Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s faithful and loving ode to ’70s R&B has a distinctly light touch, which works both for and against the project.
After fiddling with the R&B of the 1980s and ’90s to great commercial success on 2016’s 24K Magic, Bruno Mars has assigned himself a more challenging project: Silk Sonic, a fidelity-obsessed act in which he and onetime tourmate Anderson .Paak, recreate the rhythm and blues of the ’70s. The duo sought out particular drum skins to better replicate the sounds of the studio during the heyday of Gamble and Huff, when those songwriter-producers polished soul music to an extravagant sheen. With period-specific instrumentation in place, the exuberant pop hitmaker and the acclaimed rapper-singer-drummer with underground cachet recorded as their ancestors did, with just one or two mics for the entire room of musicians. As a gesture of commitment, Paak got his chest tattooed with portraits of Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Prince. They even enlisted Bootsy Collins to host their lean game of musical I Spy: “Fellas, I hope you got something in your cup,” the beloved bassist from Parliament-Funkadelic announces on the intro. Trap drums freshened up 24K Magic but there’s nothing comparable on An Evening With Silk Sonic, a loving yet slight act of nerd-dom.
After one listen, my scorecard noted the crystalline guitar glissando best associated with Motown session musician Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin (see: Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” or Ragin’s own “Goo Goo Wah Wah”), the siren-like ARP synth from Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” a whiff of the chorus from the Ohio Players’ “Fire,” and the title of Rick James and Teena Marie’s magisterial “Fire and Desire” (released in 1981, but close enough). Other critics will surely pin down allusions of their own. For a certain listener, this is half the fun: An Evening With Silk Sonic is an opportunity to prove your adoration and knowledge. For some younger listeners, this may be their first full-length engagement with one of the richest chapters in music history. Others will process this as simply a good time. But any significant level of investment poses the question: When artists invoke music as beloved as Motown and Philly soul, how can anything they create measure up?
One way to dodge the smack of the yardstick is with a joke, and An Evening With Silk Sonic does not want for winking silliness. If anything, Mars and Paak are hamming it up harder on this collaboration than on past records. The internet received the clip of Mars belting out “this bitch,” from the heartbroken lament “Smokin Out the Window,” and did the work of a crackjack marketing team by turning it into a meme. (For my money, that song’s funniest line reading is Paak’s despondent yet fluttering “I wanna die.”) The videos are pure burlesque. This is a cartoon revival of a well-worn aesthetic, and when so many of the creative decisions resist being taken seriously, any criticism makes you sound like a killjoy.
As many have pointed out, the classic means of Motown production as laid out by founder Berry Gordy were as regimented as the assembly lines in nearby Detroit auto plants. In his classic genre study The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George wrote that “Motown promoted Gordy as an affirmative, unthreatening symbol of black capitalism…Gordy clearly stated that his goal was to buy into mainstream standards.” To ensure the label’s artists passed inspection, Motown instructed its stars to cut a smooth figure. As quoted in Kelefa Sanneh’s recent book Major Labels, Maxine Powell, the head instructor at the label’s charm school, told her pupils to “be natural, be poised, and be positive.” There’s no chance Ms. Powell would have condoned Silk Sonic dropping the b-word, but it’s still possible to draw a line from Motown’s artifice to the contrived jokes and slickness of An Evening With Silk Sonic. These songs are more “explicit,” but they’re fundamentally safe. Motown’s artists worked hard to crossover; for years now Mars has operated from the epicenter of pop music, not the margins.
Still, some of the slicker numbers on the project work well: “Leave the Door Open,” “After Last Night,” and “Smokin Out the Window” are among the highlights, slathering elevated technique—all those key changes—with satisfying molten cheese. In the first verse of “After Last Night,” after Thundercat’s tender ooos place the sonic equivalent of a rose-colored scarf over a bedside lamp, Paak explains that one especially zesty sexual encounter has him throwing out his phone and deading his player tendencies. He opens the second verse singing, “If I still had my phone I’d call every girl I know/And tell them goodbye.” It’s an amusing detail made sweeter by Mars’ harmonies on the last syllable. This splashy interplay between male vocalists is perhaps the record’s strongest selling point: There are virtually no male R&B vocal groups of note these days, though the power of layered harmonies is the catalyst for much of the genre’s finest records, most notably the entire body of work of Marvin Gaye.
The best song, “Put on a Smile,” is also the cause of the most frustration. Co-written by the singularly talented Babyface, the album’s big ballad digs as deep emotionally as Mars and Paak are willing to go on a project that keeps the stakes low by choosing humor over sincerity at just about every turn. Collins’ rhyming intro mentions “begging in the rain,” and the subject matter doesn’t stray far from the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” or the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears,” perfect songs about trying to mask your busted heart. Structurally, “Put on a Smile” teases massive catharsis with its first chorus that it smartly holds back until the second refrain, when the drums finally crescendo and Mars leaps to the top of his falsetto. The song is played entirely straight, as the level of emotion calls for. And it is immediately followed by an empty ode to partying in Vegas called “777.” Blow the dice, papa needs a new foreign, etc. It’s soulless.
Both artists are capable of more. Listen to Mars’ version of Adele’s “All I Ask”—don’t watch it, because he and his band are dressed like Halloween versions of hypebeasts and I don’t want you distracted—he has grit in his voice, total sincerity that doesn’t let up. It’s his most emotional, unvarnished recording. And “Wngs,” from Anderson .Paak’s collab album with Knxwledge, not only anticipates but nails the Silk Sonic concept, despite Paak singing over a simple beat. “Baby, get your shit together, we hittin the town/It’s been a long time since we drank all night and I wanna see that ass move around,” Paak sings, as rude and romantic and funny a lyric as he’s ever written. The sense of familiarity baked into the invitation is exactly the mood of Silk Sonic; what is this supposed to be if not the album of lovable carousing uncles? Depth doesn’t have to mean sad—on “Wngs,” it means lived-in, novelistic detail.
But An Evening With Silk Sonic was only meant to be a hyper-detailed costume party. As Paak explained to Rolling Stone, Mars told him, “We’re making music to make women feel good and make people dance, and that’s it.” He didn’t lie. At eight songs plus an intro, it’s the shortest full-length project either artist has released. Teased since March of this year, leading to a promotional cycle that’s lasted nearly nine months, it arrives burdened with more hype and attention than its songs should have been asked to bear. Could they have made a weirder, more surprising version of this record? Absolutely. But as they’ve insisted from the start, it’s not that deep.
Buy: Rough Trade