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Bruno Mars, ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ (Atlantic)

We're old enough to make a 'Return of Bruno' joke, OK?
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Label: Atlantic

At first, Bruno Mars seemed an unlikely pop star. There he was, suddenly, in the summer of 2010: a pint-sized, fedora-wearing, ex-Elvis impersonator born Peter Hernandez, his stage name partially derived from an Italian wrestler known for his smothering bear-hug. He started as a successful songwriter with the absurdly named three-man production team the Smeezingtons (the brains behind Cee Lo’s “Fuck You”), but found mainstream solo success thanks to a pair of hook-slinging guest-vocal spots on pop cuts (“Nothin’ on You,” “Billionaire”) from B-level rappers (B.o.B, Travie McCoy). That he subsequently scored his own No. 1 hit with the syrupy “Just the Way You Are” — the apex of full-length debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans, which helped him score (gasp!) seven Grammy nods, including Album of the Year — felt less like a foregone conclusion and more a matter of a talented guy catching pop music at a decidedly low tide, after Justin Bieber’s unexpected splash and before dance music’s looming wave.

“It’s for the masses, and I’m totally happy with that,” Mars allowed at the time. But the singer’s true personality — a wisecracking, self-deprecating goofball who tells reporters that he’s “hung like a circumcised maggot” — seemed slightly at odds with his middle-of-the-road, kid- and grandma-friendly image. Isn’t it amazing, though, the creative freedom that commercial success affords you? Thanks to Hooligans‘ six million in sales, the 27-year-old is now given the luxury to create the LP he’s always envisioned for himself. Typically, a release backed by this sort of here’s-the-real-me PR mumbo-jumbo amounts to little more than, well, Rebirth. But Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars’ excellent second take, is the real deal: an utterly engaging, genre-hopping, hyper-catchy, 10-track affair that bucks 2012 pop’s overreliance on dance-bass fuzz and gives Mars and his steely tenor room to stretch out.

Start with the lyrics, which get a desperately needed kick in the pants: Dude scatters a slew of f-bombs throughout, most notably on the Prince-channeling, Diplo-produced hump-fest “Gorilla,” wherein he woos a seemingly willing lover (“Give it to me, mothafucka”) after laying bare his own failings (“I got a body full of liquor and a cocaine kicker”), not-so-subtly referencing his Vegas bathroom-stall drug arrest back in September 2010. And while labeled a throwback artist his first around (largely due to his infatuation with the ’50s and ’60s doo-wop freely pillaged for Hooligans), Mars shows a willingness here to incorporate various other genres — Solomon Burke-style soul (“If I Knew”), rock-reggae (“Locked Out of Heaven”), piano-anchored balladry (“When I Was Your Man”), even Donna Summer-esque disco (“Treasure”).

It helps, of course, that, aside from adept Smeezingtons cohorts Phillip Lawrence and Ari Levine, Mars now comes armed with an A-list crew of producers — and not the usual Scandinavian suspects, either. Fusion-fanatic Mark Ronson cooks up spicy reggae-funk for first single “Locked out of Heaven,” calling to mind both the Police and the Romantics; “Rolling in the Deep” mastermind Paul Epworth joins omnipresent pop maven Benny Blanco behind the boards for the two-timer tell-off “Natalie,” a sort of methed-up “Dirty Diana” (“Look out for pretty little thing,” Mars warns) assembled with fierce handclaps and hard-edged oooh-oooh vocal echos.

Not every stylistic stretch is as inspired: The Diplo-produced strip-club anthem “Money Makes Her Smile” feels uncomfortably scuzzy, while “Show Me,” an honest attempt at dancehall (steel drums, tape effects, air horns, etc.), is straight-up silly. But the bulk of Unorthodox Jukebox benefits from presenting Bruno Mars as he truly imagines himself: a big belter with an ear for pop hooks, sure, but one unafraid to dive into murkier waters. Will radio DJs (and Grammy voters) favor such unorthodoxy? Will it move enough digital units to justify further indulging his creative fancy? Maybe, but Mars is definitely taking a chance by releasing such a far-reaching, decidedly club-unfriendly record; his next one might be a safer, far less inspired retreat. Enjoy this while it lasts.