Bruno Mars’s third album, 24K Magic, is a tidy, if derivative, antidote to today’s overthought, overwrought pop. Unlike his scattershot debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, and 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, which tested the singer’s skills in ill-fitting genres like reggae-rock and 1980s hair metal, the nine songs here are surprisingly cohesive. Mars zeroes in on R&B from the mid-’80s through the early ’90s, remaining extremely faithful to the era’s themes of money and sex as well as the period’s fat, flattening grooves.
The album, which clocks in at just over a half an hour, may seem like a logical, even opportunistic stepping stone from “Uptown Funk,” which also mined robotic ’80s soul, but for Mars it’s nostalgic: This is the music he grew up with and—after years of well-earned, if a bit meandering, mainstream success—has finally grown into. Given the album’s lack of guest features and boilerplate tearjerker anthems, Mars remains the confident star attraction throughout.
24K Magic starts with the jittering P-funk of its title track, a wash of thick bass, funhouse synths, and Mars’s cocky and scattered delivery. That the song opens straight into its mammoth chorus is further proof that Mars is a sly pop alchemist, and ensuing sections where he leads a call-and-response and coaches dance breaks reveal him to be a charismatic frontman. Each song on 24K Magic has its share of sparkly entertainment value: the silky pre-choruses of “Chunky” and “That’s What I Like”; the manufactured scandal of “Straight Up and Down,” where church harmonies underscore a sex ballad; the in-song skit on “Calling All My Lovelies,” where Mars rings a lover and gets Halle Berry’s voicemail (even his pop-culture references are throwbacks).
Mars sometimes conjures up a musical precursor on 24K Magic and builds atop it, like when the smoky music-box vibe of “Versace on the Floor” transitions into a vibrant jungle ballad (it’s like Whitney Houston by way of Miami Sound Machine). Elsewhere, he veers into copycat territory—“Chunky” recalls Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine” and “Finesse” is a knowing rewrite of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison”—and fails to add anything new to his rehashing of post-disco R&B and new jack swing. Add to that some throwaway lyrics seemingly written with a dollar store’s rhyming dictionary (most culpable is “That’s What I Like,” which pairs “beach house in Miami” with “Julio, serve that scampi”) and 24K Magic can at times feel especially stagnant.
The album’s appeal—that Mars has evolved as an album artist, and dives deeply here into his study of a genre—is thus also what makes it a bit repetitive. At his best, Mars moves an old sound forward; he doesn’t do so consistently on 24K Magic, but at least explores the work of artists common to one era. The album features the strongest set of beats and rhythmic hooks in Mars’s canon to date, making it a could-be heir to gratuitous groove records like 1999, Off the Wall, and Remain in Light—if only it were as innovative. Ultimately, the album’s magic is a trick everyone already knows.