When Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars joined forces in “Uptown Funk,” popular culture was blissfully reintroduced to the funk genre. Whether it was obvious or not, this single’s vast commercial success paved the way for Mark Ronson’s newest album Uptown Special. A funk album through and through, Uptown Special is difficult to market in today’s popular music industry. Nonetheless, masterful collaborations with artists like Stevie Wonder and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker prove that this record is both legitimate funk and legitimately good. Hopefully the popularity of “Uptown Funk” will carry through to Ronson’s Uptown Special, as the addition of funk music to common culture opens doors to all types of new and unique artists and genres.
There is much to be said in the fact that Ronson’s songs with the legendary Stevie Wonder are not even the album’s greatest moments. Every track of Uptown Special is a collaboration, and musicians like Jeff Bhasker, Andrew Wyatt, and Mystikal enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with Ronson. As Ronson’s technique guides the artists’ varying musicality, each song develops its own flare.
The Uptown Special track that packs the most punch is a collaboration with Keyone Starr. Starr is no famous or acclaimed musician, however––she was scouted by Ronson and his fellow producer as they searched churches in the south for singers with the right sound for the song. Deciding on Keyone Starr was crucial to the spirit of “I Can’t Lose.” With a more modern instrumentation involving synth and drums, the occasional brass hits and Starr’s soulful singing are brought out. This track is simultaneously jazz and pop, latin and rock, and funk in a way that is neither convoluted or confused.
Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is one of the most prominently featured artists on Uptown Special, and his retro-rock vision hugely enhanced the sound of this record. With Parker’s influence on “Summer Breaking,” the single develops a smooth 70s melody. The vocals are clear and soulful, and the rhythmic percussion and electric guitar solidify the retro tune. “Daffodils,” another single with Parker’s style, is funk and pop at its best: enticing guitar riffs, smooth, pop-edited vocals, and the occasional screeching rock guitar. “Leaving Los Feliz” has an even more psychedelic, retro vibe, and the guitar, bass, and vocals bounce off each other fluidly.
Aiding Mark Ronson in the entire creative process for Uptown Special was his co-producer, Jeff Bhasker. Together, the two wrote the entire album and sought out featured musicians and soloists. Bhasker additionally performs prominently on two of the record’s tracks, the best of which is “In Case of Fire.” This song has a slight early-80s tone with its easy drumming and light base throughout the verses, but becomes undeniably funky in the choruses. There, the deep and electric instrumentation balances out among high, sultry vocals.
“Crack In the Pearl” is another powerhouse single on the record, and its groove is so strong that a second part of the track serves as the album’s conclusion, where Stevie Wonder enters to bring it all home. In the initial song, the most impressive element is the vocals. Different vocal lines soar over each other miraculously, experimenting in smooth and soulful harmony. While the beats behind the song are simplistic, they are not mindless. They allow the vocalists to have the most impact, as they create an undeniably beautiful story. In “Crack In the Pearl, Pt. II,” the song gets a more upbeat, funky flare. Instrumentalists take the scene, and whether it is percussion, altered brass, or electric guitar, the melody is taken over. Now, the vocalists work together with the instrumentation.
This track poses a satisfying conclusion to the album as a whole, as it shows how collaborative Uptown Special really is. Uptown Special is not just a casual jam record, and it is nothing pretentious or overdone. With Mark Ronson’s funk genius, and his system of supporters and fellow music-lovers, this record becomes a testament to music that is both effortless and skilled. It is a dichotomy of funk that has been largely missing from today’s music scene, but with Ronson’s recent recognition, it should find a welcome spot among today’s music hits.
Featured Image Courtesy of Columbia Records