Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s success with “Uptown Funk” was definitely one of the biggest successes I’ve ever seen in my lifetime based on the Funk. For a song to come out in the 21st Century that proudly claimed funk roots was no small matter. Some funk fans knock “Uptown Funk” for being derivative, but in truth the whole history of funk music has been one of listening, emulating and one upping, or as Albert Murray termed it, “elaboration, extension, and refinement.” Bruno seems the right artist to carry a funk based sound into the popular sphere, being that he is a dynamic showman and an instrumentalist, and has a standing band that is both a part of his recording and performing package, which is no common thing in R&B, Hip Hop and Pop in the current day. His current hit single, “24k Magic”, takes up where “Uptown Funk” left off, creating a flowing groove around a nasty synth bass line, phat drum beats and the guest talk box sound of modern day talk box master Bryan “Mr. Talkbox” Chambers.
The song begins with Chambers singing through the talk box, getting a very full talk box choir sound because not only is he singing a soulful lead, he’s also singing harmony parts, including bass, through the talk box. The sound reminds me of course of the master Roger Troutman, but also of the ’90s New Jack extensions of that sound through Teddy Riley’s work on ballads. Bruno breaks this introduction up with his phrase of “Players, put your pinkie fingers up to the moon” which is backed by electronic record scratching sounds, while the synth bass takes a mean slide before introducing the phat bass line the song is based on. The bass line is a line based on F that plays what is basically a very funky arpeggio that starts off with a fat oscillating analog synth note. Supporting the bass sound are ’80s polysynth keyboard stabs with a nice Minneapolis flavor and a single note synthesizer sequencer part that provides a nice high register melody. The drums have the super fat ’80s funk sound of records like One Way’s “Cutie Pie”, with a phat cracking snare drum. One thing I like about Bruno’s funk style is the fact he’s adapted a half singing/half talking funk vocal style on many of his funky dance numbers that basically was the precursor of rap. This funk vocal style was used by everybody from James Brown, to George Clinton, to Morris Day to Blowfly, and Bruno uses it to great effect here. The lyrics are basically an extension of the boasting he did on “Uptown Funk”, and what I like about it the most is that Bruno has found a persona through his use of the funk. That person is materialistic, flashy, and always ready to have a good time, and reminds me of people from Morris Day, to the Sugarhill Gang’s lyrics on “Rappers Delight”, to Marvin Gaye’s “Ego Trippin’ Out”. Basically its a very fun approach to a party jam that has become ingrained enough in our culture that it can finally be popular after many years in the underground. The lyrics themselves are very witty as he promises to “give the color red the blues.” I especially like the Saturday night lyric, “I’m a dangerous man with some money in my pocket, keep up!” Bruno, though mostly of Pacific Island descent, perfectly captures the essence of Black male, “let the good times roll” braggadocio, and its comforting to hear him do it in such authentic fashion. Bruno includes a section over the basic beat where he says “Everywhere I go they be like”, which is awnsered by Chambers “ooh, so playa.” Then they break the arrangement down in a slower Hip Hop broken beat style before returning to the funk on the top.
Bruno Mars has found the funk and evidently he’s also found direction in his career. I was always impressed with his songwriting, instrumentalism and performance ethic, as evidenced by his earlier writing for B.O.B and Cee Lo Green and his Super Bowl halftime show on which he both did the James Brown and played the drums. But “Uptown Funk” was the defining moment in his career that both crystallized his sound and his personality. Many funk fans complain because they feel its derivative and nothing new, but count me out of the company of those funk fans. The ’80s funk style is an incredible style that should have captured the world in it’s time, as it was, it mainly made it to the pop charts in the hands of Prince and Michael Jackson who were also seen as being beyond musical styles. GAP Band, Roger and many other deserving groups did not receive the type of pop recognition their music merited, and I personally am proud to see it reach the very top of the music industry through Bruno Mars today.