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Bruno Mars had a very good 2010 — so good, in fact, he started calling it "the Year of the Mars."
One of his songs topped Billboard's Hot 100 in the spring of last year, while another spent some time at number 11, sandwiched between the latest from Jason Derulo and Drake. And just a few months later, a third track popped up, eventually climbing into the Top 10 and hovering there till this past February.
Of course, if you don't read liner notes, you might not have actually known those were his songs. The first, "Nothin' on You," belongs to Atlanta rapper B.o.B., while the second, "Billionaire," comes from Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes. The third is Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," perhaps the most ever-present and pervasive pop hit of 2010. Along with his Smeezingtons production partners Ari Levine and Philip Lawrence, Mars co-wrote and coproduced each tune — and even lent his vocal abilities to the first two. But when this 24-year-old Hawaiian native opened his eyes, to paraphrase a line from "Billionaire," it wasn't his name he saw in shining lights.
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"Yeah, I'm the 'featuring' guy," he chuckled in August 2010. "You know what, though? I think those songs weren't meant to be full-sung songs. If I'd sung all of 'Nothin' on You,' it might've sounded like some '90s R&B." At a moment when pop-star egocentrism was at an all-time high — two words: Kanye's Twitter — Mars was the rare Top 40 tunesmith more concerned with the song than with the self.
Over the past eight months, though, a lot has changed in the life of this hit-maker-for-hire. He's still self-effacing and modest when it comes to his undeniable knack for penning instant smash singles. But he's no longer anonymous. He's a star.
Last summer, Mars dropped the infectiously supersweet solo single "Just the Way You Are," which stormed the charts in a sugar-fueled frenzy. In October, Elektra Records released his studio debut, the delayed fulfillment of a professional aspiration that originally sent him to L.A. following his graduation from high school. This past January, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized him by name with an astounding seven Grammy nominations. In February, he took home one of those gold-plated gramophone statuettes for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, thanks to "Just the Way You Are." And now he's coheadlining a 24-city North American tour with high-concept soul-funk stunner Janelle Monáe.
Indeed, Bruno Mars has become a big, bold marquee name. But he's still had a hard time proving he's not soft. Even a recent conviction for cocaine possession couldn't recast him as a hard-ass. The reason: On record, Mars's shit can seem kind of wimpy. It's all nice enough, like Coldplay crossed with Gnarls Barkley. But none of Mars's studio output so far captures the assertive frontman charisma he displays onstage.
"People have said to me: 'You're not a nun. Why does your music sound like it should be in Toy Story?'" Mars admitted to New Times last August. "I blame that on me singing to girls back in high school. Girls love it when you croon to them. Maybe that's why I do a lot of falsetto."
Production partner Lawrence, however, cautioned against thinking of his buddy as a lightweight. "What people don't know is that there's a darker underbelly to Bruno Mars," he said. "The songs we've released have this sweet, angelic vibe, but we like to rock out and party and drink a little bit here and there. I think his album will have more grit."
"I'm looking at it as a movie that's all over the place," Mars explained. "It's like, what would you call Boogie Nights? Is it a comedy? Is it suspense? Is it drama? Hopefully, that's what people are gonna start feeling."