It was one of those titles no one else was really gunning for: World’s Youngest Elvis Impersonator. In the 1990 documentary Viva Elvis, an interviewer asks our hero, an alarmingly precocious child named Bruno, how long he’s been performing as the King. The pompadoured 4-year-old answers, “Since when I was 2.” His father, a member of the Hawaiian band The Love Notes, sits silently by his side. You knew right then that this kid was either destined to become the most charming pop star of his generation, or a serial killer who asphyxiated each of his victims with peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. Luckily, the former happened. You know him. His last name is Mars.
Plenty of children pushed into the spotlight at such an early age end up wanting to run screaming from it as adults, but the now-31-year-old Bruno Mars (born Peter Hernandez) speaks fondly of his early experiences as a tiny showman. “It was like turning into Batman,” he told GQ in 2013. “I’d go to school and kids are calling me Peter and we’re playing baseball and kickball and shit, and then — ‘All right guys, I’ve got to go!’” He loved the adrenaline rush, the applause. He grew up in Honolulu, with a truly amazing pedigree for a performer: His father was a musician/Elvis memorabilia shop owner, and his mother was a singer/hula dancer. He joined the family band around the same time he was potty-trained.
Justin Bieber is often considered the first pop star of the YouTube era — a diamond plucked from the rough of countless precocious children warbling acoustic cover songs into their webcams — but the platform has shaped Bruno Mars’s stardom in a different way: It means we have bountiful access to his well-recorded past, a kind of flip-book of Mars stepping out from the shadow of his idols and becoming an original artist in his own right. He eventually added Michael Jackson to his repertoire of impersonations; here is a video of him wearing a Jackson 5 wig and singing “I’ll Be There” at something called the Las Vegas Revue in Waikiki.
It’s no surprise, given his upbringing, that Mars’s more recent music moonwalks a fine line between innovation and homage, and squaring his past with his present brings up some interesting questions about the collective consciousness of popular music: Can a kid who was groomed to be an impersonator ever make anything original? Or, is Bruno Mars the absolute perfect specimen to turn our ideas about pop music and originality on their heads?
Bruno Mars has become so goddamn cool in the past few years that you almost have to strain to remember that he first came on the scene wearing a fedora, and that there are a few songs on his first album that sound like Jason Mraz. Doo-Wops & Hooligans, his 2010 debut, spawned a few smash hits — the schmaltzy ballad “Just the Way You Are,” the pretty undeniable “Grenade” — but it now feels like the sound of Mars just revving his engines, securing a kind of chart-topping popularity with which he could do more interesting things later. Later came quickly, in 2012, with his excellent sophomore record, Unorthodox Jukebox. There were smashes on that one, too — the much-less-schmaltzy ballad “When I Was Your Man,” the jangly, Police-worthy banger “Locked Out of Heaven” — but there was also a great leap forward in production. Pop past and present engaged in conversation in these songs. “Young Girls” is a Motown song let loose in the postproduction candy store of the digital era. The genre-agnostic “Locked Out of Heaven” feels equally indebted to Sam Cooke’s chain gang and the buoyant energy of the early-aughts post-punk revival. My favorite song on the album, though, was perhaps the most convincingly retro: “Treasure,” a gleaming bit of dance-floor R&B, an Off the Wall–era Michael Jackson song in everything but its use of the word “motherfucker.”
That was one of the two songs that best prepared us for his sumptuous new album, 24K Magic. The other one was, technically, a Mark Ronson track: The unavoidable, Grammy-winning 2015 smash “Uptown Funk,” a song you will hear in the Drunk Hour of every wedding you ever attend for the rest of your life. Few songs have worn their influences on their sleeve so boldly, and with such panache: It requires no stretch of the imagination to picture Morris Day and the Time performing “Uptown Funk” in the middle of Purple Rain, and yet — miraculously — this does not make the song feel retro in a cloying way. It’s homage done too well, too lovingly, to get mad at for any reason at all, even unoriginality. It now feels like the transitional song that separates the first part of Mars’s career from the second. Before, there was something kind of postmodern about his nods to the past — they were purposely patchy, collaging together his wide range of influences. But 24K Magic, his best record so far, is seamless in its re-creation of bygone sounds, tones, and atmospheres. It’s not pastiche anymore; it’s full-on simulacra.
This record has a high thread count. The production is so immaculate that it sounds like all the things Mars sings about: silk sheets, strawberry champagne, hastily flung-off Versace. Surely you’ve heard the leadoff single, “24K Magic,” a jubilant b-boy jam with a soaring chorus — the “Uptown Funk Pt. II” that we really did need. There are a few other songs like this on the record: The extended James Brown impersonation “Perm” (“Throw some perm on your attitude / Girl you gotta relax, ooh”) and “Finesse,” the best Bell Biv DeVoe song of the 21st century.
But it’s the slow jams on this record that really take it to the next level. “Versace on the Floor” is the opulent centerpiece of 24K Magic, and it is a perfect song. It is the “Lady in Red” of this millennium. Someday someone will choreograph a freestyle canoe routine to it, and it will be beautiful. The gorgeous finale, “Too Good to Say Goodbye,” can wear its Babyface cowriting credit with pride. The stroke of genius is that Mars doesn’t try to ham it up too much on the ballads — he resists the urge to make them ironically retro and just allows them to be straightforwardly pretty. In his latest Rolling Stone cover story, he revealed that the original version of the song had a line about “fly[ing] through a storm on a unicorn” and “mak[ing] love on a mountain, bath[ing] in a fountain.” It was wise to cut the Ron Burgundy shit; it would take you out of the song’s transportive atmosphere, place the whole thing in air quotes.
He does get to pull off one great downtempo punch line, during the sultry “Calling All My Lovelies,” when he samples Halle Berry’s answering machine. Little Elvis earned that one.
“This is something I never thought about until recently,” Mars said in this month’s Rolling Stone cover story, “but because of my upbringing performing for tourists, I had to entertain everyone. Not just black people, not just white people, not just Asian people, not just Latin people. I had to perform for anybody that came to Hawaii.” Mars’s father is Puerto Rican and Jewish, and his mother (who passed away in 2013) was Filipino, but he says growing up in Hawaii gave him different, less binary ideas about race than most other Americans have. “Everyone’s kind of mixed up there, kind of brown because it’s sunny,” he said in 2013. When he moved to Los Angeles, he was surprised at the segregated way in which record executives still talk about marketing music. “They were talking about ‘What radio station would play this?’ And it basically boils down to ‘Who’s gonna buy your albums? Black people or white people?’”
Against all odds, he found a way to answer “C: all of the above.” And though he’ll never be a political artist, there is something subtly subversive about that kind of across-the-board appeal: Mars is a great unifier. He can charm an Ellen audience and make a song like 24K Magic’s “Chunky,” an ode to “them girls with the big ol’ hoops.” He effortlessly exudes that kind of moms-love-him charm that someone like Drake lacquers on when he’s on a talk show, so much so that said moms can easily overlook the occasional lyric about cocaine or your sex taking him to paradise. Mars isn’t setting out to be an innovator, and that’s fine: Little Elvis will always be a crowd-pleaser at heart, an old-fashioned showman in an era so starved for them that he’s been asked to appear at the Super Bowl halftime show twice in the past three years. 24K Magic is a transportive, sonic fantasyland — it’s a 33-minute vacation. Bruno Mars just wants you to be happy, and lord knows that’s a worthy mission in the garbage year of 2016. So just sit back and let this unicorn fly you through the storm. “If you ever need to smile again, girl,” he offers, “take my card.”