When Bruno Mars was in the studio crafting his upbeat, funky new album, he had a dress code: Wear your finest clothes, and leave your sloppy sweatpants at the door.
He said dressing up set to the mood so that he and his collaborators could write and produce groovy, smooth and soulful songs that make up “24K Magic,” his first album in four years.
“I made it a point: I’m showing up to the studio, we working, but I’m not showing up in sweats ’cause you’re going to get what sweats sounds like … so I’m going to wear every jewelry piece I collected, and my finest shoes, and write some songs,” Mars said. “It just helped keep the motion (going).”
His swag and style – a curly, mini Afro, silky Versace shirt, classic shorts, slick shoes and a studded pinky ring – match the sound of “24K Magic,” an epic ‘90s R&B-inspired album that plays like a cohesive jam session. It will be released Friday.
Mars, 31, said the album was inspired by his love for R&B acts like New Edition, Boyz II Men and Jodeci, as well as West Coast rap (DJ Quik came to the studio to give him a flexatone, the percussion instrument, to use on the album).
“The spirit of this album, growing up in the ’90s, is to me the most joyous (time) for me. That’s my childhood. That’s what I grew up on,” he said. “I love DJ Quik, Suga Free, Too Short, E-40, Dr. Dre of course, Snoop, and that’s because these songs, they influenced hip-hop, these ’70s funk songs, but it took place in the ’90s and that’s why you had this soulful music with a superstar rapping on it. For me, it was all about the live show and the kind of party I want to throw.
“That is the spirit we were hoping to capture on this album, and that rhythm is not as popular on radio right now,” he added.
Mars says the trendy sound that some of his peers have adopted – downbeat, alternative R&B – isn’t him.
“See, when I grew up you had to know how to dance, that was the whole thing. Everybody danced, thugs are dancing, the girls ain’t looking at you unless you’re dancing,” he said on a couch in the finely decorated and hip Atlantic Records office in New York City. “I remember having so much fun growing up going to functions and dancing, having a good time. People see me and my band do what we do and I’m just trying to push that even now more so on this album than the last two. It’s like, ‘We got to be moving’ – that’s it.”
Then he adds: “And I’m being mean about the R&B stuff. There’s room, it’s just not what I can bring to the table. …It’s not what I want to do.”
“24K Magic” is Mars, yet again, crafting his own space in the pop music landscape: After debuting in 2010 as a co-writer, co-producer and guest singer on hits like “Nothin’ On You” and “Billionaire,” he went on to become a solo star with his debut, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” as well as its follow-up, 2012’s “Unorthodox Jukebox.” He won Grammys for both multi-platinum albums.
They helped him headline the 2014 Super Bowl – an accomplishment no other artist achieved so early in their career – and the success of last year’s “Uptown Funk” brought him to the big game for a second time last February.
“What’s really helped us – and I don’t think a lot of producers have the luxury of, have the privilege of – is being able to be in the studio recording an album and then going out and performing it,” said Philip Lawrence, who performs in Mars’ band and has also co-written and co-produced with the pop star since he became a household name.
“We got two different vantage points: We got the sitting in the studio laboring over songs for hours and days and weeks, and then we get to take whatever that energy is and put it in front of people. And when you do that it gives you the opportunity to see what works, what doesn’t work, what could be better, what could be improved on.”
Mars’ dance routines have gotten attention because they are slick, hip and, at times, hilarious. He started working with Phil Tayag of the hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez for “Uptown Funk” and continued to work with the dancer for his latest project and tour (“The 24K Magic World Tour” kicks off next March and Mars will open Sunday’s American Music Awards in Los Angeles).
“We’d link up and just start moving and see who could make each other laugh first,” Mars said of the choreography.
That was also the mood he had in the studio while writing his new album: “If we can make each other laugh, that should mean something.”
The only guest on the album is Halle Barry, whose voice appears on the irresistibly smooth “Calling All My Lovelies.” R&B icon Babyface lends a hand to the closing track, the slow groove “Too Good to Say Goodbye,” and T-Pain co-wrote the catchy “Straight Up & Down,” which uses parts of the 1993 hit “Baby I’m Yours” by R&B group Shai.
Mars said when he first played his label the new music, they were hesitant about the sound.
“It’s not really ‘When I see your face …’ ” Mars said, singing the hook to his past hit, “Just the Way You Are.”
“I remember the label was iffy when they heard it, and I was like, ‘Trust me, there’s a whole vision behind this,’ ” he said. “Thank God they trust me.”