After a two-year hiatus, Bruno Mars releases his anticipated sophomore album Unorthodox Jukebox via Atlantic Records. A slim thirty-five minutes in duration, Unorthodox Jukebox is nothing short of a ‘trip.’ Mars oscillates between numerous established musical styles (Pop, R&B, Rock, Reggae, etc.) while pushing the envelope both lyrically and stylistically. Many of the experiments bode well in Mars’s favors making other musicians think to themselves, “why didn’t I think of that.” Other experiments are fine attempts that fall short of glory, though it’s discernible what Mars and his production/songwriting team The Smeezingtons were getting at.
Another positive that can be taken from Mars’s sophomore album are his vocals. If anything, the singer has grown grittier and more soulful. His vocal risks help to atone for the miscues and misnomers of Unorthodox Jukebox, which is the mark of true musician and artist. Flawed, yet bold, Unorthodox Jukebox may not be perfect (it’s not), but there are more than enough bright spots to tickle one’s fancy. Ultimately, the clumsy ones don’t derail things.
“Young Girls” initiates Unorthodox Jukebox. Sporting organ-laden production with a nobly bright sound, Mars sings about the trouble than many a man has – women. Dramatic, the chorus is characterized by powerful vocals by Mars and pummeling drums. “All you young, wild girls,” he sings “…you’ll be the death of me…I’ll always come back to you.” Though “Young Girls” is a bit repetitive towards the end, it is a solid start to the effort. Mars’s vocals truly convey emotion and drama.
“Locked Out Of Heaven” serves as a brilliant second cut, propelled off both the height of a stronger opener and being the effort’s promo single. Incited with the cliché count off (“1-2, 1-2-3-4”), a killer groove is established from the top of this cut. The production is appropriated well here, not under- or over-produced by any means. The songwriting is catchy, particularly well-penned pre-chorus (“…cause your sex takes me to paradise…”) and chorus (“cause you make me feel like, I’ve been locked out of heaven…”) To prevent monotony, the half-time switch up towards the end is a smart musical change (during the chorus).
“Gorilla” is the biggest shock of Unorthodox Jukebox. If one was wondering why the album sported the infamous parental advisory explicit lyrics label, “Gorilla” is the main offender. An oddity from the onset, “Gorilla” possesses a mysterious vibe about the sound, foreshadowing the ‘animalistic’ experience about to proceed. To summarize, Mars tries to analogize intense, passionate sex to, well having sex like gorillas do – like the animals they are. Is it ludicrous? The answer is both yay and nay.
“Gorilla” is one of those attempts that DOESN’T quite achieve the glory that Mars was going for. The topic itself is a bit of a stretch (gorillas/animals and sex), but R. Kelly has certainly compared sex and the unconventional so fair game. The biggest problem is the lyrics. Lines like “Like a gorilla, strong, wild and free, hairy…” or “but in this jungle you can’t run cause what I got for you/I promise is a killer/you’ll be banging on my chest/bang bang gorilla…” come off really corny and lame.
The clumsiest is the most overt and distasteful for a more bold Mars: “…and you’re screaming give it to me baby, give it to me motherf*cker…” WHOA! Give Mars credit for stretching his machismo and shocking even the most un-shockable. It nearly works, but falls ever so short by my estimations.
After “Gorilla,” everything seems more ‘accessible.’ “Treasure” atones for the bold “Gorilla” by opting for a neo-soul cut that would’ve easily been at home on Musiq Soulchild’s next album. He does shock at the onset as he flexes his newfound bad-boy muscles on the odd intro (“baby squirrel you’s a sexy motherf*cker,”) but settles down once the song settles in. Mars sounds incredibly soulful here, aided by the backdrop.
On the chorus, he brings it all together: “Treasure, that means what you are/honey you’re my golden star/I know you can make my wish come true/if you let me treasure you…” Yeah, it’s schmaltzy, but we all know Bruno does chivalrous the best. For those who thought R. Kelly had stepped into the room on “Gorilla,” golden boy returned on “Treasure.”
