Superstar Bruno Mars has ascended to a level where fan defense prior to critical thinking is nearly an automatic trigger. It’s no wonder. After two ridiculously high-selling albums, Doo-Wops & Hooligans and Unorthodox Jukebox, and the “featured to end all featureds” on Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” — doubtless that was the single of 2015 — he is now in a position of cracking sales for a record wide open before anyone’s heard a single track from it.
This is both a great and terrible thing for an artist as genuinely ambitious and learned about pop as Mars is. Great because it puts one in a position of freedom. Terrible because…it puts one in a position of freedom.
As a producer himself, making his initial bones by constructing hits for Travie McCoy and B.O.B., and for having a hand in CeeLo Green’s post-Gnarls smash “F*** You,” Mars surely knows that sometimes you need someone to say, “maybe this is all a bit much.” So it is with an album with a title like 24k Magic, heavy-handed and singular in its mission, to do it to you all night long.
Hard to get that impression when the record starts though, as the title track is the logical successor to “Uptown Funk.” The channel is now dialed into the late-’80s with tweeting synths and beats reminiscent of Motown at that time and, by and large, is entertaining. It isn’t until we swing to the next track, “Chunky,” which distressingly kept me flashing back to Eddie Murphy perusing the dirty magazine rack in the beginning of The Golden Child. Much as that was made a joke in the film, this song renders itself an unintentional joke, and yet another reductionist take on the female anatomy. The most obvious precursors to “Chunky” are “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot, and even though I highly doubt this had any influence on Mars’ process, “I.L.B.Ts” from Joe Walsh’s You Bought It, You Name It — all a part of this fraternity. With the latter two songs, either they began life as novelties or time has eroded them into novelty status.
That sets the scene for an uncomfortable suite of baby-makin’ jams like “That’s What I Like,” “Versace On The Floor,” “Straight Up & Down,” and “Calling All My Lovelies.” Bookending these are a couple of pretty good tracks: the James Brown-channeling “Perm” and the New Jack Swinging “Finesse.” The album closes with the nicely rendered retro of “Too Good To Say Goodbye.” That last track gets special mention because Mars collaborated with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds on it (but of course he did).
The overall effort sounds good, highly-crafted and polished. It would have to be. Aside from his own instincts, Mars has surrounded himself with quite a staff: The Stereotypes (producers for McCoy, Ne-Yo, and Justin Bieber, to name a few), Jeff Bhasker (fun., Kanye West), and the cryptically considered Shampoo Press & Curl collective which, rumor has it, is a reconfigured version of Mars’ own former production crew The Smeezingtons. No one doubts Mars’ ability to put out a collection of honed and harnessed modern pop music with a deep nod to the past.
You could call 24k Magic a concept record if you take all these late-’80s and early-’90s touchpoints in aggregate, but what you’re left with is this feeling of a big step back rather than a homage to back then. The first two Bruno Mars albums felt like there was growth happening, even in those places where the naivete was thick and uncomfortable. You could tell he was a preternaturally gifted pop adherent but he was still a young man, and he approached his feelings like a young man would.
He’s been through a lot since then, but 24k Magic feels regressive, like a retreat from maturity, right down to the smarmy Mack Daddy pose on the cover in silk pajamas. Just about everything here offers the voice of someone saying, “I can do what I want,” but just because you can does not mean you should. Freedom, as nearly every superhero movie has taught us, comes with responsibility. This album, while technically sounding good, sounds totally irresponsible. I suspect that’s exactly why people are going to like it and I’m on the wrong side of judgment, but I just don’t feel compelled to listen to 24k Magic again and, like him or not, that never was a problem with Bruno Mars before.