The Week In Pop

At Least America Can Agree On Bruno Mars

No matter which version of America you’re nostalgically longing for, Bruno Mars can make it great again. Ever since Mars made his big splash at the dawn of the decade with Doo-Wops & Hooligans — and especially since his 2012 triumph Unorthodox Jukebox — he’s been crashing the charts with one retro reclamation after another, be it the Police pastiche of “Locked Out Of Heaven” or the Soul Train disco-funk gem “Treasure.” In 2013, NPR’s Ann Powers called him “the moment’s most valuable pop historian,” writing that his songs display “the whole history of melodic music you can dance to, from Tin Pan Alley to his beloved early-’60s pop to that ’80s moment when new wave and R&B collided” — and that was before Mars and his creative soulmate Mark Ronson scored the biggest hit of the decade by triangulating the spirit of ’80s Minneapolis (maybe a little too precisely) with “Uptown Funk!”

After a song like that, there’s basically nowhere to go but down, both commercially (its 14 weeks at #1 were only two shy of the all-time record) and creatively (have you heard “Uptown Funk!”? Relatedly, have you experienced joy on this Earth?). But Mars has been working hard as hell to keep his hot streak going. Per a recent Rolling Stone cover story, he and his band endlessly tinkered with every song on his new album, building them up and tearing them down and revising them beyond recognition until they fit his vision of a groove-oriented throwdown fit for hip rooftop parties and high school dances alike. Tomorrow he releases the result of all that effort: 24K Magic, his first album in four years.

Such tireless perfectionism is nothing new for Mars, whose skill set extends far beyond a suave stage presence and a voice like fraying silk. A willingness to kill his darlings in service of the most winsome possible pop single is how he got his foot in the door as an industry songwriter, how he broke through at radio, how he evolved past the saccharine tendencies of early hits like “Just The Way You Are,” and how he and Ronson saved “Uptown Funk!” from the rubbish bin. His meticulousness comes to bear on not just melodies, rhythms, and lyrics but wholesale aesthetic panoramas, until every track is a convincing sonic time machine. The man does not merely revisit the style of a given era; he fully immerses you in it and reminds you why it was so pervasive in the first place.

In the case of 24K Magic, that means zeroing in on various permutations of old-school R&B. The title track — a spiritual sequel to “Uptown Funk!” — expertly apes Zapp’s squelching, rippling electro funk, its synthetic wave of swagger topped off with a call to “Put your pinky rings up to the moon!” Follow-up single “Versace On The Floor” imagines Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” repurposed for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack: a power ballad rising to Valhalla from a soft bed of Casios. There are also effective throwbacks to James Brown (“Perm”), Bobby Brown (“Finesse”), and even something as recent as “I’m A Flirt”-era R. Kelly (“That’s What I Like”). And for album-ending love song “Too Good To Say Goodbye,” Mars collaborated with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, one of the architects of the New Jack Swing sound that forms the core of this record.

At nine tracks and 33 minutes, even the structure of 24K Magic nods to the pre-CD era. The tracklist correlates more closely to ’80s milestones like Thriller and Purple Rain than the bloated, bonus-track-heavy blockbusters recently released by Mars’ more depressive contemporaries (Views, Purpose, The Life Of Pablo et al). Such brevity suggests Mars is supremely confident in every song here, and he should be: All nine of them could work as singles, another way the album hearkens back to Prince and MJ.

Yet, as is his custom, there are brief flickers of modernity throughout — semi-current slang like “faded” on “Straight Up And Down”; references to Twitter, Instagram, and putting your phone down on “Perm”; the involvement of Skrillex — all of which work to subtly detach these songs from both then and now. His style may be self-consciously retro, but the way he hopscotches across history denotes an especially modern kind of eclecticism. Although his music only glances at hip-hop, he raids the record bins of yesteryear with a rap producer’s ear and attitude, especially in the years since actual rap producer Ronson entered his inner circle.

With all that in mind, it’s a wonder that Mars has managed to publicly skirt the usual concerns about appropriation while so liberally pillaging black music history. His avoidance of controversy may be instructive regarding the blind spots in 21st century American “wokeness.” Perhaps Mars gets a free pass due to his multiracial background: He was born in Hawaii to Filipino and Puerto Rican parents, which means his embrace of black music does not set off the same privilege alarms that have long haunted lily-white performers such as Macklemore or Iggy Azalea. Or maybe it’s because rather than rapping, he’s working in black-pioneered genres that have long been culturally whitewashed — so folks might not notice that, as my colleague Collin Robinson pointed out in some private correspondence, “having a song called ‘Perm’ doing funk and R&B and not being black is kinda wild.”

Most likely such indiscretions go overlooked because Mars has become a rare unifying force in pop. NPR’s Powers saw his communal stage show and diverse fan base as a vision of a more inclusive future, even writing (with some qualification) that “the music itself provides a basis for believing in love and grace across the lines of identity.” It’s true: He and his songs are so contagiously likable that he feels like a precious commodity in our endlessly polarized modern world. In the wake of a painfully divisive election with potentially dire consequences, you could argue that a star of Mars’ magnitude should be using his platform to address important issues rather than recede into celebratory escapism. Mars might counter that by appealing across boundaries of age, class, color, and creed, his joyous hit parade is a statement in its own right.

CHART WATCH

Our long national nightmare — well, it’s just beginning, actually, but that annoying 12-week stretch when the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” was America’s #1 song is behind us. Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s “Black Beatles” has unseated “Closer” atop the Hot 100, rising from #9 to become the first #1 single for both artists (and, somewhat surprisingly, for producer Mike Will Made-It). The song has exploded in popularity thanks to its appearance in viral #MannequinChallenge videos, including one by Paul McCartney himself. And although it tops the chart without much radio airplay — the least since Zayn Malik’s “Pillowtalk” debuted at #1 — it’s building there, too, entering the Radio Songs chart at #44 this week.

