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‘24K Magic’: How Bruno Mars Struck Gold With His Third Album
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In Depth

‘24K Magic’: How Bruno Mars Struck Gold With His Third Album

Mining his love of 90s R&B and G-funk, Bruno Mars’ third album, ‘24K Magic’, sparked a gold rush with a clutch of feel-good party bangers.

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After his collaborative single with Mark Ronson, Uptown Funk, spent 14 weeks at No.1 in the US in 2014 and won him a Grammy for Record Of The Year, Bruno Mars went into the studio at Glenwood Place in Burbank, California, towards the end of 2015, feeling somewhat nervous about his much-anticipated third album, 24 Magic. “Coming off the biggest song of my career, it was super-daunting to come in here,” Mars told Rolling Stone magazine during recording sessions for the record. His lifeline, he felt, was to reach back to his youth.

Listen to ‘24K Magic’ here.

Drawing inspiration from old-school R&B and 90s hip-hop’s litany of gangstas and pimps, Mars sifted through the nuggets of a golden era to create a modern twist on his high-school favourites, from the vainglorious swagger of New Jack Swing to the self-aggrandisement of Dr Dre and 2Pac. “Those 90s songs are what I was singing to get the girls in school, the songs that the girls like, what we were dancing to as children,” the singer told NME. Newly inspired, Mars set out on his biggest challenge yet: to capture a unique sound that felt both nostalgic and new at the same time.

“‘24K Magic’ is because of West Coast hip-hop”

Written at the same time that Uptown Funk was riding high in the charts, 24K Magic’s title track was pegged as the first taste of Bruno Mars’ gold-tinted direction. Released in October 2016, the song kicks off with an intro from Mr TalkBox himself, Byron Manard Chambers, and launches into a glittery disco groove full of G-funk flourishes and unabashed bravado (“Players only, come on/Put your pinkie rings up to the moon”). “You hear these 90s influences on the whole album, really, but 24K Magic is because of West Coast hip-hop,” Mars later admitted to Beats 1’s Zane Lowe. Peaking at No.4 in the US, 24K Magic picked up where Uptown Funk left off, delivering a party anthem for the ages.

Sporting a new look of über-cool shades, bomber jackets and silk shirts, Mars spends most of the 24K Magic promo video cavorting around Las Vegas with his entourage. Reviving the carefree days of 90s hypemasters, the song luxuriates in his forebears’ positive energy and infectious hooks. “Listening to them, it was at a time when it was OK to party, to be flashy, to get on the dancefloor,” Mars told Zane Lowe, intending for that same energy to spill into his new music.

On 18 November 2016, six weeks after its lead single first dropped, the 24K Magic album itself was finally released, comprising of nine tracks lovingly created with all-killer, no-filler quality control. From the cheeseball electro-funk of Chunky, on which Mars makes overtures to big-bottomed women (“Lookin’ for them girls with the big ol’ hoops”), to the James Brown-esque funk fantasia of Perm, it was the perfect mix of retro-pop nostalgia and fun-loving zest for life.

“I want people to feel fabulous when they hear this album”

In January 2017, 24K Magic’s second single, This Is What I Like, was released. A sonic melding of contemporary R&B with the boy-band brio of Boyz II Men, it proved to be an even bigger hit than its predecessor, scoring Mars yet another US No.1 as he aimed to impress the ladies with his love of eating shrimp scampi and drinking strawberry champagne on ice. “I want people to feel fabulous when they hear this album,” he told Charlie Rose. “Therefore, if I want people to feel fabulous, I’ve got to feel fabulous.” With the help of Inglewood songwriter James Fauntleroy, This Is What I Like exudes fabulousness from every pore.

Elsewhere on the album, the ghosts of New Jack Swing producers Jimmy Jam and Teddy Riley loom over Straight Up & Down and Calling All My Lovelies, while Mars indulges in his love of the best power ballads on the album’s closer, Too Good to Say Goodbye. Proving just what a versatile songwriter he truly is, the track is an impeccably arranged piano ballad co-written with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, one of Mars’ idols from the halcyon days of 90s R&B.

From start to finish, the production on 24K Magic – attributed not The Smeezingtons, who had helmed his previous albums, but to Shampoo Press & Curl, the trio of Mars, former Smeezington Philip Lawrence and songwriter/producer Christopher Brody – positively glistens with all the pristine touches of 80s synth-funk and 90s swingbeat grooves. Shining as brightly as the Cuban links around its creator’s neck, Mars’ third album proved that the danceability and unbridled joy of Uptown Funk was anything but a fluke. If anything, it was his driving impulse.

“I needed to stop telling you we’re gonna get down, and just get down”

Described by Mars as a “silky, love-making ballad”, the slow-jam album highlight Versace On The Floor was released as a single in June 2017. Irrepressibly lustful and ornate, it sees Mars charming the clothes off his lover in some imaginary boudoir (“Let’s just kiss ’til we’re naked, baby/Versace on the floor”), and immediately took its place among a fast-growing list of the best Bruno Mars songs. “At a certain point,” Mars told Rolling Stone magazine, “I needed to stop telling you, ‘We’re gonna get down,’ and just get down.”

Set to grinding synth notes the likes of which characterised many of the best 80s songs, Versace On The Floor peaked at No.33 in the US, and its glamorous music video featured Gen Z actress Zendaya bathing herself in neon lights and letting her dress fall to the floor after Mars finishes serenading her on piano. “When the flyest man out here calls you for one of the flyest songs out,” Zendaya posted on Instagram after announcing her appearance in the video, “you make it happen.”

There are few singers brave enough to flirt with sexually suggestive lyrics like the ones that underpin Versace On The Floor, let alone lean into a seductive and sensual vocal delivery in the way Bruno Mars does. Completely lacking in contrivance, Mars succeeds in reclaiming the R&B lothario mantle his 90s heroes once owned, as well as the raunchy pop provocation of 80s legend Prince. Without a doubt, Mars has learnt from the best.

“It was a lot of fun, it was a lot of torture, it was everything”

More than a year after the 24K Magic album’s release, Mars teamed up with rapper Cardi B to remix Finesse, which peaked at No.3 in the US and No.5 in the UK with help from a music video that paid tribute to In Living Colour, one of Mars’ favourite 90s TV shows. Mixing all the very best ingredients of New Jack Swing with Cardi B’s contemporaneous bars dragging the song into the 21st century, it was yet another nostalgic party bop made to feel completely fresh, and was soon embraced as one of the best workout songs of the decade.

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