Monday, 26 December 2016

24K Magic review

Bruno Mars' new album is a love letter to the RnB of the eighties and early nineties, and one of the most enjoyable records of 2016.

Opening with the title track, Mars immediately gets you in the mood with a vocoder that evokes the electro-funk of Zapp & Roger. While the song features a sound clearly evocative of mid-eighties RnB (plenty of synth piano, drum machines and touches of vocoder), it never feels like an empty homage. The beat is tight, but it is not as repetitive as last year's "Uptown Funk", and it still feels like a Bruno Mars joint.

Built from similar components, "Chunky" is even better. A tight, strutting dance number with some nice touches of female backing vocals, it illustrates just how well Mars and his collaborators understand the music they are paying homage to. While there are synthetic instruments, they do not flood the entire song -- there is a use of space here that allows Mars' vocals to come through, and the listener to settle into the groove.

"Perm" is a James Brown-style funk track, with Mars doing a pretty good approximation of Brown's voice. There's not much more to it than that, but it's a fun song.

"That's What I Like" feels more like a ballad from the nineties. I
t's a decent album track but nothing that special.

On "Versace on the Floor", the nineties feeling is more pronounced. This is Mars' attempt at an anthem ballad ala Boys II Men. It might not be as instantly catchy as as their hits, but it's a solid song that could have used a little more personality. Mars re-creates the feel of the quartet by multi-tracking his vocals (at least, that's what it sounds like), so the effect comes off a little cold.

"Straight Up & Down" is another solid album track, with some good backing vocals and finger snaps. It's another "That's What I Like" in that it's decent filler.

Concluding with a sexy(?) celebrity cameo, "Calling All My Lovelies" is a great slow jam about a guy calling everyone in his black book after his favourite squeeze cuts him off, but getting no responses. It's a neat bit of satire, re-casting the typical soul lover-man as a gormless moron.

"Finesse" is Mars' new jack swing song, and it's one of the best tracks on the album. Featuring the same tinny production as a Teddy Riley track from the early 90s (e.g. Guy or Blackstreet), it boasts a great vocal from Mars and is extremely catchy -- which is the whole point really. I'm not a big fan of Riley, but Mars and co. manage to re-create the vibe minus Riley's slightly weedy sound (I'm more of a Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis fan).

"Too Good to Say Goodbye" is a ballad co-written by Babyface, one of the key figures of the era Mars is trying to evoke. It's a bit too pungent for my taste -- I tend to run hot and cold on syrupy ballads from this era, and this one is a bit too close to those for me to really enjoy it. However, it is a good finale to the whole project.

Ultimately, 24K Magic is a really good pop record that manages to balance Mars' own style with being a time capsule of a specific era. If one goes from Track 1 to 9, it feels like aural journey from the sounds of the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. Either way you cut it, it's a great soundtrack for the summer. 

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