“Black Beatles” bumps down each of last week’s top four songs by one position, meaning “Closer” is now #2, the Weeknd and Daft Punk’s “Starboy” is #3, and Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens” is #4, and DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You” is #5. Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” slides back up to #6, sending Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Side To Side” down a notch to #7. Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall’s viral dance craze “Juju On That Beat” ascends to a new peak of #8, while D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli” slides to #9. And the Maroon 5/Kendrick Lamar collab “Don’t Wanna Know” is back in the top 10 at #10.

Over on the Billboard 200, Jon Bon Jovi might have failed to get out the vote for Hillary Clinton, but he succeeded at hawking copies of his new album. This House Is Not For Sale becomes Bon Jovi’s sixth #1 LP this week — and with respectable numbers, too. This is a slow week on the album chart, but Bon Jovi’s 129,000 equivalent units (and 128,000 in sales) would win against much stronger competition than the 50,000 units (and 42,000 in sales) Alicia Keys tallied for her #2-debuting Here. Billboard notes that Bon Jovi’s chart-topping debut is partially attributable to an album + ticket sales promotion.

The Justin Timberlake-headlined Trolls soundtrack rises to #3 with 47,000 units and 34,000 sales after entering the chart at #39 last week; the big leap was spurred on by the movie’s release in theaters. And after Pentatonix’s latest Christmas album at #4 comes another title surging from below: Rae Sremmurd’s Sremmlife 2 is up (like Trump, ugh, OK, sorry) from #21 to a new peak of #5 with 39,000 units and only 3,000 in sales. That’s right: Streams of one particular track have rocketed Rae Sremmurd back up the album chart — 43.3 million streams, to be exact.

Mirroring the singles chart, the Chainsmokers are one notch below Rae Sremmurd with a #6 start for their Collage EP. And like SremmLife 2, Collage earned that spot on the strength of track streams; the EP only sold 9,000 copies but logged 39,000 equivalent units. And the final debut of the top 10 is the Now 60 comp at #7 with 36,000 units, all from sales.

POP FIVE

Britney Spears – “Slumber Party” (Feat. Tinashe)
Both Spears and Tinashe have been hard-up for hits lately, but this woozy, futuristic reggae duet might just do the trick.

Robin Thicke – “One Shot” (Feat. Juicy J)
Both of these guys were making their biggest mainstream splash about three years ago, circa “Blurred Lines” and “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” but have receded somewhat in the interim. This modernized retro rock pastiche is the kind of single that could bring them both back in a major way. It’s super corny but also super catchy, with a beat that basically forces your body to bob along. Would definitely ruin the mood at a Juicy J concert, though.

Fergie – “Life Goes On”
In contrast to the colorfully outré sounds Fergie’s comeback has yielded thus far, this one is firmly in keeping with the soft-rock vibes that have been dominating pop in the aftermath of faux-dancehall and tropical house. It’s not the kind of proudly obnoxious single we’ve learned to expect from Fergie, but I found myself enjoying it well enough — at least until the reggae rap breakdown at the bridge.

Betty Who – “Human Touch”
Speaking of that breezy, bouncy, electronics-infused island sound — it’s really everywhere, huh? Like, just as inescapable as Mustardwave back in 2014.

Zara Larsson – “I Would Like”
Now here’s an excellent house-infused banger, straight outta Sweden. “I Would Like” is somehow understated and humongous all at once, and it arrives with all the Scandinavian pop hallmarks you would want, including some slightly goofy English translation on the chorus: “I would like to get to know you, baby/ I would like to get under your sexy body.”

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • “I’m almost done with an album,” Ariana Grande told fans on Snapchat. “I didn’t mean to make an album, and I don’t know if it’s done at all, but I just have a bunch of songs that I really like. I’ve just been working and creating and inspired.” [Twitter]
  • A Texas man was arrested for violating a lifetime restraining order against Taylor Swift after following her to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. [AP]
  • A new John Mayer project “Love On The Weekend” will be revealed today. [Instagram]
  • Ginger Spice and Baby Spice hit the studio together. [Instagram]
  • Following her tearful earlier video upon Donald Trump’s election, a more accepting Miley Cyrus has launched the #HopefulHippie campaign “to come together and take action to work for the America we want.” [Instagram]
  • Miley’s sister Noah Cyrus released her debut single. [YouTube]
  • Madonna announced an Art Basel benefit concert for Raising Malawi that will feature her performing along with Sean Penn, Chris Rock, Ariana Grande, and James Corden. [Celebuzz]
  • She also filmed a Carpool Karaoke segment with Corden in NYC. [Instagram]
  • Pink is expecting her second child with husband Carey Hart. [Instagram]
  • Katy Perry donated $10k to Planned Parenthood in response to Donald Trump’s election win. [Buzzfeed]
  • Jay Z hit the studio with Zaytoven. [Instagram]
  • Big Sean is working on a solo project and a new Twenty88 album with Jhene Aiko. [Twitter]
  • Adele announced her first ever Australian tour. [Twitter]
  • Bruno Mars announced a 24K Magic World Tour. [Bruno Mars]
  • In a since-deleted Snapchat post, DJ Snake hinted that he’s playing Coachella. [Billboard]
  • Justin Bieber is selling a limited edition 7″ vinyl box set of his Purpose singles. [Justin Bieber]
  • Idina Menzel sings “The Glory Of Love” in a promo for the Beaches remake. [Deadline]
  • Halsey cast some Twitter shade on her collaborators the Chainsmokers. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME