24K Magic (to be released November 18, 2016)
Remember a few months back when y’all thought R&B’s former kingpin would bring the genre back to prominence – and then he failed miserably?
Well, I guess it’s up to a pop singer to bring R&B back.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise when you think about it. Bruno Mars’ meteoric rise has been fueled by ’80s R&B and funk purified in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. Love it or hate it, 2014’s ever-present earworm “Uptown Funk” is now recognized as one of the biggest sellers of all time.
If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
On 24K Magic, Bruno’s third album, he takes his ’80s infatuation even further, crafting album that branches out from his usual ’80s pop stylings and cabbage patches right into early ’90s New Jack Swing. Time traveling has never been this hype before.
The title track and lead single is just as boisterous and infectious as “Uptown Funk” – the high-energy instrumentation add just as much to the experience as Bruno’s ridiculous lyrics (“Put your pinky rings up to the moooooon/Girls, what y’all trying to do?”). “Chunky” is just as fun, loaded with the synthy goodness and handclaps of Soul Train’s greatest hits while Mars croons about “big hoops and Daisy Dukes.”
And it gets even crazier.
On “Perm,” Bruno channels the soul of James Brown while launching into some of the most hair-brained metaphors you’ve heard all year – “throw some perm on your attitude, you gotta relax.” Yes, this is a grown man yelling about Activator, but just let your soul glow and go with it.
Bruno’s no stranger to ballads, and “Versace on the Floor” stands among his best. Sounding like it was snatched from BET’s Video Soul in 1991, Mars turns an unabashed sex jam into something much more soothing and gentle.
Now I unzip the back to watch it fall
While I kiss your neck and shoulders
No, don’t be afraid to show it all
I’ll be right here ready to hold you
It’s the type of seductive songwriting that’s quickly becoming a lost art. The album’s closing ballad, “Too Good to Say Goodbye” features equally strong writing – no shock when you realize that ’90s hitmaker Babyface is holding the pen.
Despite the occasional breaks, 24K Magic at its core is a party record. “That’s What I Like” and “Finesse” are essentially New New Jack Swing – an evolution of the sound that turned the 90s into one giant dance party. “Calling All My Lovelies” even features Aaron Hall-esque ad-libs straight out of a Guy’s Greatest Hits album.
Obviously, 24K Magic tips its cap to its musical forefathers, but make no mistake – this isn’t some weary stroll down memory lane. Instead, it’s the same template that made “Uptown Funk” a success – borrowing elements of the infectious elements of past hits to reshape current pop. It’s one of the few times where looking back actually moves you forward. And 24K Magic puts Bruno light-years ahead of the pack.
At just nine tracks and barely 30 minutes long, 24K Magic is an extremely abbreviated listen. And while I typically champion tight albums that leave the listener begging for more, this set feels a bit too abbreviated – a bit like an EP instead of a fully formed LP. It’s like management turned on the house lights just as the party was getting good. A couple additional tracks and I’d have to strongly consider giving this one a perfect score – I did NOT want this party to end.
That’s a pretty minor nitpick, though. It’s pretty hard to find flaw with 24K Magic. I haven’t heard a record this unapologetically fun in years. In an era where moody R&B with sour lyrics and dour production rule the charts, the game was in dire need of some levity.
I’m sure critics will say that Bruno has simply blinded us ’80s babies with nostalgia.
And maybe that’s true. But we’re too busy dancing to care.
Best tracks: “24K Magic,” “Versace on the Floor,” “Calling All My Lovelies,” “Chunky”
4.5 stars out of 5