Bruno Mars has always borrowed deftly from the past without painting himself into the corner of retro culture, whether it’s ’60s soul, ’70s power ballads, or early-’80s New Wave. With 2016’s 24K Magic, the vision is more deliberate: This is a love letter to ’80s and early-’90s R&B, straight up, from the Zapp-like bounce of “24K Magic” to the silk-brief seduction of “Versace on the Floor,” the callouts to Daisy Dukes and perms to the blocky beats of new jack swing (“Finesse”).
Mars’ ear for detail remains impressive: Take, for example, the way a skittering, trap-like hi-hat pattern turns the slow jam of “That’s What I Like” into a synthesis of past and present. Likewise, his swagger is so goofy as to be charming (“I got a condo in Manhattan,” he sings on “That’s What I Like”; “Baby girl, what’s happenin’?!”). But for all its fun and personality, what makes 24K Magic interesting is the way Mars manages to capture a moment in the development of R&B before it merged fully with hip-hop—a balance of showmanship, innocence, and sexuality that has defined his style from the beginning. He can take you back to the gym where you had your Valentine’s Day dance, sweaty palms and all—but he can also show you the ways in which the music never left.