For his fourth album, Uptown Special, U.K. producer Mark Ronson assembles a seemingly disparate group of collaborators—from choir soloist Keyone Starr, whom he discovered in a Mississippi church, to Stevie Wonder, to novelist Michael Chabon, who wrote most of the album’s lyrics—to create a cohesive homage to vintage soul and funk fused with electronic elements and ’90s hip-hop flourishes. The result will likely please devotees of those older genres while potentially frustrating listeners expecting 10 tracks resembling the album’s hit lead single “Uptown Funk,” a beat-for-beat study in how to retrofit an older musical style in order to sell records in 2015.
Like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin’,” “Uptown Funk” plunders a past genre for its most distinctive features while injecting enough club-savvy beats into the mix to dog-whistle at the 18-to-24 demographic. Though there’s something undoubtedly craven about this formulaic route, the track at the very least reflects an approach to genre pastiche that produces some unexpected moments of past/present friction, as when street-corner dop-wop vocables give way to drum-machine claps and bass thuds. It’s also clear that Ronson and singer Bruno Mars, channeling Little Richard’s raspier inflections, aren’t taking themselves too seriously, as Ronson’s lyrics poke fun at a tradition of masculine bravado by way of silly metaphors like “I’m too hot, hot damn/Make a dragon wanna retire man.” The song’s calculated bid for radio success can almost be excused by how it stylishly sends up the inanity at its core.
Chabon’s lyrics lend a novelistic shape to the rest of the album: The motif “nine exits north of Las Vegas” recurs throughout, evoking the seedy, neon haze of a casino-adjacent wasteland at dawn, and the individual songs narrate micro-episodes of debauchery unfolding in that vicinity. “In Case of Fire,” a lounge-y slow-burner sung by Jeff Bhasker and invigorated by some Steely Dan-esque guitars, describes a “borrowed vacation” coming to an end as the singer and his girl, living large on “frozen credit cards” and stolen Adderall, flee their hotel room presumably as it burns to the ground. “Crack in the Pearl” similarly showcases Chabon’s talent for atmospheric detail, in lines like “You and I and a pair of C notes/Soft candy betting, hard date.”
If Uptown Special’s lyrics suggest a desolate Nevada landscape where American dreams go to die, the instrumentation exhibits its genesis in Memphis’s Royal Studios, the soul-music mecca where Al Green recorded the majority of his catalogue. Stax-style guitar figures and bass walks undergird most of the songs, yet Chabon’s peculiar imagery and Ronson’s use of the occasional drum machine and synthesizer keep Uptown Special from sounding either like an earnestly literary concept album or a kitschy imitation of Ronson’s favorite records from the not so distant past.