted-over, sometimes at book length. And indeed, 24K Magic aims to recreate a time and a vibe much of its personnel weren’t even around for. (Said producer and Mars collaborator Brody Brown of a side project that sounds suspiciously 24K Magic-adjacent: “It’s going to make you feel like 1985—even though I wasn’t born until 1989.”) But in a self-conscious Vegas-revival way, 24K Magic pulls it off. It helps that it compresses all Mars’ personae into one. Go back to Smeezingtons cowrite “Fuck You” and you’ll find a blueprint: a retro-obsessed guy who makes songs your great-uncle recognizes, that also happens to be really, really horny. It helps that the album is barely over 30 minutes and meticulously sequenced, and it also helps that Mars is a notorious perfectionist (in a Rolling Stone interview earlier this year, he bragged about the dozens of versions of these tracks that got scrapped because the vibe wasn’t right; routine studio business, to be sure, but Mars evidently takes it more seriously than most).