Bruno Mars has always had hot sauce in his bag. From side-hustle singles that he collaborated on as a writer, producer and occasional guest crooner — whether it was B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You” or CeeLo Green’s “F**k You” — to his own hits like “Treasure” and “Uptown Funk” (which, although Mark Ronson is technically the lead artist, is and always will be a Bruno Mars song), R&B has always been in his blood. Despite all of its pop success, Mars’ 2016 blockbuster 24K Magic was a straight-up R&B album. And his two joints with Cardi B, 2018’s “Finesse (Remix)” and 2019’s “Please Me,” only solidified his cookout credentials.
So when Mars showed up at the Grammys in March performing “Leave the Door Open” with Anderson .Paak as the retro-soul superduo Silk Sonic, it felt like a natural progression for an artist who has been leaning more into his R&B side. And after a pimp-stroll of a rollout over eight months, this much-anticipated project — the seeds of which were planted when .Paak opened for Mars on the European leg of his 24K Magic World Tour in 2017 — has finally come to full fruition with An Evening with Silk Sonic.
And for fans of old-school R&B, it’s everything that you want it to be: real vocals, real instruments — piano! strings! horns! — and real feels. You can just feel the love and the joy in the making of this album. It’s music that was made with a smile on their faces and a swerve in their hips, sipping Henny up in the studio.
An Evening with Silk Sonic is set up as a live show in its intro, with legendary funkateer Bootsy Collins bestowing his blessing and ’70s bonafides as a sort of master of ceremonies. His is just one of the legacies that Mars and .Paak celebrate — and that’s what it is, a celebration — on this LP.
The first single “Leave the Door Open,” which went to No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts, is a sumptuous throwback to the Philly soul of the Stylistics and the Delfonics. It simply doesn’t get any smoother than the creamy crooning on this, one of the best singles — R&B or otherwise — of 2021. Then on the funky “Fly as Me,” they channel the Time — who Mars performed with during the Prince tribute at the 2017 Grammys — with a meme-worthy mantra that we should all live by: “I deserve to be with somebody as fly as me … And you deserve to be seen with somebody as fly as me.” Word.
Prince himself is conjured on the bedroom ballad “After Last Night,” with Collins and Thundercat adding some Love Below-era OutKast vibes. Meanwhile, “Skate,” an appropriately titled roller-skating jam, sounds as if it was recorded with Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. And with that kind of string-laden lushness, it hardly matters that Silk Sonic stole Robin Thicke’s sound the same way that Justin Timberlake did on “Suit & Tie.”
No doubt, An Evening with Silk Sonic is shamelessly derivative. There’s nothing new here, and there are no surprises. But when a song like “Put on a Smile” — one of the shimmering highlights — takes you back to the music your mama played when she was frying up chicken in the kitchen, it doesn’t get much better than that. The kind of begging-after-breakup song that the ladies would swoon for back in the day, it peaks when Mars hits one of those high notes that still might have you throwing your shoes — or panties — at him.
The album — which, with nine tracks over 31 minutes, is also a throwback to vinyl-era brevity — ends with “Blast Off” catapulting you to falsetto heaven and an interstellar signoff from Uncle Bootsy: “All the way from the stratosphere/Sendin’ love from up above/Happy trails, mama” But let’s hope that this is not the last nostalgia trip for Silk Sonic.