Learning to Listen Bonus Cut: Bruno Mars loves the 80s! What’s next?...

Dear Riffs, Beats, & Codas reader: I wrote a review of Bruno Mars’s XXIVk Magic when it first came out in late 2016 but never published it. His recent victory at 2018's Grammys inspired me to dust if off and revisit my original sentiments, which remain the same. He was among the few nominees’ whose work I was familiar with so his wins validate my sense that he is an interesting musician. The wins also reiterate why he needs to try something new if he wants to become a great artist rather than a merely entertaining one.

After successfully channeling elements from Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown and The Police on his albums Bruno Mars scored his biggest hit in 2014 on the throwback Minneapolis funk of the Mark Ronson produced “Uptown Funk.” Sultry, danceable and melodic it’s one of those inevitable hits that’s simply undeniable. It topped the pop charts for 14 weeks and won Mars and Ronson two Grammys, including the main platter Record of the Year. Several weeks ago Mars built on this winning streak by winning six more including Record (“24 K Magic”), Song (“That’s What I Like”), Album (XXVk Magic), R&B Song (“That’s What I Like”),  R&B Vocal (“That’s What I Like”), and R&B Album (XXVk Magic).

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album  XXIVk Magi c.

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album XXIVk Magic.

Mars is smart enough to know how pop music works, hence he returns to the 1980s R&B well in full force (coincidentally, the name of a successful production group in the ‘80s and 90s!) on XXIVk Magic. If you are connoisseur of R&B circa 1986-89 this will take you back in time. But can Mars bring you forward into the present? Maybe, but let’s survey some of the musical evidence: 

On the top 10 hit title track he dips into the Roger Troutman & Zapp playbook with a funky bottom borrowed from 1990s hip-hop. “Perm” is pure James Brown funk. I hear traces of Bobby Brown style New Jack swing in “Straight Up & Down.” The torchy soul ballad “Too Good to Say Goodbye” is the kind of large scale vocal and emotional workout Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne and Freddie Jackson built their careers on.

From one listen, its clearly state-of-the art 1980s pop-funk dressed up in post-millennial production. As an album for cruising or for throwing on at a party album it ebbs and flows perfectly. Mars’s melodic gifts also place him at the forefront of today’s pop songwriters. You will definitely hum these tunes after hearing them once or twice. 

A few challenges could disrupt the non-stop Mars party. In playing to past strengths Mars risks pandering to his established audience. His love for funk styles of the past is admirable, but he has shown a broader stylistic range on his two previous albums. In the digital era, albums are often grab bags of styles.  The downloadable buffet approach takes pressure off artists to make coherent suites. Still, he has traded the stylistic playground for an entertaining but overly familiar set of grooves. Further, songs like 2010’s “Just the Way You Are” demonstrated a sweet side but the sour element sometimes threatens this balance in his lyrics. By intentionally writing songs aimed at players and party people (ostensibly male) he tends to write about little beyond partying and seduction.

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

He sings to a female suitor that it’s good they like the same things in “That’s What I Like.” Meaning…she would be screwed if they didn’t? The melody of “Versace on the Floor” is enchanting and the crooning is expert. But, the song is almost parodic in its one-dimensional focus on literally getting a woman’s clothes off. Love songs are de rigeur in pop but there is a lot of effort here for very thin ideas.

XXIVk Magic solidifies Mars as a master of funk pastiche, and as a nine-song album, he is wise enough to not overstay his welcome. Still, I sense there are deeper and more interesting stories he could tell especially with his encyclopedic musical knowledge. I hope that as he plans his next album he tunes out the retro hits and trusts his own groove more.



LTL 9: Love personified: The voice of Luther Vandross

In 1964 Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote “A House is Not a Home” for the film of the same name. “House” was a radio hit for their muse Dionne Warwick and has been recorded continually since its debut. Yet to Luther Vandross’s (1951-2005) fans his 1981 rendition is the definitive version. His 7:08 minute performance is worth discussing because it outlines many elements of the Vandross aesthetic.  In the first 22 seconds listeners hear an instrumental introduction followed by 34 seconds of wordless vocalizing (“Dun dun dun dun dun”). In these opening bars he massages the song wordlessly; it’s such a personal approach to the song that you know something special is unfolding…

At 57 seconds he sings, “A chair is still a chair…” and one is struck by the fullness, passion and control he conveys. Structurally he sings verse-chorus-verse-chorus from 57 seconds to 2:41. At the bridge (2:41) he builds toward the 4:31 mark where he sings a coda/tag with his own original lyrics from 4:31-6:49 followed by 19 seconds of an instrumental outro.

