Album Review: Bruno Mars, “Unorthodox Jukebox” (2012)

I’ve had about zero interest in Bruno Mars and his music over the past few years.  I remember the summer of 2010 when he debuted on the radio- first on a guest spot for B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You” and then on Travie McCoy’s song, “Billionaire”- and while both songs were decent enough, I didn’t particularly care for either of them, nor Mars’ (whose real name is Peter Gene Hernandez) vocals.  He sounded a bit whiny to me on Billionare and as far as I could tell, Mars was just another Ne-Yo or Usher wannabe.  There didn’t seem to be much original or innovative about his music or sound (though I do give him props for rocking a pompadour).

His latest effort, Unorthodox Jukebox, has finally given me an idea of who Mars is as an artist, but I’m still not terribly impressed.  As I thought, all of the songs are co-written and produced by a large team of people (including Diplo and Mark Ronson), which takes away any sort of originality in my book.  Mars isn’t the best singer, either.  His production team does well (for the most part) at picking catchy, fun songs for him, but this doesn’t mean that Mars is a good artist (and does one really qualify as an artist if they are barely responsible for any of the creative input of their “work”?).  At best, his music is harmless and accessible, which explains why he’s had so many hit songs.

The album opens with Young Girls, a breezy ode to all of the women Mars has met since becoming famous.  I said before that Mars isn’t the best singer and he’s not- but he does have a distinctive, slightly raspy voice, which makes his songs instantly recognizable.  Anyway, this track is pretty unassuming- despite the peppy beat and lighthearted tone, the chorus isn’t particularly memorable and the song isn’t very strong, altogether.

Locked Out Of Heaven is an extremely catchy song, however.  From the sexy guitar line running throughout, to the funky beat and Mars’ belting of the chorus, the entire track is pop music gold.  This song is one of those that- whether you actually like it or not- will instantly get stuck in your head and later, when you’re making dinner or getting the mail, you’re still humming it.  Mars verges on screeching during the choruses, but he reigns it in before it becomes too annoying.

The song on the album that I do genuinely enjoy is Gorilla.  A stuttering drum loop plays in the background, while Mars sings the opening verse in a Michael Jackson-esque staccato.  By the time electric guitars are introduced near the bridge, the song picks up in tempo and erupts into what almost sounds like a rock anthem.  Actually, the track isn’t sure if it’s trying to imitiate Michael Jackson or Prince- the guitars during the bridge sound like they’d belong on “Beat It”, but the wailing during the hook sounds like Prince.  Anyway, it all sounds good until you stop and listen to the completely awful lyrics.  Mars sings that making love to his paramour will be primal and animalistic, but in a lot less classy way than I’ve described (“’Cause what I got for you/I promise it’s a killer/You’ll be banging on my chest/Bang bang, gorilla/Ooh, yeah/You and me baby making love like gorillas”), and it’s just…well, weird.  And it’s really weird to hear Mars drop the F-bomb twice in the track, particularly as he does it while singing in falsetto.  It’s a thinly veiled attempt for Mars to come off as being sexy and “hard” but the lyrics are just bizarre.  There’s nothing sexy about primates making love, and hearing that making love with Mars would bring out the primate in me isn’t sexy, either.  Primates aren’t sexy.

Bruno Mars keyboard

The current single from the album is When I Was Your Man.  The paltry ballad sounds like a modern update to Elton John’s 1976 song, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the piano during the verse is ripped off from that song. Anyway, Mars plays the regretful lover as he sings of the mistakes he made during his failed relationship (“I should have bought you flowers/And held your hand/Should have gave you all my hours/When I had the chance”), and though the track does nothing for me, I can foresee plenty of women swooning over Mars’ hackneyed delivery.

The rest of the album doesn’t do much better. Treasure sounds like an 70’s/80’s pop song, and Mars brings out his best MJ impression (again, though this sounds like something from Off The Wall) for the disco-sounding track.  It’s upbeat and pleasant, but ultimately not really worth listening to. Natalie is a fierce revenge track (“Little Miss Snake eyes ruined my life/She better sleep with one eye open/Better make sure to lock her doors”) but the song isn’t nearly as good as some of those before it, so it comes and goes without leaving much of an impression.  Show Me is a strange, reggae-influenced track, and since I don’t really care for much reggae music in general, I really don’t care for this watered-down reggae wannabe track.  The song actually sounds like something that Shaggy would’ve released back in the day (remember him?  You don’t?  That’s okay…most of us don’t by this point) which is definitely not a good thing.  Moonshine is mid-tempo ballad that sounds like a mix between Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, but is remarkably less good than anything that either artists would’ve released in their heyday.  Besides having an annoyingly illiterate title, Money Make Her Smile boasts a hip-hop beat which is a nice change from the sound on the album, but the track is a bit too obnoxious (what the hell is up with that screaming in the background in the chorus?), and it’s obvious that Mars is better off singing 80’s pop/R&B tributes.

The album ends on a surprising high note with If I Knew.  Mars navigates the doo-wop style of the song well, and though I do think this sounds like something that’d end up on a made-for-tv biopic of some soul singer or Motown group, it’s still a decent effort.  The backing vocalist that sings on the chorus isn’t credited, but he and Mars harmonize well together, and due to the understated nature of Mars’ vocal styling, this is probably the only time on the entire album that I’ve actually enjoyed his singing.

I listened to Unorthodox Jukebox, because I wanted to give Bruno Mars a fair chance before writing him off as just another R&B/pop-singer clone.  Though there are a few (and very few, they are) highlights on the album, the majority of it is the derivative, watered-down music I expected long before I actually heard a single song on the album.  Maybe Mars’ music just isn’t my thing, but I doubt that I’ll be looking forward to any of his future releases.

Rating: 2_stars.svg

Track List
1. Young Girls
2. Locked Out of Heaven
3. Gorilla
4. Treasure
5. Moonshine
6. When I Was Your Man
7. Natalie
8. Show Me
9. Money Make Her Smile
10. If I Knew

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHDtXqjgEj4]
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