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Bruno Mars Excels in His 1980s Imitation Game on ‘24K Magic’

3.5 STARS

Bruno Mars is a fantastic vocal technician. Along with his Hooligans ensemble and his stalwart, endlessly nostalgic production team of Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Brody Brown—now going by the retro-appropriate Shampoo Press & Curl moniker—Mars has carved out a place in Billboard Top 100 history not for stylistic ingenuity or innovation but for his simple ability to evoke the most effective high notes and crescendos from the patchwork history of rhythm and blues. "24K Magic" is Mars’s most explicit and unified statement of homage, primarily to the 1980s West Coast heroes who brought synth-heavy sex and beat-boxed swagger to the mainstream.

Mars entirely eschews the features and genre wanderings of his first two albums for a palette of updates on the ’80s theme, borrowing equally from the silkiness of Michael Jackson’s early-decade ballads and Bell Biv Devoe’s turn-of-the-’90s New Jack Swing bangers. His concise, 33-minute LP shows a voice whose imitative capacities know no bounds; Mars’s vaguely grungy high notes, delightful scoops, and sudden lyrical runs act as true memorials to a musical golden age. When Mars tries to bring 2016 into his pastiche, however, the illusion falls apart—the crudity and pop sensibility of some of his verses breaks the spell of his time capsule appeal. Occasionally Mars steers clear of the present and allows his voice to fully blend into his band’s exquisite harmonies. When he does, "24K Magic" is an admirable, high-definition redux of 1980s Los Angeles R&B; manna.

“Versace on the Floor,” the album’s most memorable melody, is the best example of both the crude pitfalls and the transcendent musicality of Mars’s imitative approach. The track, addressed as a seductive come-on, has Mars telling his lover, “Let’s just kiss until we’re naked; Versace on the floor.” There are plenty of pre-Migos musical references to Versace, and late 1980s crooner-icons like Aaron Hall or Johnny Gill were explicit—their blunt sexual honesty was central to their popularity—but these seductions felt less self-consciously narrated and cheesy-commercial. Virile descriptions of stripping are more believable as spontaneous moans than as luxury punchlines that top out at an impossibly layered high D. Even if the chorus dilutes the sexuality, however, Mars’s run of “Take it off for me, for me, for me…” is legitimately arousing, while the keyboard solo that follows is a uniquely convincing approximation of 1980s bombast in an era rife with synthmasters self-awarely bent on recapturing the unself-awareness of their favorite pre-Internet groups. The work of Shampoo Press & Curl on the song’s outro is a thing of beauty.

The album has plenty of similarly inspired referential moments. The intro to its impressive finale, “Too Good to Say Goodbye,” is a guitar-synthesizer twang reminiscent of Marcus Miller’s work with Luther Vandross. “Chunky,” a paean to “girls who pay rent on time” in the vein of Drake’s questionably-feminist 2010 “Fancy,” has a bass line that sounds as dynamic as Dr. Dre’s early beats. “Straight Up & Down,” another foreplay jam, is the cut closest to being a legitimate throwback—no references to iPhones or conspicuous autotune. Besides a moment where Mars sings “this liquor got both of us faded” and a resultant trappy two-second echo (and if the drums weren’t so perfectly mixed), the song could be from 1987.

If “24K Magic” fully embraced its commentary on 1980s R&B;, it could move beyond its pop trappings and enter the rarified realm of the concept album. Mars and Co., however, can’t seem to escape the impulse for the caffeinated, post-social media call-and-response. Maybe “Uptown Funk” has unfairly saturated this trope, but Mars’s reliance on spoken word breakdowns that are too slow to qualify as rap verses but too sustained to evoke funk breaks the mood of otherwise atmospheric tracks. These runs are also where Mars is most liable to bring in trite elements of 2016 culture—the “hashtag blessed” in the title track, “forget your Instagram and your Twitter” in the James Brown-inspired “Perm,” and a Halle Berry answering machine gag at the end of the forgettable “Calling All My Lovelies.” This is not to suggest that artists need to be consistent in their throwbacks—that would be pretentious and stodgy (never!)—but Mars’s invocations of the present are uninteresting. Given that he is competing against a hip-hop landscape rife with increasingly compelling one-liner pop culture collages (see: Young Thug’s “JEFFERY”), these references are unnecessary.

Despite Mars’s unfortunate inability to fully embody the 1980s, “24K Magic” is his most complete and entertaining album, devoid of the insincere saccharine of “Doo-Wops and Hooligans” and the overly aggressive anthems of “Unorthodox Jukebox.” Here, Mars appears more concerned with sex than love, harmony than hook, and mood than lyric. He doesn’t always achieve an immersive R&B-Early; MTV experience, but his statement often emerges as a well-intentioned and surprisingly on-point tribute.

—Staff writer David J. Kurlander can be reached at david.kurlander@thecrimson.com.

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