Ah, Unorthodox Jukebox, the perfect name to summarize Bruno Mars’s second album. Considering the charm of his vocals and the Midas touch he has for big hooks (“Billionaire,” “Nothin’ on You,” and “Lighters” were all Top 5 hits for rappers), up to this point Mars’s discography plays like a mini jukebox. He proved on his debut album Doo Wops and Hooligans that he understand how the pop formula works. And, despite his tender young age of 27 – missing the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller by three years – he uses wise espionage on some of R&B’s finest champions; some older (Marvin Gaye, Isley Brothers), some a bit younger (Sade, D’Angelo). Yet, when hardcore R&B fans check out his fedora-wearing wardrobe and listen to his craftsmanship while also considering his rise to Top 40 fame, they hardly imagine Mars being a hip student to the black arts. So, like Jackson tried with Thriller’s edgy follow-up, Bad, and the New Jack Swing-focused Dangerous, Mars does with Unorthodox Jukebox. He’s trying to toughen up his skin, to appeal to the cool rebels of today’s generation.
While breaking through the bluntness of “Gorilla,” the ear wrestles with Mars’s need to satirize his own gentleman ethics using R. Kelly-esque bedroom decorum. Never mind that the beats conjure Sade-like suaveness, the ear immediately wrestles with Mars’s ballsy move to relive the hedonism of past Vegas trips (“I’ve got a body full of liquor with a cocaine kicker and I’m feeling like I’m thirty feet tall”) and to fuel up ego worship (“What I’ve got for you, I promise it’s a killer/You’ll be banging on my chest, BANG-BANG, gorilla.”). But, with the arena-rock chorus on deck, “Gorilla” is predestined for radio gold, even if it means he has to crank out some laughable, profanity-free version. Clearly, this is the kind of naughty that R. Kelly only fantasizes about, ultimately making “Bump and Grind” look like another soft core episode of Red Shoe Diaries.
This new level of dirty swagger will probably be the album’s talking point, but inside Mars pulls off a definite collection of trailblazing R&B loaded with lots more versatility than his first outing and that hardly gazes at the cheat sheets driving the momentum behind the experimental alt-R&B/neo-Quiet Storm craze. That’s because Mars builds his pop songs around winning combinations from the retro vault. “Locked Out of Heaven” dances with The Police’s reggae; “Show Me” finds a way to marinate the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” into more reggae; “Treasure” pulls off Kool & the Gang funk; “Young Girls” sounds like a Sam Cooke ballad soaked in the danger of “Grenade” and indie pop. Even when he slows down the show using the ‘80s synthpop of “Moonshine” or the lovelorn ballad “When I Was Your Man,” Mars keeps your attention.
Certainly Unorthodox Jukebox will square off with the relentless naysayers who think he didn’t try hard enough or that his burning need to exercise a plethora of co-producers—including Diplo, Benny Blanco and Mark Ronson—may have overshadowed his own talents as a producer (alongside the strong Smeezingtons team). In the conversation amongst music critics, they will probably claim he still hasn’t pulled off the R&B game changer. But, Unorthodox Jukebox is a sneaky little devil; probably one that will be better appreciated a couple of years from now. In my eyes, it sounds like the best thing to come out of R&B in 2012. What Mars will gain immediately following this assignment is more street cred as a solid pop songwriter, even if he’s playfully tweaking his smooth crooner suaveness with something a little more risqué. With a running time of a meager thirty-four minutes (slightly shorter than Doo-Wops and Hooligans), Mars’s latest jukebox will scream for multiple plays. It isn’t a picture perfect voyage; neither was MJ’s Bad. But, damn, it still sounds great as hell. Enthusiastically recommended
By J Matthew Cobb