This week, MTV News critics Charles Aaron, Molly Lambert, Ira Madison III, Jessica Hopper, David Turner, and Doreen St. Félix convened to weigh in on the latest album from Bruno Mars, and how pop nostalgia feels at the tail end of 2016.
Aaron: I have giddily grooved along with several Bruno Mars singles in the car, and that’s a pinnacle few musicians reach (Bey, Stevie, old Kanye, not much else). And 24K Magic might’ve been his quickest hitter yet. But was there really any reason to believe the tiny Super Bowl action figure could make a solid album front-to-back after two multiplatinum bags of mixed popcorn (2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans and 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox)? Even when “Uptown Funk” steamrolled potential copyright claims to ubiquity, the answer was a firm eh.
So why does 24K Magic maintain its bouncy retro fizz? Partly because it doesn’t overreach at 33 minutes, but mostly because Bruno and crew have finally found a sound that suits his caffeinated stage-show antics plus his desire to bring every mirror-ball ballad home soaked with no regrets. Instead of trying to rock every style on the jukebox, he’s now dropping to his knees and clutching the mic stand like a cavalcade of ’80s and ’90s R&B stars who bedazzled his youth – Michael Jackson, Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, New Edition and Bobby Brown, Babyface, Jodeci, Boyz II Men, Teddy Riley, Bell Biv DeVoe. Bruno plays like a cuddlier, sparklier, more tightly-drilled Morris Day, hosting the party with brash bonhomie and wit, crafting the songs and performing the shit out of ’em. There’s never any devilish presumption — like with, say, Justin Timberlake — that he’s more important than the song or the show. Bruno is here to serve you and you will be served.
Lambert: I’ve been saying that if “Uptown Funk” was Bruno’s unabashed Morris Day and The Time tribute act audition, 24K Magic is unapologetically his rip of Roger Troutman and Zapp. He began his career as a kid impersonating Elvis, and he brings his talent for impressions to the jubilant adult-funktemporary™ music he makes for family barbecues, weddings, and roller-disco functions. His delivery on the uptempo songs reminds me Let’s Get Ready–era Mystikal’s channeling of James Brown and The J.B.’s. He brings a showman’s touch to everything — you can hear the spectacular dancing to come in his voice. Bruno Mars is like a really cool magician. Maybe some of his tricks are old as fuck, but they’re classics for a reason, and when you see him doing them you’ll still go, “WOW!”
Turner: I certainly never went “wow” listening to 24K Magic. This can’t be Bruno’s fault, but even a slim 33 minutes is too long to be stuck in perpetual retromania in 2016, pre- and certainly post-Trump. “Uptown Funk” was perhaps the best 2010s funk single and it’s a shame that Bruno wasn’t its leading artist, but 24K Magic needed to come out in 2014 or even 2015 if he was gonna continue to trade in pastiche. The album’s songwriting is still impossibly tight and perhaps a great single will trickle from it — money on “That’s What I Like.” But right now, if I want to listen to talk of Versace and bad women, Migos got me covered.
St. Félix: I would offer that I don’t even think the Bruno Mars universe entertains the possibility of Trump, or anything happening on the ground right now. Mars is strictly an entertainer, never a reactionary. To me, the observation that 24K Magic is retrophilic, that Mars’s entire career has been predicated on being 15 years behind in the cheekiest way, minimizes this guy’s commitment. Mars is determined to be the Wedding Singer of the 2010s; 24K Magic is restoring dignity (and a lot of humor!) to that post. “Throw some perm on your attitude / Girl, you gotta relax,” is so side-eye-endearing that it doesn’t have a chance to be corny. Like Molly and Charles pointed out, he’s not just an indiscriminate rover, picking up generalized ideas of funk. He’s got extremely specific reference points — and on this album, I'm really hearing new jack swing. Additionally, Mars is, like, an amazing singer. His voice is so warm.
Hopper: The very mainstream regeneration of the Minneapolis sound in the year that we lost Prince is something I cannot be mad at. 24K Magic feels like Bruno Mars set out to create a soundworld set entirely within Midnight Star’s “No Parking on the Dance Floor.” It’s been a landmark year for deep, personal albums — life-giving albums you could crawl into and take shelter in. Ushering 2016 out with an album that is unapologetically perky as well as utterly palatable for the very young, the grown and sexy, and the straight-up geriatric feels like Dr. Mars might have known what folks needed before we knew to ask. Perhaps 24K is some post-election Top 40 “Footprints Prayer” shit, but in lieu of Jesus, it’s a sockless Bruno Mars in his white leather driving moccasins, carrying us onto the dance floor.
Madison III: I really, really love this album. It’s taken me a while to board the Bruno Mars train. I was always like, “Who is he? Why is here?” But it was his first Super Bowl performance that won me over. He’s a showman and never anything less than 200 percent committed. I’m going to disagree with David that this wasn’t the time to release a retro album. As someone who grew up in that era, this throwback to Bobby Brown, Guy, and Silk is what R&B has craved. There’s so much great work being done in the genre from the likes of Tinashe, Jazmine Sullivan, and K. Michelle among others, but none of their music has taken off the same way Mars’s has. If it’s him who brings back the era of campy lyrics and syrupy beats, then I’m all for it. The beat on “Calling All My Lovelies” has entranced me like it’s been buried in my brain since 1994 and has only now resurfaced. “I got Alicia waitin’ / Aisha waitin’ / All the -eeshas waitin’ on me” is perhaps my favorite line on the album. If there’s one person he bears comparison to it’s Amy Winehouse. Mars’s collaborations with Mark Ronson (particularly “Uptown Funk”) have paid off for him. Winehouse’s throwbacks to the blues era feel raw and authentic, and the same vibe is apparent in Mars as he drenches himself in funk and R&B. It’s not half-assed in the way some pop stars say, “My new album has an ’80s vibe,” or “I’m really trying to explore hip-hop.” He is intimately engaged and curating a perfect song. Also, shit, “Finesse” sounds like the perfect blend of pop and New Edition — it’s like a song from NSYNC’s first album sung by a black person, and Bruno isn’t even black. But his R&B sounds so good he might as well be.