It’s been five years since Tyler, the Creator famously threatened to “stab Bruno Mars in his god damn esophagus,” catapulting himself toward celebrity status and labeling the starry-eyed singer as an enemy of the internet’s subcultural angst. Mars was an ideal target for Tyler’s anti-establishment rhetoric back then: a clean-cut songwriter and music industry insider who walked into the spotlight with a catchy hook and a string of radio hits. He sang tongue-in-cheek love songs to win mothers’ hearts everywhere — eventually claiming enough of them to headline the Super Bowl — but his lyrics felt more like parts of a grand, romantic shtick than genuine emotional offerings. Bruno Mars was another one of those pop acts that “hip” people loved to hate. Talented? Yes. Successful? Absolutely. But it seemed impossible for him to be cool.
Fortunately, Bruno Mars’ latest album, 24K Magic, which released on Friday, Nov. 18th, is unrecognizable in almost every way from his hearty, Radio-Disney-aimed debut, “Doo Wops & Hooligans.” On “Doo Wops,” he used soulful affirmations like, “You’re amazing just the way you are” and “I think I want to marry you” to frame his pop persona as caring, considerate and, above all else, approvable, but 24K Magic is more fit to score a cocaine bender than an innocent first date. Bruno bursts out into shouts over thick, feverish strumming and hard-hitting percussion, strutting across groovy synthesizers for sport and boasting like a true Atlantic City gangster to further construct his 1980s-nightclub persona.
At just nine tracks long, 24K Magic almost never stops bouncing, its excited vibrations seeping through headphones and blaring out of speakers as a personal assault on all those standing still. On the first song, which is also the title-track, Bruno declares,”Pop! Pop! It’s showtime!” as if to warn old fans that something different is underway. Then, on “Chunky,” he walks across one of the thickest, funkiest bass lines in recent memory, announcing on the hook: “If you ain’t here to party, take your ass back home. “Perm” is defined by frantic strumming, blaring brass and James-Brown-like energy, while “Finesse,” a second-half standout, is a coolly executed experiment within the ‘90s boy-band soundscape.
Perhaps Bruno’s transition from swooning lovebird to hyper-masculine fun fiend was somewhat predictable: his second album, 2013’s Unorthodox Jukebox, indulged in a diverse set of styles while last year’s enormous hit “Uptown Funk” — produced by Mark Ronson — teased his tapping into boogey-down eras. Still, aggressive demands like, “If I ring don’t let it ring too long,” which appears on the purring, slow song, “Calling All My Lovelies,” seem strikingly out of character for a man who once promised to “catch a grenade” for his loved one. This attitude change is a good thing though, as it adds a layer of spice without intruding on Bruno Mars’s seemingly trademarked soft side. “That’s White I Like” achieves perfect synergy with his two tones, but album-closer “Too Good To Say Goodbye” lets the lovebird take the microphone.
It’s impossible not to compare 24K Magic to Michael Jackson’s classically groovy album Off The Wall, especially when considering that MJ’s longtime musical director, Greg Phillinganes, delivered a synth solo for the new album’s most intimate offering, “Versace on the Floor.” Bruno Mars was so obviously inspired by Off The Wall’s exuberance and structure, its clean, brief length and unswerving focus on quick-footed fun, its ability to squeeze bubblegum teen-pleasers like “Girlfriend” and “It’s the Falling in Love” into an otherwise disc-jockey-ready track-list. There’s influence from every swag-having, heterosexual pop star in history stamped somewhere on 24K Magic, but Bruno Mars seems most intent on chasing Jackson’s legacy, probably because it is one of the few lanes diverse enough to host all of his shapes. It will be fun to watch what he evolves into next.
In the meantime, though, 24K Magic is sure to shock the world with its rhythmic precision and timeless sounds. Bruno Mars has created a project that should prove capable of moving parents, twenty-somethings and teenagers alike, one of those ultra rare pop records that is painfully fun to listen to, one that is both masculine and caring, indulgent and emotional, but not too much of either. Remember “Get Lucky?” Or “SexyBack?” There is no greater phenomenon than pop music being good — not carefully-constructed or well-marketed, but actually fun, creative and exciting. Bruno Mars is trying to usher us into a new golden era of pop. I’m sure as hell rooting for him to pull it off.