The 1970s are back, decked out in large Bourbon-colored sunglasses, revere collars, Embassy cigarettes, and crushed velvet suits. I absolutely love it! In a world where rap has become the number one musical export, many are left asking where’s the “real R&B” music in 2021? Where did music with instruments, captivating vocal performances, and heart-wrenching climaxes go? Contrary to popular belief it never left. The existence of Childish Gambino, The Internet, Janelle Monae, H.E.R., Kali Uchis, and Miguel are a testament to the modern R&B scene. In March 2021 there was a fortuitous attempt to make R&B mainstream again, thus giving birth to November’s Artist of the Month: Silk Sonic.
Who is Silk Sonic?
Silk Sonic is a duo comprised of Grammy award winner Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. This union of Mars’ light lyric tenor and .Paak’s high, raspy baritone creates a blissful listen. These two artists celebrate the music of the past, pre-packaged as a global superstar and underground music luminary. Silk Sonic was formed after .Paak opened on the European leg of Mars’ 24K Magic tour. The group’s chitlin circuit-like live performances are none other than spectacular, using their short stature and big voices to pay homage to decades of funk and soul music icons like Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Curtis Mayfield, Chi-Lites, The Jackson 5, and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Growing up in a large musical family exposed Mars to an array of musical genres that prepared him for his life’s work in entertainment. Mars was born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is a singer-songwriter, producer, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist and got his start at the age of four as an Elvis Presley impersonator in local talent shows.
In 2009, the song “Nothin’ On You” by North Carolina rapper B.o.B. featuring Mars put his vocal talent on full display. This feature prompted the release of his commercially successful debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans in 2010. The album’s sound is a blend of reggae, pop, and 1940s rhythm and blues often called “doo-wop.” It secured him three number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with, “Just the Way You Are,” “Grenade,” and “The Lazy Song.” Mars has since released two more solo albums: 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox and 2016’s 24K Magic, which was certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Upon first listen of Anderson .Paak’s voice you cannot help but be enamored by his gritty and pain-ridden timbre. .Paak is a singer-songwriter, rapper, and drummer from Oxnard, California. He was born Brandon Paak Anderson and got his start under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy. In the midst of a troubling childhood, he crafted his talents in church. The early part of his solo career was abysmal; it included couch surfing with his wife and newborn son. In the early days, he performed at various nightclubs around Los Angeles with members of The Free Nationals. In 2014, he changed his stage name to Anderson .Paak. In an interview on The Madd Hatta Morning Show, he emphasized the stylization of the period between the two names “I put that [period] to remind myself it takes work ethic.” .Paak’s musical style plays with a retro aesthetic. In 2014, he released his debut album Venice, a fusion of R&B, Hip-hop, and electronic dance music (EDM), that focuses on the thrills of LA life and culture.
He received critical acclaim for his sophomore album Malibu in 2016. This album achieved notoriety for its ode to jazz and neo-soul. .Paak and The Free Nationals performed songs from the LP on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series which amassed over 80 million views on Youtube. In the same year, he released a collaboration album Yes Lawd! with producer Knxwledge. .Paak signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment and has released two albums, Oxnard and Ventura, with stellar features from Kendrick Lamar, Jazmine Sullivan, J Cole, Snoop Dogg, Andre 3000, and Smokey Robinson.
Is Silk Sonic Always Smooth?
Many people, including myself, have embraced the new duo, but it is important to mention the valid critiques surrounding Bruno Mars’ personal aesthetic and success as a solo artist. On a Youtube series called The Grapevine, Mars came under fire for his 2018 Grammy Award-winning Album of The Year 24K Magic. The video sparked intense debate on Twitter, questioning whether or not Mars appropriates Black American culture. The Grammys are often called out for racial bias by influential Black artists such as Prince and Nick Minaj. Many groundbreaking albums by Black American artists that paved the way for new generations somehow still see an absence of artistic merit at the Grammys and award shows alike. Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, Whitney Houston’s Whitney, Usher’s Confessions, and Beyonce’s Lemonade all failed to win Album of the Year. Artists have voiced that the Recording Academy and its voting committee reward white mediocrity while overlooking Black excellence.
One writer, in particular, Seren, also known as Sensei Aishitemasu on Youtube, has been at the helm of the Bruno Mars debate. She often details the limitations and barriers Black American music artists encounter in the music industry that non-Black people of color do not. She suggests that the absence of these limitations allows Mars to literally and figuratively glide through time periods of music while maintaining a palatable appeal to the masses. She deems this "unoriginal." In a video from 2016, she implies that Mars can consciously use his racial ambiguity as a tool because “We love our Black American culture from non-Black American bodies.”
Mars is of Puerto Rican, Ashkenazi Jewish, and half Filipino descent. To her point, he has found major success in genres like New Jack Swing, traditionally dominated and created by Black American artists like Bobby Brown, who has not seen the same success. Recently, the argument surrounding Mars shifted from a personal issue to a systemic one. Earlier this year Silk Sonic was interviewed on The Breakfast Club where Mars addressed the controversy saying, “You can’t find an interview where I am not talking about the great entertainers before me… this music is coming from love.” This comment does not hone in on the crux of the cultural appropriation argument but instead sheds light on his own musical intentions.
An Evening with Silk Sonic?
This month the pair have since released their debut album, An Evening with Silk Sonic. The nine-track LP narrated by the legendary Bootsy Collins takes us on a journey through time and space. It does not rival other jam-packed short tracklist predecessors like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but it still manages to grab the attention. Listeners are still on a high after Silk Sonic’s number one single, “Leave The Door Open” a Motown era sensual crooner with amazing harmonies and production. Their latest number-one single “Smokin’ Out The Window” is a witty lyrical display of humor and musicality.
This poses a series of questions: what’s next for Silk Sonic? Will they be announcing a world tour soon? Will Anderson .Paak see a boost in desired stardom? Is this an attempt by Bruno Mars to dispel cultural appropriation accusations? Is Silk Sonic going to sweep the 2022 Grammys?
Until then, keep listening to the music, you can find their new album on all streaming platforms.
Feature image from Genius
Sources: Insider, NPR, Spotify, Spotify, American Music Theatre, Spotify, Spotify, Youtube, Youtube, Spotify, Spotify, Youtube, Spotify, Spotify, Spotify, Youtube, Rolling Stone, Youtube, AP, Youtube, Spotify, Spotify, Spotify