Every week, we tell you about an album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is 24K Magic, the third LP from Bruno Mars, America’s pre-eminent showman.
For all the advances we’ve made in poptimism, there’s still something dirty about a performer nakedly wanting to be “an entertainer.” We’re OK acknowledging that the songs on the top of the charts aren’t necessarily the lowest common denominator, we’re OK acknowledging that the Weeknd suddenly sounding like ‘80s era Michael Jackson is an OK career move, and we’re OK putting pop songs on our “Best Songs of the Year” lists. But when someone wants to be number one, wants to appeal to the biggest possible audience of us, wants to do nothing but entertain every grandma down to every infant, we still read it as corny. Pitbull, Flo Rida, the Black Eyed Peas; we laugh as these performers do their best to make the biggest cross section of fans as possible.
But, we also don’t acknowledge the tightrope walk that it takes to appeal to this audience, but also make music that isn’t gruel. Bruno Mars, by a vast, wide margin, is the best performer we have right now who can make music that is both “great”—there wasn’t a single song released in 2015 better than “Uptown Funk”—and which will also be played at every wedding from now till eternity. His start as a tiny Elvis impersonator who performed as a lounge act is part of his origin story, but it also applies to his approach: he’s ready to perform for anyone who walks through the door.
His new album, 24K Magic, is going to be the only 2016 album you and your cousin Jed will agree on when you sit down to the Thanksgiving dinner table this holiday weekend. It’s almost too big to fail; the songs here are flawlessly constructed—Mars told Rolling Stone he reworked many of the songs here over and over in different genres—and ready to be blaring out of car stereos across the American landscape. Where his last album—2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, an album that was both a hit and maybe underrated; if Weeknd had dropped that instead it would have gotten rave reviews on Pitchfork—blended new wave, funk, and a hefty dose of the Police, he goes R&B here, plumbing new life out of the sounds of Bell Biv Devoe, New Edition, and Ready for the World, delivering an album that will bring many people to the dancefloors of high school gymnasiums, weddings, and the halls of congress as his last album did.
The success of “Uptown Funk” apparently weighed heavily on Mars when he went into the studio to record 24K, but you wouldn’t really know it from the album. It’s breezy, it’s full of songs about dancing, and fucking, and funking and leaving a specific brand of clothing on the floor when you seek congress with a romantic partner (see the highlight “Versace on the Floor”). The album’s first two tracks—the deliriously great title track and “Chunky”-- try to appease the people who are maybe coming through to see if he still has the juice after “Uptown,” but then the album takes a left turn into New Jack Swing and the best of late ‘80s and early ‘90s R&B. Late album highlight “Finesse” takes its “Poison” drum breaks and delivers the first new song I’ve heard in years that could soundtrack a prom on Fresh Prince of Bel Air. “That’s What I Like,” with its finger snaps and slow jam chorus, and the draped-in-affluence swagger, of second single “Versace on the Floor,” feel like longtail hit singles that will drop next summer when everyone has forgotten about 24K Magic. But the darkhorse is “Too Good to Say Goodbye,” one of Mars’ best ballads in a discography rich with them, that will soundtrack many sad walks across college campuses for the next 18 months.
The week before Thanksgiving is always one of the most packed of the album release calendar, as major labels roll out one last huge album before people head to their local big box retailer for Black Friday. This meant that this week was the most stacked to pick from w/r/t this here column, the Album of the Week. But of all the contenders, the only one that felt appropriate, the only that felt honest, was this one. Bruno Mars might make music for everyone, but this kind of mass appeal music doesn’t usually swing, or have as much nuance, or isn’t as consistently rewarding as 24K Magic. I’m already looking forward to being 4/5 hammered at a family barbecue this summer, and thanks to Bruno, that will have a soundtrack.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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