Bruno Mars has done it all. And, sitting in a small conference room in the Atlantic Records offices, he sure enough looks it. Perched on the corner of a long couch, the 31-year-old pop music Svengali looks like he hopped right off the cover of his latest single, rocking what appears to be a silk Versace-style shirt, a trucker hat with the Cadillac logo on the front, black shorts, crisp white Nike Cortezes, a few gold rings and a matching Rolex Presidential. In reality, he just hopped off a plane and sat through midday traffic to promote his latest work. It’s a piece of work that has reportedly taken every ounce of his creative gusto to create; an album that’s clearly left him happy and hopeful but also emotionally spent. His usually svelte voice today is heavier and a touch hoarse. The affable and buoyant personality exhibited on most of his records, while present today, comes in small bursts — it’s clear work obligations are taking their toll on him. In front of him on a coffee table is an ashtray with a couple cigarette butts. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks after introducing himself. “These people are stressing me the f**k out!”
All Bruno Mars wants to do is, as he says, bring people “that pure joy, man.” And if there’s one thing people need in 2016, it’s joy. Doing so, however, is apparently very stressful.
It's a brisk but sunny fall afternoon in New York City — one of those days that make Big Apple residents appreciate the temperamental nature of the Northeast's weather — and a small group of journalists have been gathered to hear the third full-length project from the guy who has had a hand in six No. 1 hits and the sale of more than 130 million singles. Considering his staggering success, the ever-present nature of his music and the commercial scale he's been able to reach in less than a decade, it's surprising that Mars is only on his third album.
This is the longest he's gone without dropping an album. But you'd forgive him for taking his time with this one. His second album, 2012's Unorthodox Jukebox, was an unmitigated success, selling over 2.5 million copies in the U.S. and birthing a slew of songs that will be played at weddings for decades to come. It would have been the crowning achievement of his starburst of a career if he didn’t link up with Mark Ronson to release "Uptown Funk" in 2014, a song that was so big and inescapable it still reportedly generates $100,000 a week from Spotify streams alone. If his gig as the headlining performer at Super Bowl XLVIII didn’t catapult him from a nondescript radio mainstay to a legit superstar, then that song sure did. It’s sold over 12 million copies, spent 14 weeks at the top of the charts and became the de facto celebration song for every graduation, reunion or BBQ.
The song put him on a different playing field. Whereas before Bruno would get a call to help a young upstart break through, he was now getting calls from one of the best-selling artists of our generation: Adele. The Brit tapped Mars to help pen the heart-wrenching ballad “All I Ask,” one of the standout cuts from her record-setting album 25. It was an experience he has described as a teachable moment. “We were aiming for that big, diva, ballad thing — that's what I envisioned," he told Rolling Stone. When the song was completed after a quick back-and-forth over a certain line, he walked away with the lesson that one shouldn’t “try to be cool.” Instead it’s best to “let it be what it wants to be."
The only thing better than creating music for one of the greatest living vocalists is getting called to perform with one of the greatest living artists. That’s exactly what happened for Super Bowl 50. Even though he graced the stage two years earlier, Bruno was asked by Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin to share the stage with the other special guest Beyoncé, who was going to perform her new single “Formation.” It was a memorable night that left an indelible mark on Mars.
Instead of coasting on the surge of success he’s worked incredibly hard to achieve, he threw himself back into the studio to keep the momentum going. “Let’s talk about Beyoncé for a sec,” he says as he leans in toward the recorder. “You know when she gets on the stage she’s going to show the world that she ain’t playing. And she’s Beyoncé. If anyone can phone a performance in, it’s her, right? She deserves that. But you’ll never see her do that. And that’s just inspiring to see. For her doing it as long as she’s been doing it with Destiny’s Child and for her to have that hunger and that drive to be better — it’s awesome to watch. It makes you feel like, you know, that’s out there — Beyoncé’s out there in the world. And she’s coming for you every single time. So you better bring you’re A-game every time.
Bruno Mars has been bringing his A-game since he could hold a microphone. He was born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a half-Puerto Rican and half-Jewish father from Brooklyn and a half-Filipino and half-Spanish mother, both of whom were musicians — his father was a drummer and his mother was a singer and a dancer. Before he was 5 years old, he was performing with his family’s band and became known as the little kid who was able to do a mean Elvis Presley impersonation. After years of perfecting Presley’s moves, he picked up and moved to Los Angeles as soon as he got his high school diploma. He got a deal with Motown but was dropped shortly after. He formed a band with producer Jeff Bhasker and played little clubs around the city to keep money in their pockets. After years of performing cover songs and meeting people within the industry, Mars finally signed to Atlantic Records in 2009. Once on the label, he laced a number of artists with hit songs, including B.o.B., whose single “Nothin’ on You” made both household names.
