Not everyone can relate to being rich and irresistible.
Mark Ronson. Jeff Bhasker. Bruno Mars. Sound familiar? It’s the cast list of “Uptown Funk,” one of the biggest pop singles of all time, as well as most of Mars’ third album, 24K Magic.
The album feels like an expansion of “Uptown Funk,” a headfirst dive into ‘80s post-disco and ‘90s R&B, its inspiration taken from roughly the period between Michael Jackson’s Thriller and R. Kelly’s 12 Play. Its influences will be obvious to R&B nerds; “Chunky” cribs from Leon Sylvers’ shimmering boogie, “Versace on the Floor” is pure Babyface pastiche, and “Too Good to Say Goodbye” could be a cover from Bobby Womack’s The Poet.
It’s easy to read 24K as an attempt to recapture the chart glory of “Uptown Funk.” But it doesn’t feel like a cynical sales ploy. It’s only 33 minutes long, and pop stars don’t make albums this short unless they’re secure in their industry stature. If they’re not, they pack their albums with as many potential hits as possible and end up with unlistenable 18-song behemoths. The album doesn’t pander, either. I suspect those deeply familiar with R&B, disco, and soul will get more out of this album than the casual fan that downloaded “Grenade” and wanted to learn more.
The most cynical thing on the album, in fact, is Bruno Mars himself. He shows none of the wounded romantic of “When I Was Your Man,” nor the pining puppy dog of “Grenade.” Instead, he’s coldly archetypal, playing the rich lover man who’ll buy you tickets to Puerto Rico if you just say the word. If you’re a girl, “Just the Way You Are” won’t settle anymore; instead, he’ll recommend that you “perm your attitude.” This is a creepier, colder, scarier, more macho Mars than we’ve seen before. For the first time in his career, he doesn’t seem all that likable.
24K comes across as a stylistic exercise above all else. No vestiges of Mars’s teen-pop past are visible; this is painstaking revivalism. It’s fun, but something seems… off. It feels cold, calculating. Do we really like rich-lothario Bruno Mars? He used to beg on bended knee like a soul man, but now, surrounded by riches, he seems confident he can bag any girl he wants to if he just waves some jewelry in her face. Anyone can relate to being so in love with somebody else you’d jump in front of a train for them. Not everyone can relate to being rich and irresistible.
Maybe this would be more charming if it was a long-lost funk nugget rather than the new Bruno Mars album. Though Mars takes after untouchable showmen like Elvis, Prince, and Michael Jackson, there’s always been an endearing awkwardness to his music, a doe-eyed sense of dependability that makes him seem unusually human for a pop star of his stature. There’s a sense of remove here – as if you can only gaze at Mars in awe, like his namesake planet, and never hope to connect with him. 24K Magic may improve with time. For now, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed.