Could you imagine telling someone from 2011 that the twerpy kid from “Grenade” and “The Lazy Song” and the dude who got famous off a mixtape with a black and white titty on the cover were going to duke it out for the hottest pop album only 5 years later? In March of that year, The Weeknd would release his first mixtape to rave reviews praising his futurist approach to genre and vices, while Mars was a pop ascendant with an innocuous throwbacky hit under his belt already and a weepy single in the top 10.
But I feel like Bruno Mars and The Weeknd are more alike than they’re not. Not only do they both specialize in decade-blending R&B/pop and owe a lot to Off the Wall, but they’re proof that music industry meritocracy still works (assuming you’re talented, attractive, lucky, etc.) Mars started as a journeyman industry songwriter/producer before he picked up some exposure of his own on other people’s hooks, and got his own career off the ground shortly afterward, while The Weeknd started on the opposite side of things as a tastemaker and fan favorite who made it to mega-stardom after a few tactical industry jobs. Either way, from inside the pop machine to infiltrating it, these guys rode a wave starting in 2014 to a ludicrously successful 2015, and are taking their pop careers one step further with their newest records.
You can’t approach 24K Magic without talking about “Uptown Funk!,” which already feels like a dividing line for Bruno Mars. Call it the lingering effects of a career birthed of Mraz-core like “Nothin’ on You,” “Billionaire,” and “Just the Way You Are,” but Mars always came off as a lightweight performance kid, even with sweatier, sexier material on his second album. “Uptown Funk!” is no less performative than, say, “Just the Way You Are,” but it marks the point where his best persona (cocky bandleader with slick moves who dresses like new money) became fully realized. This guy’s lurked in Mars’ DNA since his performance at the 2012 Grammys, but “Uptown Funk!” the first time he existed on a record. He’s the best fit for Mars: preening and there to party, but he’s gonna make it a really good party.
24K Magic spreads those good times out over its 9 songs in 33 minutes. The album wisely reprises “Uptown Funk!” only with its opening track–because why wouldn’t you re-up just once?–otherwise, the connection is the shared “Don’t believe me, just watch” swagger that permeates the whole record. This is Mars’ most fun album, a hits-only Hall of Fame for ’80s and ’90s R&B with callbacks to plasticky soul (“Chunky”), Boyz II Men balladry (“Versace on the Floor”), and Bobby Brown New Jack Swing (“Finesse”) among others. It’s one of those albums where every song sticks out on the first listen, and most everything save “Straight Up and Down,” which is a little too fussed over, could be a single.
One cause for concern with “24K Magic” is that it doesn’t share Unorthodox Jukebox‘s unerring arranging. As a song, it’s fun and loose sounds like doing a line off a Random Access Memories jewel case, but it’s not as lockstep or ingenious as “Locked Out of Heaven.” Thankfully, the rest of the album’s jam tracks are more sophisticated, and 24K Magic really shines on the ballads. “Versace on the Floor” builds an intricate melody over a dozen different chords in its first minute alone, before letting everything gracefully fall like its title, and then there’s still a gloriously over the top guitar solo and a subtle key change to go. Even more extravagant and more successful is closer “Too Good To Say Goodbye,” which shoots for the moon on overwriting and overarranging, but Mars sings the fuck out of it. It’s a every excessive ‘90s ballad you’ve heard, but together, and fantastic.
What makes 24K Magic more than just garden variety luxury pop (not since Watch the Throne has an album been this impressed by its own thread count) is how dedicated Mars is to his schtick. He’s in that Off The Wall zone where sure, these are surface songs asking you to get on the floor and loosen them shoulders up, but they’re performed by someone leaping head first into them. Like OTW, the impersonal approach here goes in the album’s favor because the focus is on making the songs themselves snap as much as possible instead of getting inside the artist’s head or anything. It makes something like “That’s What I Like” even goofier and more enjoyable, and nullifies the ickiness of “Calling All My Lovelies,” whose “Grenade”-ian meanness (“Since you ain’t thinkin’ of me/Look what you’re making me do”) is tempered somewhat by the silly reveal that this all started with a Halle Berry voicemail curve; the whole thing’s revealed as playacting. Bruno Mars is a smart dude, and even if he isn’t making smart music, he’s sharper than most at getting every champagne drop of happiness out of what he does.
