When Mark Ronson first turned out “Uptown Funk,” featuring Bruno Mars, in November 2014, it was evident it would be a hit. Within roughly a year’s time, the song had topped the Billboard Hot 100 year-end list with ease, edging out the more Earl Grey offerings of Ed Sheeran ("Thinking Out Loud") and Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth ("See You Again"). Ronson, whose track record producing seminal LPs for Nikka Costa and Amy Winehouse (not to mention his blood-pumping 2003 debut Here Comes the Fuzz), opened a wormhole into the past by reviving the pimp suit strut of 1970s and ‘80s funk and soul for the song’s parent album Uptown Special. Mars, meanwhile, spent his first two records—2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans and 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox—playing musical chairs, hopscotching from Police-cribbing reggae-rock (“Locked Out of Heaven”) to French disco-pop (the mimetic Breakbot bop “Treasure”).
Mars has always been a slippery musician in that regard. Pop is his foundation, and he’s proficiently talented. So talented, in fact, that he can dabble and excel in the style of others without necessarily forging a strong musical identity of his own. Music is a closed loop and largely circles back on itself; no one has been better at exploiting that craving for the familiar and the nostalgic than Mars himself.
Mars has finally settled on a sound that shows he’s more than a singles artist trying to please all—he’s capable of maintaining his focus beyond the three-minute mark.
And that’s fine. For Mars, his talent is his identity. He excels as a songwriter and singer, seen time and again as one-third of the Smeezingtons (the production-and-songwriting team behind CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You,” Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” and Adele’s “All I Ask,” among others) and as an exuberant frontman. Today, that’s enough to open the right access points to mainstream success—just look at how seamlessly Taylor Swift transitioned from country to Max Martin pop with 1989. And it’s why his third offering, 24K Magic, is so refreshing. For once, Mars doesn’t spin the wheel for an entire album’s duration by entertaining his ability to master a litany of styles. Instead, he takes the framework set by “Uptown Funk” and stretches it across nine finely crafted tracks that wonderfully echo the R&B and funk of decades past, especially the late '80s and early '90s. They’re parroting, sure, but Mars has finally settled on a sound that shows he’s more than a singles artist trying to please all—he’s capable of maintaining his focus beyond the three-minute mark, and it's no longer just the parts that make the sum.
In that, 24K Magic is a smart period piece, a loose reminder that being and sounding joyful are touchstones for success in an age of political strife. Mars looks to the greats for guidance: The midtempo “Versace on the Floor” swirls Michael Jackson’s propensity to toggle between a supple whisper and open-throated howl with the tropical lilt of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” “Perm” is Mars’ take on James Brown, all grunts and pelvic thrusts, while the pattering 808s of “Finesse” so closely parallel the New Jack Swing of Bell Biv DeVoe that it’s surprising they’re excluded from the liner notes. Throughout, it’s clear how much Mars has been inspired by groups like the Whispers and Midnight Star; we should have known from how loud his jacket was in the video for “Uptown Funk.”
What 24K Magic makes up for in consistency, it lacks in subtlety. Mars delivers every lyric with a shit-eating grin, shouting out “them girls with the big old hoops that drop it down in Daisy Dukes” on “Chunky” and inviting “you and your ass” to his “condo in Manhattan” on “That’s What I Like.” It paints him more as perverted uncle than the gentle suitor of songs like “Marry You,” a pose exacerbated by the deliberate gusto in his vocals. Mars’ standout performance came with “When I Was Your Man,” where his tone was textured and angular, moving from a supple coo to a diaphragm’s cry at just the right emotional goal posts. On 24K Magic, he sings so forcefully that it tends towards blaring, a reason to keep a thumb on the volume rocker.
But those are minor infractions. Mars has always been technically perfect, only this time, it’s his artistry that’s starting to catch up. He’s edging closer to finding his true self as a personality in an age sorely in need of it, where leaders and risk-takers are so rare that they’re often trailed by tagalongs trying to emulate their successes. Mars may still be stuck pantomiming what’s already been done, but at least he’s doing it with a more refined sense of self. And with 24K Magic, that’s a step forward.