Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Who’s giving it up today?
First things first: who is Mark Ronson? Ronson, dutifully playing the role of Guy Striking Cool Poses To Disguise The Fact He Can’t Dance in the video, is a British DJ/producer whose been working in some capacity since the turn of the century. Read his full rap sheet if you like, but the takeaway is he’s got a fairly wide genre pallet, and collaborated heavily with Amy Winehouse, producing “Valerie”, “Back to Black”, and “Rehab”. He reads as solid enough if not earth shattering industry hired gun that’s been involved with greatness, but perhaps seldom its cause. Oh, and he’s a credited producer on a little tune called “Locked Out of Heaven”.
I get how Ronson and Mars can work together. Both these guys have a jack of all trades, multi-genre portfolio, the difference is that Mars was practicing Elvis routines and the dance in “Smooth Criminal” while Ronson was crate digging for New York hip-hop records. They update the sound of old favorites with modern flourishes so as to not get lost in their influences, and the result is something fairly distinct. This is why “Locked Out of Heaven” worked so well.
And you know what? “Uptown Funk” does it even better. It’s one of those songs that’s so fully formed, fun, and wholly aware of its “I am on my shit” status that it’s as hard to resist on the first listen as it is on the hundredth. Everything, from that vocal sample serving as the main bass line to the tight, Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riff to the post-chorus horn line to the gang vocals throughout, falls exactly into place, like an immaculate DJ set distilled into (a somehow too-short) four and a half minutes. The production’s spot-on, too; nothing gets lost in the mix, and all the elements sound larger than life, especially the drums.
Honestly, I think the drum sound and the beat here might be “Uptown Funk”‘s secret weapon. Lemme explain. For the last year or two, a lot of our soul-based pop music has used treble-y, syncopated, snare-heavy beats that work more for measured flailing and swaying around than full body dancing (this is one of four or five reasons why it’s hard genuinely dance to “Happy” or “Shake It Off” without feeling like an asshole). This kind of beat’s alright, but ultimately feels like dance music without a groove, which is hard to really get into.
There exists out there what I call “The Michael [Jackson] Beat”: an unfussy but unrelentingly powerful, bottom-heavy beat around which every other rhythm in the song is tied to. For a song to have The Michael Beat, no matter what else is happening, you have to not only be able to always find that propulsive, unchanging, beat driving things forward, but hear how every other aspect of the song ties back to it (see: “Remember the Time”). I recognize that this is hardly an MJ trademark–it shows up all over in Steve Wonder, Prince, James Brown, and Kool & the Gang, and modern acts like Janelle Monae and LCD Soundsystem (even Katy Perry used it once)–but listening to the first disc of HIStory extensively when you’re five and six tends to shape how you see things. “You Wanna Be Starting Something” is probably the purest example of The Michael Beat in action: every single fidget, riff, vocal, and handclap in the song is rooted in one, never deviating beat. And you can totally hear it at work in “Uptown Funk”, most obviously in the post-chorus breakdown when the horns come in. What makes The Micheal Beat so cool is that it’s percussive in a way that makes dancing to it look effortless, and anyone can perform the fuck over it.
Which brings me to “Uptown Funk”‘s strongest asset: Bruno Mars. I don’t know who, and I don’t know when, but someone attached to “Uptown Funk” how to get the best out of Bruno: don’t tell him to be sweet, don’t tell him to try sensual, just slap him in a sportcoat, drop him in front of the guys, and tell him get cracking. We’ve finally coaxed this guy into the recording booth. And really, the song wouldn’t be as good without someone selling it this hard in front of the mic; it’s silly shit, but Mars makes “I’m too hot, make a dragon wanna retire, man” actually sound kinda cool, and the sneer on “Cuz uptown funk gonna give it to ya!” wouldn’t work if it was dialed down. And the backing gang vocals make the song stronger, too; the call and responses are not just a lot of fun and perfectly deployed, but give Mars something to play off of. I’m sure come next album cycle, Sweet Bruno, Brooding Bruno, and Sensual Bruno will all be back, but please, more Sportcoat Bruno, too.
Because “Uptown Funk” is one of the best hits we’ve had in awhile. It’s super catchy, danceable, well-made, a great performance, and even sharing space with throwbacky jams like “Lips Are Movin'”, “Sugar”, and “Thinking Out Loud”, incredibly distinct. I’m also relieved for Ronson, not just because he’s finally notched a massive hit with his name attached to it, but it sounds like “Uptown Funk” almost gave it to him during its seven month writing process. Ronson and Mars have always been great at blending styles, and they finally found one of their own.