By Hayden Wright
When you hear “90s hip-hop,” your mind might wander straight outta Compton to N.W.A. or Tupac. That recalls the rivalry with East Coasters like Biggie, Diddy and the Bad Boy Entertainment family. Today’s rappers are scholars of Wu-Tang and Public Enemy: Beefs. Conspiracies. Jockeying for dominance. Shaping political narratives. Those acts are the subject of TV movies, feature films and reverential space in the hip-hop canon. And it’s serious as a heart attack.
Bruno Mars has another segment of the 90s urban landscape in mind on 24K Magic: the party songs. The superstar’s third album shines because it explores that perennially underrated subgenre of 90s R&B and hip-hop—energetic one-hit wonders that either don’t take themselves too seriously or shimmer for taking themselves just a little too seriously. Urban radio in the 90s gave us Mark Morrison’s grandiosity and Candyman’s irresistible charms. It’s the very same scene that emboldened Montell Jordan to shout, “This is how we do it!”
Well, this is how Bruno Mars does it. And he does it really well—pairing everything cool, goofy, earnest and sexy about his influences with his own distinctive flair. Here are the best five songs on 24K Magic:
“Straight Up & Down”
The title is a pair of prepositions and a formula for knocking boots in the 90s. Mars channels his inner R. Kelly on this track that would make your high school prom chaperone a little nervous.
Mars goes to town in his description of a dream woman: “Shout out to the girls that pay their rent on time.” This track is all synth line and drum machine, setting a funky tone with contemporary sensibility.
“Versace on the Floor”
Fans heard this song as a promotional single and it stands out 24K Magic as an epic slow-jam. Even amid the effervescent fun, Mars shows off his sensitive side with pitch-perfect vocals and big production with whispers of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”
“Calling All My Lovelies”
One of Mars’ most dynamic choices on this album is to record backing vocals in a low, husky register while he sings the melody in the high, clear voice we know and love. On “Calling All My Lovelies,” he sends a passive-aggressive message to his girlfriend—you snooze, you lose.
The song speaks to Bruno Mars’ entire career: How is he so smooth? Where’d he get it from? Where’s he going with it? On “Finesse,” Bruno unleashes his inner house party MC for bragging, flirting and sealing the deal. “Fellas, grab your ladies if your lady fine; Tell her she the one—she the one for life.”