Meshell Ndegeocello did not mince words when asked about my beloved Puerto Rican Frankie Lymon, better known as Bruno Mars to the rest of y’all. In an interview with Billboard to promote Ventriloquism, an album of covers, the singer-songwriter and musician made clear that she wasn’t impressed with Mars’ performance of the “Finesse” remix featuring Cardi B. No, she read him with the sort of blunt, matter-of-fact assessment you’d expect from a black woman at 49 (or any age, arguably, though hell hath no fury like a seasoned black queen). Per Billboard:
What did you think of Bruno that night at the Grammys?
What he’s doing is karaoke, basically. With “Finesse,” in particular, I think he was simply copying Bell Biv DeVoe. I think he was copying Babyface. And definitely there were some elements of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis back when they worked with Human League. I feel like there’s just all these threads running through there, but not in a genuine way.
How fine is that balance between karaoke and artistic interpretation?
It’s really a matter of musicality and being able to manipulate the tropes in a way that makes it feel personal. It can’t just be a pastiche, where you’re copying or mimicking an old sound or just doing karaoke. There has to be a form of sincerity.
I’ve always appreciated Meshell Ndegeocello for sounding naturally chopped and screwed, but now I can add her ability to dismantle a target with surgical precision to the list. Ndegeocello is not the first person to call out Bruno Mars for “copying” other artists. Years ago, multiple critics noted that Mars’ hit “Locked Out of Heaven” sounded exactly like a Police song.
Back then, Bruno Mars responded to the claims with the following admission:
“Hell yeah! You try to write a Police song!” he laughed. “I grew up listening to the Police, I grew up performing in bars, singing Police songs. ... I remember performing a song like ‘Roxanne,’ and you play those first couple of chords, and you hit that first note, and you watch the whole bar ignite. And as an artist, as a songwriter, it’s like ‘Man, I want to write a song that makes people’s eyes explode the first chord!’”
And when “Uptown Funk” essentially took over all of our lives for a period in time, many astutely noted, “That motherfucker just remade ‘Jungle Love!’” Others also pointed to the Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head.” There is no record of Morris Day slapping Bruno Mars in retaliation, but Charlie, last name Wilson, and the rest of the Gap Band did smack Bruno and company with a suit—which led to them receiving songwriting credits on the megahit.
More recently, even I couldn’t help but call out the Zapp & Roger influences of “24K Magic.”
Having said that, while I do think Ndegeocello is correct in pointing out the type of artists and producers who influence Bruno Mars’ most recent hits, I don’t question his sincerity about the kind of product he churns out just because much of it sounds so familiar to tracks of yore.
As a child, Puerto Rican Frankie Lymon grew up performing at dinner theaters, and that very much informs the sort of artist and entertainer he is. That’s why I was tickled when he served as wedding singer for Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s wedding to Sofia Levander in 2016 because it felt like a return to form. Bruno Mars is more or less the most successful wedding singer ever, or, at the very least, the most successful wedding singer of the modern era.
And when it comes to his music, Mars has long been up front not only in his intent when making music but also in praising those who have molded and shaped it.
Last year, in a Latina magazine interview, Mars said the following:
When you say “Black music,” understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop and Motown. Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland [Africa]. So, in my world, Black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.
So he acknowledges his intentions, praises those who have helped shaped his sound and, when met with legal challenges, will pay up and move on. As far as pop stars go, that’s most of what you can ask for of them. Beyond that, though, I question whether or not the kind of artist Bruno Mars is and has aimed to be calls for the kind of musicality and “originality” Ndegeocello is calling him out for (while promoting a covers album, no less).
When reading her interview, it reminded me of the first time I saw Bruno Mars perform as an opening act for Janelle Monáe (this is before the two would later tour under his banner in 2011). These two have always been similar to me in that they’re amazing entertainers who have music that registers as intentionally nostalgic. Monáe is forward-thinking in terms of her imagery and messaging, but when I’m listening to her actual music, it’s a lot like Bruno’s in that it often makes me think of past works. That’s not a jab; I’m a fan of both. Not every artist is trying to reinvent the wheel.
There are certainly other critiques to be made about this. Say, why is Bruno Mars winning all of the major awards at the Grammys when the likes of Beyoncé are robbed of their honors in these categories or Rihanna is totally snubbed altogether by being left out? Likewise, one has valid reasons to ask why Bruno Mars can be awarded for everything when the black artists who inspired him have not been as fortunate (Mariah Carey has ended the Grammys, though).
Still, Bruno Mars’ main goal is to entertain, and he’s really good at it. So I’m gonna keep bopping to the “Finesse (remix).” I’ll continue singing to “That’s What I Like” as if puberty hadn’t already snatched my R&B thot-throb dreams away. I will not slow down my two-stepping to “Chunky.”
In fact, you may one day catch me out here dancing to Bruno Mars with Anita Baker, who clearly approves of Bruno.