Unless you’ve been living under a rock of considerable size the last two months, you’ll have been aware of the stratospheric rise of Mark Ronson. Although he’s always been a successful producer and musician, his recent collaboration with Bruno Mars on the funk anthem Uptown Funk has definitely cemented his name in popular music. Uptown Funk was just the beginning, though, as he’s now come out with its accompanying studio album Uptown Special. Featuring collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Miike Snow frontman Andrew Wyatt, Uptown Special mainly draws on influences rooted in 70s funk and 90s RnB. Read on for more.
The album opens with Stevie Wonder collaboration Uptown’s First Finale, an ambient intro just short of two minutes. It takes around 30 seconds before we hear an instantly recognizable harmonica melody courtesy of the legendary Wonder, whose influence is embedded at various points throughout the record. Summer Breaking follows in the first of three collaborations with Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker. The song progresses nicely with Parker’s traditional, effects-laden vocals being underpinned by distorted guitar licks, grooving organ synths and a general laid back vibe which screams beachside cocktail. New Orleans rapper Mystikal guests on the expletives-laden Feel Right, a song which would fit in perfectly on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack (particularly the Django Unchained one). A mixture of funky bass, classic brass and the word motherfucker all work together to bring the album up to a danceable pace as the massive single Uptown Funk follows. Everyone knows this one. In fact, it’s impossible to avoid it. Bruno Mars’ vocals lend themselves very well to funk tracks which made this collaboration a match made in funk heaven. It all eclipses in bombastic brass, 70s vocal licks and an outro so happy and upbeat that it will either make you laugh, dance or smile like a lunatic as you try desperately to avoid the first two. A lot of people will dismiss this track for what it really is due to its extreme mainstream success, but it’s important to recognize that Uptown Funk isn’t just someone trying to do a funk re-hash; it’s Mark Ronson, a musician who emerged from the underground, doing what he does best at the best of his capabilities.
Keyone Starr collaboration I Can’t Lose incorporates some more brass and fuzzy synths as she harmonizes over the instruments with her silky smooth RnB-Soul vocals, before the 70s cop show riffs of Daffodils (the second Kevin Parker collaboration so far) make for an early album highlight. Daffodils is a killer track, perhaps even an early contender for song of the year. Although it’s partly down to the fantastic track it is in itself, Parker’s woozy vocals really give it an extra hypnotic feel which helps you get completely lost in and amongst a mix of Hammond organs, buzzsaw guitar distortion and head-nodding, hip-shaking basslines. Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt features on Crack in the Pearl, a slow-burner which mainly encompasses watery background ambience and Wyatt’s soulful vocals accompanied by a harmonizing choir. The song doesn’t build up that much towards the end, although some extra layers are added as the song climaxes. In Case of Fire, on the other hand, is all systems go from the off as guest star Jeff Bhasker helps add some classic 70s funk elements to the track. This one has a rockier edge to it, aided particularly by the jangly guitar riffs and distorted melodies which accompany Bhasker’s high-pitched vocals. Kevin Parker features once again on the hazy Leaving Los Feliz, a mid-paced track which features plenty of fuzzy guitars and sweet harmonies to sustain interest just long enough. Parker is a fantastic musician (his work with Tame Impala is enough of a testament to that; everything Parker touches turns to gold), and these collaborations make us yearn even more for some brand new Tame Impala music. Penultimate album track Heavy and Rolling (featuring Andy Wyatt) carries a percussion groove throughout its course, before grand pianos and slap bass enter the frame and come together to create a beautifully simplistic 90s RnB anthem. Both Jeff Bhasker and Stevie Wonder return once more on album closer Crack in the Pearl Part II, which does more of the same as the rest of the album, with Wonder’s harmonica taking centre stage as his sweet vocals are contrasted by wailing synths and a psychedelic melody which screams Kevin Parker. A wobbly synth helps the album fade out slowly but surely, but it just feels like there should be more as Uptown Special comes to a close. Ten songs feels too short, yet what we heard in those ten songs completely makes up for what it lacks in music. Uptown Special is a fantastic record, and definitely an early contender for the year-end lists.