Maybe I’m just trying too hard.
Ever since I offered a slightly less than kind review of Bruno Mars June, 2014 appearance at the venue then known as First Niagara Center, I’ve been struggling to come to terms with his work and his value in the pop music mosaic. Sure, the hundreds of letters that came in post-publication urging me to reconsider my opinion on Mars – and urging me to do a few less kind things, too – had something to do with it. But mostly, I wanted to reconcile what I saw as Mars’ abundant talent with my perception that he was treading water, artistically speaking.
How can someone this talented leave me cold? That question sat at the core of my quandary.
Mars just released “24 K Magic,” (Atlantic) his third album, and despite my love for the advance title-tune single – a funky jam that demands the affection of anyone with a pulse – I find myself right back in my 2014 dilemma. This new collection posits Mars as one of the most abundantly talented pop stars of his generation. It also sounds an awful lot like the artist was content this time around to split the difference between imitations of three of his biggest idols – Michael Jackson, Prince and James Brown.
Fans eager for anything new from Mars won’t likely find these tribute-style pastiches to be much of a problem, particularly if they aren’t well-schooled in the music of MJ, Prince or Brown. But an objective listen demands acknowledgement of “24k Magic’s” tendency to dress up an '80s and '90s nostalgia-fest in 21st century duds.
Right out of the gate, Mars and his team – Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy and Philip Lawrence, all of whom receive writing credit on the album – let us know just how much they love the late King of Pop in general, and his co-conspirator for his biggest 80s albums, Quincy Jones, in particular. The bubbling synth bass lines, the heavy percussive clamor, the slightly cheesy keyboard sounds, the unfailingly spirited grooves, the knee-trembling grandiosity of the ballads – Mars didn’t just take a page from Jackson and Jones, he took the whole playbook.
No harm, no foul, though, because Mars makes the most of this, and if “24k Magic” is far less adventurous than Mars’ last effort, the breakthrough “Unorthodox Jukebox,” it’s a helluva fun listen.
The ballads tend to clog up the flow – “That’s What I Like” serves as useful example of Mars’ indulging in lyrics that might make R. Kelly blush and arrangements that lack subtlety. “Versace on the Floor” is the musical equivalent of a daytime soap opera, replete with hyper-cheesy synth sounds. Skip the ballads, though, and you’ll find a seriously funky affair. “Perm” is Mars doing his best Brown, with a horn section and supple Cornell Dupree-style electric guitar providing the serious funk. “Chunky” finds our man in sly Prince mode, and it too works, even if the lyrics seem a touch sophomoric. The title tune is straight up glitzy 80s funk, and it works, in the way that a classic Cameo jam works – its sexy, meaningless and fun.
Throughout “24K Magic,” Mars’ singing is thoroughly impressive, capable of making octave leaps when necessary, always impassioned, and always soulful. Some of the material strikes me as being beneath him – imagine what this guy would sound like singing over, say, a Robert Glasper Experiment jam, one with some killer jazz voicings? But Mars is preaching to his base here, and that base is likely to love what “Magic” he is able to conjure this time around.
Meanwhile, I’m still sitting on the fence when it comes to Mars. But I’m definitely starting to tilt in the “fan” direction. After all, Mars hasn't made his "Thriller" yet.