Mars defended his choice to keep 24K Magic to 9 songs, saying “If I can’t pull you in with nine songs, I’m not gonna pull you in with 19!” That quote says a lot about his headspace, but it’s also a damning argument against The Weeknd’s Starboy. Starboy comes a year after The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye)’s breakout record Beauty Behind the Madness, a murky slog of an album, albeit one with a handful of world-beating singles strapped to it. I wrote a bit about this before, but Tesfaye kind of finessed his way into a pop career by deploying a (slightly) cleaned up version of his coked out party lech only in appropriate settings. And then, “The Hills” became a hit, confirming that we were fine with the real him. He was able to go from the margins to the mainstream without changing a thing.
The best and worst thing you can say about Starboy is that it won’t surprise you. It’s a Weeknd album, so it does atmosphere well for a while, has enough impressive melodies and rhythms for maybe half a dozen decent songs and threeish great ones, comes with a dangerously high filler count, mails in the lyrics, is poorly paced, and crushingly overlong. It has that thing going on where your enthusiasm sinks once you realize about a third of the way in that this initial push isn’t building toward anything rewarding, like Views or The Walking Dead. Tesfaye has his sound, and sometimes it works, but across 68 (of, if you’re rounding up, 69–aye) minutes, it becomes a party you can’t leave. Or escape.
Like other Weeknd albums, Starboy has its winning qualities. It sounds like The Weeknd going pop in a rich way: Tesfaye and his varying producers have always emphasized texture and atmosphere, and their work here is their most opulent. By comparison, even Kiss Land and the non-Max Martin parts of Beauty Behind the Madness sound like a cheap high from pills a guy who knows a guy sold you while Starboy puts the designer in designer drugs. The production highlights moves like the synthy trap-pop of “Party Monster,” which is as decadent as its subject matter and the post-punk charging “False Alarm.”
Starboy works when it shoots in a different direction, too, like the vintage soul of “Sidewalks” (produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest) or “Secrets,” which deserves to be a hit. “Secrets” recasts a pair of New Wave samples as warbly, neurotic disco, and shows off Tesfaye’s surprisingly sensual lower register. It’s not as massive as “Can’t Feel My Face,” but people should love it. Daft Punk’s closing contribution “I Feel It Coming” sounds like the sun rising at the end of a wild night, and maybe, just maybe hints at something new for The Weeknd. It can’t come too soon; whenever Tesfaye plays into his usual drugs and sex tropes–”Reminder,” “Loves to Lay,” “Attention,” “True Colors,” “Ordinary Life,” and more all come to mind–it’s tiring, like the comedown without the hit. Once you do a song like “The Hills” where you just lay out all of your dark, twisted behavior, giving a blow-by-blow on getting road head isn’t going to register as a shock.
The issue is that The Weeknd has, of all things, an aesthetic problem. It’s not that his aesthetic is ill defined, or problematic (although it is), but that it’s too singular. Since his debut mixtape House of Balloons, Tesfaye’s aesthetic has been a hyper-specific combination of party predator mystique and R&B/hip-hop musical cross-pollination that can’t sound like anything but itself. And taken in smallish bursts, it can be fascinating, but over the course of five more full-length projects (and running times from 45 to 68 minutes, boy do I mean length), there needs to be some sort of evolution, something that Tesfaye has shown he either can’t or won’t do. Without that development, what once sounded mysterious and exciting instead sounds like caricature, and no matter how expensive it sounds, the music will go stale, too.
As it happens, Starboy features an artist on its interlude who avoided this very problem: Lana Del Rey. On last year’s Honeymoon, she was still pleading for men to be with her like she had since Born to Die, but the album was grounded in newfound self-awareness and agency. It felt like a continuation from the aesthetic she’d established; Honeymoon swirls with Old Hollywood glamour and longs for the arms of a lover, but is less helpless and more active in pursuing them. This is the version of Del Rey who shows up on “Stargirl (Interlude)” to coo about sex in the kitchen with an overmatched Tesfaye, providing a human moment to a record about robo-fucking.
If The Weeknd doesn’t take a cue from Del Rey, he can at least take one from Bruno Mars: either make a shorter album or write better songs. Despite having twice the tracks and being twice as long, 24K Magic and Starboy contain about the same number of great songs. It’s still early in the album cycle for both, and with a title song hit apiece, we’ll see who comes out ahead. Either way, we’re telling our friend from 2011 that the doof with the pompadour has not just the better pop album, but the better album overall. Bruno Mars has gone through a few different reworks and come out with his best record yet. The Weeknd is still trying to convince us he’s amazing just the way he is.