Haters will say it’s fake—and they did when he swept the Grammys—but Bruno Mars’ love for ’80s and ’90s R&B is as real as it gets.
In accepting the Album of the Year trophy for 24K Magic, the 32-year-old pop megastar (and Park Theater resident, returning for four shows this month) explained how the album’s songs were inspired by a set he performed as a 15-year-old in Hawaii opening a tourist show called The Magic of Polynesia—pop-soul hits written by iconic, prolific pop producers Babyface, Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. “I saw people dancing that had never met each other … celebrating together,” he said from the Grammy stage on January 28. “All I wanted to do with this album was that.”
He couldn’t have picked stronger producers from whom to borrow. The trio was responsible for a seemingly endless stretch of hits from various pop artists for decades. Babyface wrote and produced many of the biggest hits by Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men, along with engineering his own successful solo career. Riley led three of his own groups while crafting catchy, influential soundscapes for Brown, Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Snoop Dogg and others. And after leaving the Prince-formed group The Time, Jam and Lewis made Janet Jackson’s career and cranked out hits for Usher, Mary J. Blige, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey and more.
The ubiquitous title track of 24K Magic might reference the retro-funk of The Gap Band and Zapp, but Mars’ stated influences definitely pop up on his smash record, too. Here’s where:
Bruno’s voice is the polar opposite of Bronx-born, Charlie Wilson sound-alike Aaron Hall, and that’s why you can’t tell that “Finesse” is a straight-up Guy track. (Riley formed Guy with Hall and his brother Damion in Harlem in 1987.) The addition of Cardi B’s verses on the “Finesse” remix further muddies the fact that Mars chomped Riley’s bright synths and busy beats, the sound that came to be known as New Jack Swing. Listen to “Groove Me” or “You Can Call Me Crazy” from Guy’s eponymous ’88 debut and it all comes together.
“If you ain’t here to party take your ass back home.” It’s totally something Morris Day might have said. This mid-tempo groove could have been a Time track, but it sounds even more like something Jam and Lewis would have created after their time in that band. Like the versatile work of the Flyte Tyme founders, Bruno’s biggest hits are songs that sound great on the radio and make you want to dance.
“Versace on the Floor”
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds actually co-wrote the last track on 24K Magic, a ballad with a ’70s pop vibe called “Too Good to Say Goodbye.” But even though he has composed across pop genres (Madonna’s “Take a Bow,” for example), most people associate Babyface with syrupy romance, and Bruno’s “Versace” dives deep in that slow-jam department.
Bruno Mars February 14, 16, 17, 19, 9 p.m., $100+. Park Theater, 844-600-7275.