This description merely approximates the shape of his ambitious arrangement. In many ways his “House” is as close to an aria as pop music gets. He essentially arranges it as a suite. The 22 second instrumental and 34 second vocals serve as a kind of prelude, almost setting a theme. He sings the verses very intentionally, controlling their momentum like a man with a string. The verses begin quietly, climax, and then descend dramatically. At 3:38 he erupts singing the lyric (“I’m Not MEANT To Live Alone…”) explosively. Just when you think he is done he begins the tag/coda. I would hesitate to call a 2:37 improvisation a tag; it’s really a thoughtful deeply personal interpretation of bittersweet love.

 The Vandross lyrics, and the carefully placed pauses, are worth quoting:

4:31: Still…in…love

4:41-4:54: I said…Still…In…Looove Looove

4:57: Still in Looove…

5:08: With…meee… yea yeah

5:19: Are you gonna be/In love with me/I want you/I need you/To be yea yeah

5:29: Still in love with me

5:37: Say you’re gonna be in love with me

Its driving me crazy/To think that my baby/Wouldn’t be/Still in love with me

5:57: Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/ Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/Well well/Well well/Still in love/So in love/Still in love with me

6:16: Are you gonna be/Say that you’re gonna be

6:27: Still…In…Love…WITH…Me…yea yeah with mee/ooh ooh ooh

6:49: Still in love with me yea yeah

 Through deliberate rhythmically parallel pauses, gospel embellishments (i.e. elongated vowels), structured repetition, and vernacular lyrics he builds to a stirring climax. You could get whiplash from listening to the way he skillfully weaves together, “Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be.”

Just when you think he’s done he extends the song again. At 6:27 he returns to the dramatic pause, milking it for everything he can. Then from 6:49-7:08, ~19 seconds, the song ends with the hushed wordless sound parallel to the prelude…


Vandross was born in New York City and became a staple of New York’s black music scene. He grew up adoring female singers of the ‘60s including Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. He even established a fan club for LaBelle. Unlike most fans he developed his musical chops and worked hard to break into the biz. In high school he sang in a group called Shades of Jade; as a young adult he enrolled in the Listen My Brother workshop and appeared on an episode of Sesame Street in November 1969. But around 1972 he really set off a very successful career as a background vocalist and singer of commercial jingles. These experiences introduced him to industry heavyweights like David Bowie, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and opened the door for him to become a solo performer and composer. His group Luther failed to make a splash commercially with their two albums 1976’s Luther and 1977’s This Close to You. In between these efforts and his solo career he wrote a song for The Wiz, arranged vocals on hits like Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s 1979 #1 hit “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” and sang lead on Change’s dance hits “Searching” and “The Glow of Love.”

The 1970s was experimental as it gave him room to develop his voice, to balance funk with romanticism, to understand vocal harmonies, and cultivate his taste in material. By the time he debuted in 1981 with the fabulously propulsive “Never too Much” he already had an aesthetic blueprint for his sound. Unlike most dance songs “Never” has a clear melody, an engaging lyric and Vandross maintains great diction throughout. “Never” was a #1 R&B hit surrounded by the hit “Don’t You Know That” and the epic “House” on the LP Never Too Much.  This auspicious debut was commercially popular, critically acclaimed, and earned him several Grammy nominations—a pattern he maintained throughout his career. From 1981-88 he amassed six albums and 20 singles on Epic Record that sold well and established him as the premiere romantic balladeer of ‘80s R&B. He was adored especially by female listeners. And like Johnny Mathis before him a chaste romanticism was key to his appeal. Unlike Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, and other predecessors his songs were more pure romantic fantasies of yearning songs rather than explicit, carnal songs.

Vandross also succeeded as both an interpreter and composer. In addition to “House,” “Since I Lost,” “Superstar,”  he soared on interpretations of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” andBrenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night.” His original classics of the decade included “Never,” “Bad Boy,” “Wait for Love,” “Give me the Reason,” “Stop to Love,” “So Amazing,” and “Any Love.” He was something of a superman during this era. In addition to singing, arranging and producing, often with a team of jazz oriented collaborators like Marcus Miller and Nat Adderley Jr., his talents made him an in-demand producer. His productions on 1982’s “Jump to It,” and 1983’s “Get it Right” got Aretha Franklin back on radio. Dionne Warwick scored a hit with her 1983 Vandross duet “How Many Time Can We Say Goodbye,” and he also worked with Diana Ross and Cheryl Lynn.

 In less than a decade Luther Vandross established himself as a defining voice of contemporary R&B and an architect of ‘80s-early 90s R&B. His impact can be heard in numerous vocalists who followed him including Freddie Jackson, Gregory Abbott, and Keith Washington, among others.   Though each of these singers has his own sound their careers are less possible and comprehensible without Luther Vandross…