“Moonshine” is Mars’s pop/rock crossover, which also possesses a certain 80s sensibility; the overall production is quite nice. There are some quirks here that for the most part, bode in Mars’s favor. The vocal production here particularly allows for Mars’s vocals to shine. As always, Mars bring things together on the big chorus (“Moonshine, your love it makes me come alive,” etc.). The song itself is solid, though not the most distinct or best of Unorthodox Jukebox.
On “When I Was Your Man,” Mars goes acoustic. This stripped nature is a welcome contrast to the busier production of “Moonshine,” though I admit I felt slightly let down that Mars pulls back at the end as opposed to adding bass and drums to the mix. Personal preference though. Vocally, he is soulful and quite commanding on this cut about his ex “dancing with another man.” Not the elite of the elite, “When I Was Your Man” is strong.
“Natalie” is the next ‘shocker,’ though not to the degree of “Gorilla.” Where Mr. Mars ‘pounded his chest,’ this time he “digging a ditch for this gold-diggin’ b*tch.” WHOA Bruno, you mad bro? But contextually, Mars did want to “catch a grenade for ya…” So the premise of “Natalie? Well, This girl is driving Bruno plum cray cray. It’s dramatic and incredibly feisty. I mean, he even goes so far as to say “I spend your lifetime in jail/I’ll be smiling in my cell.”
On the bridge, he states what we the audience would say is the obvious given the context: “I should’ve know better cause when we were together she never said forever/I’m a fool that played in her game…” Yep, Bruno, you ‘played the fool.’ Thankfully as Aaron Neville once sung, “everybody plays the fool.” If I had to opt for “Natalie” or “Gorilla,” I think “Natalie” is better executed as a whole.
Both “Gorilla” and “Natalie” are more interesting and notable than “Show Me,” the obligatory reggae/tropical cut. Yes Bruno is from Honolulu and I’m sure he is well verse in tropical musical genres, but “Show Me” is just too indulgent. It does mark a stark contrast from “Natalie” in a more positive, less manic direction, but the cut seems overly ‘affected’ in the tropical style. Over-produced and over-styled, “Show Me” is one of my least favorites.
But as always, Mars atones for missteps. “Money Make Her Smile” sports some of the efforts best production work, even breaking into a more overt hip-hip instrumental section. Vocally, Mars remains strong and resolute in his performance: “It’s not that complicated, so this won’t take a while/you see money make her dance and money, money, money maker her smile.” There you go.
If “Money Maker Her Smile” wasn’t soulful enough, the retro-soul of “If I Knew,” should be. As forward thinking as parts of Unorthodox Jukebox are, Mars rewinds on this cut, accompanied by the end only by electric guitar. Vocally, Mars is definitely on autopilot.
So what’s the verdict? How does this effort compare to Doo-Wops & Hooligans? In my eyes, Unorthodox Jukebox has plenty of promising moments. It is bold and unapologetic, two respectable facets of a pop/R&B album these days. It is also very different than Mars’s debut. That said, there are also plenty of flaws.
At only thirty-five minutes, the album should feel more cohesive than it does, particularly with cuts susceptible to scrutinization like “Gorilla,” “Natalie,” or “Show Me” for respective reasons. Also a more cutting edge Mars may off-put some given the release of tamer, crowd-pleasing singles like “Locked Out Of Heaven” (no. 2 on Billboard Hot 100) or “Young Girls.” These are all speculations, but are legitimate considerations. I remember a certain Rated R album by Rihanna that had everyone buzzing as it revealed ‘adult’ Rihanna.
As I pen this, I’m still on the fence. I like the risks Mars takes and many of the results, but also have some reservations. Part of me thinks the portions of this album I take issue with will grow on me or the improprieties are nit-picky. Then other parts of me think that Mars went too big and tried to do too much in one brief album. SIGH. Ultimately, I think this album possesses more positives than negatives. It’s not definitively great, but Mars’s restlessness and vocal growth is enough to warrant an overall positive result.