"It turned into this soulful, experimental, electronic, hard-to-explain thing," Bruno Mars says of the freewheeling sessions that produced his second solo album Unorthodox Jukebox, due out December 11th. "That's the reason behind the album title – before I got signed to my current label, executives would always tell me what I did was too all over the place – too unorthodox. They couldn't imagine what radio station would play my stuff. I was thinking about this in my head when I started this album – so I decided to go into the studio and do whatever I wanted."
One thing Mars was sure he did want: to create something unexpected with the follow up his smash 2010 debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, which unleashed gushers of hits spanning "Just the Way You Are" to "Grenade," transforming him into a star. To that end, he tossed out the pop rulebook – working with surprise guests like jazz iconoclast Esperanza Spalding, collaborating with EDM hitmaker Diplo to create an insane club banger unlike anything Mars has ever recorded, and pushing a cadre of pop's most innovative producers (Jeff Bhasker, sonic auteur behind Fun.'s "We Are Young" and hits for Kanye and Beyoncé; Emile Haynie, crate-digging beatmaster for everyone from Kid Cudi to Lana Del Rey; and Mark Ronson, stylish groovesmith whose retro-tastic grooves defined Amy Winehouse's Back to Black) beyond their comfort zone.
"I was traveling in Zanzibar on my honeymoon when I got this call: 'Do you want to meet Bruno Mars?,'" Mark Ronson says. "I was only kind of familiar with his music. But we met up in London a month later, and the first thing he said was, 'I want to sound exactly the opposite of what a Mark Ronson collaboration with Bruno Mars is supposed to sound like.' That won me over – and then I found out what a phenomenal talent he is. This is the most progressive music I've worked on yet. It's going to open up the arteries and change the sound of music." As such, for "Locked Out of Heaven," Ronson brought in the rhythm section of his frequent collaborators the Dap-Kings to achieve a crisply syncopated, locked-in groove. "It's hard to create sounds with live instrumentation that bump in the club, and Mark Ronson did it here," Mars says. "Since Back to Black, I've always wanted to get into his head and see how he does it."
"So much of the record is played live, but still sounds like a hit record on the radio," adds Jeff Bhasker. "This is Bruno showing new dimensions as a songwriter and producer." Mars and co. pushed themselves even further on "Old & Crazy," a bonus track on the album's special Target edition featuring a face-to-face duet with Esperanza Spalding that Bhasker calls a "kooky, true-jazz classic, like 'Pennies From Heaven.' It's sounds like a song you'd hear in a club in 1920s Paris, even though we recorded it on a laptop; we even use old microphones to give it that feel. It started with an Emile beat, and then I added a Django Reinhardt sample that I screwed with in Ableton; then Esperanza came in and nailed her bass and vocal parts live, like an old pro."
Meanwhile, Mars' frequent collaborator Diplo – the pair worked together on "Liquor Store Blues" from Doo-Wops & Hooligans – took Mars even further away from the safety net on "Money Make Her Smile," surrounding his tale of a gold-digging super freak with rave sirens and hardcore punk rattle. "That's the wild card," Mars says. "Diplo has all the sounds in his computer to make the club go wild. We actually wrote that to be a strip-club anthem. After a concert in Paris, we went to a strip club; the promoter got on the mic and said, 'We have a special guest, Bruno Mars!' – and then they played 'Just the Way You Are.' That's the worst song to hear in that environment, so I resolved to write a good one." "In our generation, he's the most talented guy I've worked with," says Diplo, who's crafted hits for everyone from M.I.A to Beyoncé. "That record, he wanted to have something for the club, that has some noise on it and an 'I don't give a fuck' feel. Still, he writes giant pop songs. Bruno just does things with the songwriting I could never do – I've never spent so much time working on a bridge or post-chorus, but that's what you have to do."
Elsewhere, Mars' new material proves more emotionally revealing than ever. "When I Was Your Man," a stark breakup ballad (co-written with Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt) stands out amidst the edgy production, featuring only piano and Mars' raw, intense vocals. "When we started the record, I was like, 'I'm never singing another ballad again,' but that came from the gut – it's the most honest, real thing I've ever sang," he says. "When there are no safe bets, that's when I feel my blood move."