The hits just keep coming for pop’s stylish wunderkind Bruno Mars

Jon Bream
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

MINNEAPOLIS — Bruno Mars, pop's most dangerous quintuple threat, is accustomed to juggling.

On a recent day, he was spending his first day in a recording studio in nine months, trying to find a cure for a sinus infection and doing an interview to promote his first-ever appearance at a fashion show, Macy's Glamorama, on Friday in Minneapolis.

He's not doing it for the fashion but rather because it's a benefit for the Children's Cancer Research Fund.

"I've never been in this situation before. I've been broke my whole life, basically," Mars, 26, said from his Los Angeles studio. "The fact that I can use my music to bring people together and help a good cause, that's really why I'm doing it."

Mars was a struggling artist for years until he got into the hitmaking business in 2009-10 — singing the hooks on Travie McCoy's "Billionaire" and B.o.B.'s "Nothin' on You" (which he co-wrote), scoring with his own "Just the Way You Are," "The Lazy Song" and "Grenade," and co-writing and producing "Forget You" for Cee-Lo Green.

As a singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and performer, Mars is enjoying the kind of golden touch with different artists that hasn't been seen in pop since Prince's reign in the mid-1980s.

At Glamorama, Mars will sing a few of the songs that have made him famous. The unpredictable part is his outfit. Will he be stylin' in a suit, two-tone shoes and pompadour, as he did at the Grammys, or will he favor the denim, T-shirt and fedora he wore at his sold-out St. Paul concert in May?

"When you say Glamorama, I'm thinking leotard, cowboy boots and possibly a shower cap," he said with a chuckle. "It's fashion. You've got to take chances, right? So why not?"

Mars describes his sense of fashion the same way he defines his music — "very unorthodox," he said. He drew a parallel to the title of his hit debut album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans."

"'Doo-Wops' is the more gentleman and 'Hooligans' is more in-the-street-everyday," he said.

The album has sold 14 million copies worldwide and yielded the sweet ballad "Just the Way You Are," which spent four weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart and 20 weeks atop the adult-contemporary chart, a record for a debut single.

"We wrote it to make women, especially young women, feel beautiful about themselves," he said. "The message behind that song is: Beautiful and sexy is the way you carry yourself. It's not about designer brands or plastic surgery. When you feel sexy and you feel confident, it shows. We wanted to boost women's ego. It's a positive song."

Rolling Stone called Mars a master of no-brainer songs. He keeps it simple, favoring uncomplicated lyrics, basic melodies and catchy hooks, seasoned with pop, soul, reggae or another style in his broad palette. In short, he's like a modern-day Smokey Robinson — if not as poetic.

Peter Gene Hernandez was born in Honolulu to a Filipino singer and a Puerto Rican percussionist. When he was 2, his dad started calling him "Bruno" because he looked like pro wrestler Bruno Sammartino. At 4, Bruno was onstage imitating Elvis Presley in his parents' 1950s-inspired revue on Waikiki Beach. His father schooled him on classic performers.

"I grew up watching and idolizing Prince and guys that write their own music and play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix and then get on the piano and sing an R&B song, and get up and dance, whether it's like Michael Jackson, James Brown or Jackie Wilson," Mars said. "That's what my father filled my brain up with; that was his music. I was growing up watching those VHS cassettes."

After high school, Bruno moved to Los Angeles and played in dive bars in front of fewer people than he could count on his fingers. After five years of struggling, he signed with Motown but got dropped a year later without ever releasing an album. In 2006, the drummer for Black Eyed Peas introduced him to another aspiring songwriter, Philip Lawrence, and they formed a partnership, eventually bringing in a third wheel, Ari Levine.

The trio became known as the Smeezingtons, writing and producing enough hits to be nominated for producer of the year at the 2011 Grammys. And Mars, the recording star, was just nominated for four MTV Music Video Awards, including video of the year for "Grenade." He'll compete against Green's "Forget You," a song he co-wrote.

"That's the only song where we all said to each other, 'If this song doesn't go, we're in the wrong business,'" Mars recalled. "That song felt so good to us in the studio and so unique and Cee-Lo just sang the hell out of it. It had all the ingredients to a feel-good summer record. It's such a cool message because he's saying 'eff you' with such sentiment that I don't think had ever been done before."

Mars is now getting called by veterans, including Kanye West and Jay-Z for their highly anticipated collaboration "Watch the Throne," scheduled for release this week

"I met Kanye briefly in Hawaii and played him some songs," Mars said. "I wrote a little bit of this song called 'Lift Off.' Their raps are great. Kanye is an incredible producer. Jay-Z and Kanye, these guys are the biggest. It was extremely flattering."

Working with the biggest stars, scoring some of the biggest hits of the past two years, winning a Grammy, receiving a bunch of MTV nominations — Mars paused a moment to take it all in and admire his juggling.

"It's good to be me right now," he said.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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