Silk Sonic reignites soul that’s been long taken for granted

REVIEW: Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak's new album, 'An Evening with Silk Sonic,' is less of a throwback as much as it's a sign of the over-saturation of today's computer-generated music

Why only nine songs? That’s been the question for fans about the brief tracklist of An Evening With Silk Sonic, the debut album from Grammy award-winning solo stars Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. All over social media, folks are upset that this highly anticipated meeting of funky minds only yielded nine cuts after the album was announced back in February.

Another reason they’re upset is that the nine tracks that did make the album are amazing.

We are far removed from the days when albums with 10 or fewer songs were normal. Now that digital music consumption is the norm, nine-song albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On would be considered EPs.

Silk Sonic
Silk Sonic – Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars (Credit: screenshot)

Perhaps the reason An Evening With Silk Sonic is captivating consumers is because there is a massive void of this quality of soul music on mainstream airwaves and streaming services today. Music of this kind was more commonplace in the ’70s and ’80s, a time when funk bands reigned and we took their quality for granted. It’s a little sad to think that recording an album with live instruments has become such a novel practice.

On the surface, the album seems like an exercise repeating a past-proven formula of funk. It’s easy to listen to a song, or watch a video and compare Mars and Paak to real-life people and plaster specific decades against their music because it all sounds so familiar. However, in actuality, what Silk Sonic is doing is putting the term “timeless” to the test.

Silk Sonic isn’t mimicking The Jackson 5, The Isley Brothers, or Earth, Wind & Fire. They’re an example of the evolution of those artists in a time when that kind of soul is in short supply. Because this album dropped when the sparse, skittering trap beats are ruling the charts, its quality stands out. Though listeners are easily drawn into An Evening With Silk Sonic due to the infectious grooves and earworm hooks, the album is deceptively complex.

With a supporting cast that includes Oscar-winning producer Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II, Philly soul string arranger Larry Gold, and Mars’ Grammy-winning engineers Charles Moniz and Serban Ghenea, the key modulations, strategic use of space, and dynamic movements within the tracks like “Leave The Door Open,” “Skate,” and “Blast Off” are dreams for those who fluently speak the language of music. They created a record that accentuates the nostalgia without sacrificing its contemporary character.

Mars and Paak say that the album’s sequencing was crafted to mimic the setlist of a live show. The “Silk Sonic Intro” and “Blast Off” are the kind of bookends that indicate that this is a dynamic collection meant to elicit certain feelings at certain points.

What exemplifies this ideal is the three-song arc that forms the emotional centerpiece of the album.

“After Last Night” starts things off with the delirious yearning that comes in the immediate aftermath of sexual ecstasy. On “Smoking Out the Window,” they then lean hard into the harsh emotional response of being hurt, disrespected, or deceived. Rounding things out is “Put On a Smile,” the poignant, contemplative articulation of true loneliness and regret.

This miniature pseudo-narrative makes “Put On a Smile” the stand-out song on the album. With its languid guitars, rain and thunder sound effects, Paak’s searing drum crescendos, and the unfiltered desperation in his and Mars’ vocal performance, this track is the harrowing crown jewel of the project.

An Evening With Silk Sonic works because it’s serious music that doesn’t behave seriously. Mars and Paak encourage one another to be irreverent in their lyrics and delivery.

On “Fly as Me” and “777,” Paak is in his rapping bag like we’ve seen on his own “Silicone Valley” or his guest verse on Jazmine Sullivan’s “Price Tags.” His new partner has shown a crude streak over his three solo albums, from lyrics about all the girls having to share his “carrot,” to having sex as gorillas do, to a celebratory anthem for “bad b—-s” and their “ugly-ass friends” alike.

These are the kinds of lyrics that make the album contemporary if sometimes problematic, but Silk Sonic’s tongue-in-cheek delivery keeps choice passages from songs like “Smoking Out The Window” and “777” from being straight-up offensive.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that funk pioneer Bootsy Collins is the host/narrator of the album. Not just because of his instantly recognizable voice, but because the spirit of this album harkens back to Collins’ Parliament/Funkadelic and Rubber Band heyday when humor was a crucial part of the message.

A man whose biggest solo hit, “I’d Rather Be With You” is a ballad that ends with the line “I’m gonna stick my love in your eye, baby, so I can see you comin’,” is the patron saint that this duo needed.

Erykah Badu coined the phrase “analog girl in a digital world,” but Silk Sonic is the affirmation of that ideal. An Evening With Silk Sonic is the rose of two-inch reel-to-reel tape growing from the concrete of Pro Tools and programming. It’s a beautiful, sometimes harsh, but gregarious product of precision and spontaneity.

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