“I was going to make a movie. That was the goal,” Bruno says when asked about the origins of his new project. He smiles when he senses disbelief. “I’m not saying that as a metaphor, I was really trying to make a movie.” According to him, he didn’t really have celluloid dreams. Instead, he tried to make the album feel like a movie so it was less pastiche than his past works. Although, when asked about a possible plot, he offers, “I don’t know… it’s about a Versace-wearing pimp. [Laughs]”
“You hear my other albums, I’m bouncing around from genre to genre. I wanted to really hone it in and give myself a world in which I could keep it contained.”
Fair enough. This album, in contrast, sticks to the era of music—late 80s/early 90s—when Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Babyface reigned Supreme.
“And also, I want to sing. I want to sing more so than I did on the other albums. That’s why you get ‘Versace’ and ‘Too Good to Say Goodbye.’” Those being two of the strongest tracks, the latter of which was made with the care and expertise of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. “He’s my hero,” says Mars of the musical icon. “Music, to me, is all about feeling. Before, lyrics, and beats and the new drum sounds, it’s about feeling. And he’s the best.”
Bruno then breaks into The Whispers’ “Rock Steady,” singing:
And we begin to rock
“It’s like he has this butter that he knows how to put in and out of these notes and these chords. ‘Cause it’s feeling… it’s all feeling.”
“Too Good to Say Goodbye” came together when Bruno caught Babyface between tours. Bruno played him the chorus and, to hear him tell it, Babyface’s eyes lit up and he asked him what it was before demanding that they finished the track. “We just went in old school on the piano. He’s the coldest.”
But that’s not to say the album is full of saccharine odes to love lost and declarative ballads. “I wanna move on this album,” he says. “You’ve seen my band play. That’s always been our thing. We gotta push it. We gotta change the tempo up on ‘em. I want people to be jamming when they come to the concert.” The album's first single, named after the album, has already had that effect. He wrote it around the time he wrote "Uptown Funk" and it achieves the same goal of making everyone believe for a second that they're in this gold-draped, Vegas-themed music video. It's a good time.
It’s safe to say 2016 has not been a good time for Black and brown people. In fact, it's been one of the most trying years in recent memory. Aside from the erratic presidential election, there have been more shootings of unarmed citizens by police officers than we can keep count of. In response, a great number of artists have taken to the booths and recording studios to vent their frustration, anger and, for some, hope. The albums have laid our struggle out bare while offering helping hands and a possible guide through the madness. It’s been cathartic to hear Beyoncé sing about her baby’s afro in front of thousands of fans or listen to her sister Solange instruct people to please not touch her damn hair. It’s nice to not only be recognized but to also have our pain recognized on a large scale.
All of that is not lost on Bruno. “You turn on the news and some weird things are happening. Embarrassing and scary,” he says. “If I could write a song that could change the world, I would. If I could write a song better than ‘What’s Going On' or ‘Man in the Mirror,’ that could reach as many people as possible, I would. But I can’t write a song better than that. What I can bring to the table, what I hope I can bring to the table, is that pure joy.”
Pure joy is obviously a target for 24K Magic. With only nine songs, it offers listeners a much-needed, beautifully instrumented, love-tinged respite from the world in 2016. There are no protest songs to be found, just songs about fun and love; love and fun. And, to borrow one of his phrases, it feels good. It's one of the best albums of the year and it’s proof positive that Bruno’s mission is as salient as his musical peers, because when you’re not fighting the power, you just want to chill and be happy with the ones you love. And Bruno would like to provide the soundtrack for those moments.
Before our time together is up, he recalls a story his collaborator, the multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter James Fauntleroy, told him about a party he went to where people were hugging the walls, glued to their phones and taking selfies. He said the DJ played the Gap Band and everyone jumped into the middle of the dance floor to start dancing together. “It’s amazing that music can do that,” he says sternly. “They’re not singing about kumbaya. They’re singing about having a good time and loving yourself. And it feels like that.”
He takes a moment, puts out a cigarette and pauses.
“I want to make music like that forever.”