Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: complimenting Bruno Mars in a way that sounds like an insult.
Something unexpected happens at the 32-minute mark on Bruno Mars’ album 24K Magic. I sat back in my chair.
The album ends.
It’s over. That’s it! Nine songs, each less than five minutes long. No skits, no tangents, no filler. Four years between albums, and here’s what Bruno Mars has to show for it: nine songs, all stellar.
Brevity is the soul of wit. It’s not the only soul of wit, but it’s an underrated one. It was hard to come by in pop this year. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is frequently brilliant and captivating, but it also features verses and entire songs that could be cut without taking anything away from what surrounds them. Elevating them, even. The same could be said, even more acutely, for The Weeknd, whose 18-song Starboy has seven or eight classics and a bunch of…other items. Ditto Drake — I love you at your “Controlla,” but I don’t love you at your “9,” your “U With Me?” or your “Fire & Desire.” (Those are real song titles. This album was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. The Grammys are bad.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a long album. Some of them are great, and some of them are just inevitable. You try telling Drake to slice off four tracks from his budding masterpiece. You try telling streaming services, which get more revenue from albums with more songs that can be played individually, that artistic decisions outweigh commercial ones.
Even the ones that aren’t great have greatness in them, and in some cases, the good has to come with the bad. The same creative process that produced “Facts” (not good) also produced “Ultralight Beam” (genius) — in an era of music consumption that eschews hard-copy ownership, there’s never been a time more conducive for an artist indulging his creative whims, listeners’ attention spans be damned. Sorry, editors. This phenomenon isn’t going away.
But it doesn’t work for everyone. Bruno Mars is a prime example. He seems to have a pretty big ego about his talents and his charm, but by all accounts, he’s a relentless perfectionist who wouldn’t dare put anything out into the world that he didn’t think was abundantly ready to be there. He told Zane Lowe that he only put nine songs on 24K Magic because that’s all he had in him, and it shows. These songs feel polished and curated to ping our senses just enough to satisfy, but not enough to oversaturate. There’s never been more pop culture available at our fingertips, and it’s never been harder to choose what’s worth watching and what’s worth listening to. Bruno Mars did the job for us — he worked for four years to give you the very best of what he has, and when time was up, he gave it to us. There’s a lesson there for all of us. That is, if we’re not too busy jamming to that sultry groove on “Versace on the Floor” for the eighteenth time. “Daaance.”