With Bruno Mars’ ridiculously catchy single “Locked Out Of Heaven” continuing its current blistering run, it wasn’t so long ago when the singer-songwriter was a glaringly easy target. Armed with his saccharine single “The Lazy Song,” Mars possessed the most punchable face in popular music in early 2011. The Hawaii native’s deliriously happy track from his double platinum 2010 album debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans macarena’d his way into that dubious category of world’s most f—ing annoying song. From its faux reggae guitar licks to its sickeningly cute lyricism that seemed straight out of the Wiggles’ catalogue (“I'll be lounging on the couch/Just chillin' in my Snuggie/Click to MTV, so they can teach me how to Dougie”), “The Lazy Song” was too heavy on the eyewink for its own good. Hell, it even came complete with whistling for god’s sake!
Indeed, “The Lazy Song” was just one in a string of Mars offerings that compelled you to test the laws of gravity with your radio. When the singer wasn’t making shamelessly corny numbers like the 2010 Travis McCoy collaboration “Billionaire,” he was appearing on hooks driving everything from lighthearted Emo love songs (B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You”) to over-the-top, ham-fisted rap anthems (the Eminem featured Bad Meets Evil stadium sing-along “Lighters”). And it’s not that all of Mars’ musical pursuits were horrific. It’s just that the boy proved to be ridiculously inescapable.
But a funny thing happened on the way to declaring Bruno Mars the Filipino Jimmy Buffett. On February 2011, the omnipresent performer joined genre-blurring dynamo Janelle Monae on the Grammy Awards stage.
On the surface, it was an oddball pairing: a brazenly mainstream hitmaker and an alternative, futuristic funk-rock priestess. But the union was a product of an inspired joint tour between Mars and Monae. And like their illuminating spring 2011 trek, the Grammy showing displayed Mars’ true calling: riveting live showman.
Delicately handling keyboard duties, Mars backed up B.o.B on a heartfelt, unplugged version of “Nothin’ On You.” When it was time for his own spirited set, the enterprising act gave a strong nod to a retro 1960s soul revue, re-working his transparent global smash “Grenade” into a searing blues testimony. Then Mars sat in on drums and delivered a manic backbeat for Monae’s show-stopping performance of “Cold War.” It was enough to make any novice fan ask: where the f–k was this guy?!!!
When Mars made his return to the Grammy stage a year later as a solo act, he channeled his inner-James Brown (again, who knew?). His sweat-inducing band, complete with a hard-charging horns and a two-fisted rhythm section, flipped Mars’ somewhat gimmicky retro rave-up “Runaway Baby” into a sneering groove that even got the usually jaded music industry contingent up off their feet.
A few months later, when he was called on to perform a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse at MTV’s VMAs, Mars gave an earnest performance of the late vocalist’s classic track “Valerie.” It was a classy statement, turning heads and converting even more non-believers.
At 27-years-old, Bruno Mars is set to release an album that translates the raw energy exhibited in such live stage shows. The aforementioned “Locked Out Of Heaven” is a clear example of the singer’s new freewheeling approach to recording on his December 11 sophomore release Unorthodox Jukebox. In a recent Billboard interview, Mars spoke of his newfound artistic freedom.
“I've had big record label presidents look me in the face and say, 'Your music sucks, you don't know who you are, your music is all over the place, and we don't know how to market this stuff. Pick a lane and come back to us. That was disgusting to me, because I'm not trying to be a circus act. I listen to a lot of music and I want to have the freedom and luxury to walk into a studio and say, 'Today I want to do a hip-hop, R&B, soul or rock record.’”
Yes, much of the music scribe talk has “Heaven” sharing a sonic resemblance to the Police’s “Message In A Bottle.” But so what? The simmering, sparsely produced dance workout (this time the reggae inflections work) sounds like nothing else on modern pop radio. This ain’t “Gangnam Style.” As with his first set, the Smeezingtons – Mars’ songwriting and production team – co-wrote the 10 tracks on Unorthodox Jukebox. But the album’s style-jumping roster of outside producers – that includes Amy Winehouse vet Mark Ronson, Kanye West collaborator Jeff Bhasker, MIA studio conductor Diplo and Eminem beatman Emile Haynie – shows an artist ready to step outside his musical confines.
Even Mars’ new ballad “Young Girls,” a somber song he debuted during his surprisingly impressive guest hosting duties on Saturday Night Live, is more heartbreaking than his past material. “Boy meets girl, makes her his wife/But love don't exist when you live like this that much I know,” he croons in an all-too vulnerable tone. This from the same guy who co-wrote Cee-Lo’s supremely sarcastic middle finger “F–k You.”
So what does it all mean? Does this vocalist, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist who can go from guitar, piano and percussion, live up to the hype of being one of his generation’s true transcendent talents? Or are the glowing superlatives that now chase Mars simply a product of making records at a time when One Direction and Carly Rae Jepsen are the new pop music standards?
The answer may lie somewhere in between. But say this much for Bruno Mars: as long as he continues to evolve as an infectious, confident live draw, that punchable, corny face of his will only become a lot more bearable.