If pop music is a solar system of styles — planets of rock, rap, R&B, reggae, and country — then Bruno Mars wants to be your sun. A year ago, no one even knew his name, but over the past 12 months, Mars has seemingly crash-landed on everyone's record — writing, playing, and singing some of the most popular songs of 2010, from B.o.B's "Nothin' on You" to Travie McCoy's "Billionaire."
Last month, the 25-year-old Mars released his debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, a 10-song set of solar-powered pop hits, blasting everything from Casanova soul music ("Just the Way You Are") to guitar-drenched radio rock ("Runaway Baby"). Since then, we've watched Mars' personality evolve and expand, from a cocaine bust in Las Vegas to his explosive set on Saturday Night Live. To prepare you for his sold-out show at the Grog Shop this weekend, we've charted Mars' lofty flight path.
B.o.B to "Billionaire"
Mars started off his career as a satellite for other artists. When he moved to Los Angeles at 18, looking for a music career, nobody really wanted to take a chance on a short, nerdy, high-energy crooner from Hawaii — even if he did have a supersmooth velvety falsetto. So Mars teamed up with Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, formed the Smeezingtons songwriting and production team, and began writing songs for Flo Rida, Cobra Starship, Brandy, and Justin Bieber. It wasn't long before Mars lent his phosphorescent vocals to a pair of songs: B.o.B's hip-pop sensation "Nothin' on You" and Travie McCoy's dub-struck "Billionaire." Both were huge summer hits, and Mars completely owns these tunes, finger-picking the guitar hooks, singing the intros and choruses, and showcasing his talent for ear-candy rap.
Ready to Launch
In May, Mars broke out of orbit with his debut EP, It's Better If You Don't Understand. Written by Mars and his Smeezingtons partners, the four-track set peaked at No. 1 on the iTunes chart, fueled by the '60s gospel-rock homage "The Other Side," featuring both B.o.B and Cee-Lo Green. In contrast, the other three tracks are sugar-loaded pop confectionaries and a preview of what's to come on the full-length. "Somewhere in Brooklyn" is a sweetly bleeping electro poem about lost love. "Count on Me" is a guitar-and-bongos folk ballad that sounds like Jason Mraz. And "Talking to the Moon" is a piano sonata that explodes with symphonics and Michael Jackson-inspired vocals.
Center of Gravity
Mars is a magnet for styles and artists. In August, Cee-Lo released the single "Fuck You." Mars co-wrote the tune — a sunny slab of pop-R&B, except for the profane title and chorus, a kiss-off to an ex and her new boyfriend. Mainstream radio couldn't touch it (for obvious reasons), but that only gave Mars more indie cred. The tune went viral, complete with a hilarious video, and snagged tons of play on satellite radio.
A Star Is Born
With all jets firing, Mars blasted the Billboard charts last month with Doo-Wops & Hooligans, making waves with the weak-kneed love anthem "Just the Way You Are." The album established him as a hopeless pop romantic — part Prince, part Presley. (He's always been an enormous Elvis fan: He actually played a tiny Elvis impersonator in the 1992 movie Honeymoon in Vegas when he was six years old.) Like the King, Mars doesn't necessarily have a musical style he can call his own, but he can reproduce his influences with impressive success. "Our First Time" sounds like a George Michael cover. "Marry You" might as well be a Beach Boys oldie. And "Liquor Store Blues" breathes smoky Jamaican grooves fitting of its Damian Marley guest vocals. It all sounds both familiar and new.
Landing at the Grog
When Mars sets down in Cleveland this weekend, expect an electric show that recalls old-school '60s soul belters like James Brown. Maybe he'll sport a blue dinner jacket and a pompadour; perhaps he'll don a slick trilby and sunglasses. Either way, Mars will definitely wear a six-string guitar, backed by drums, keyboards, and singers. He'll offer his own take on songs he wrote for other people, like "Billionaire" and solo hits like "Just the Way You Are." He may even jostle a few covers, mashing up "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with "Billie Jean." And it will probably be the last time you'll catch Mars in such a small local venue, since there are so many other bigger worlds to conquer.
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