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Bruno Mars is having a good year—so good, in fact, that he's taken to calling 2010 "The Year of the Mars." One of his songs topped Billboard's Hot 100 this spring, while another spent last week at No. 11, sandwiched between the latest from Jason Derulo and Drake, respectively. Of course, if you don't read liner notes, you might not actually know those songs are his; the first, "Nothin' on You," belongs to the Atlanta rapper B.o.B., while the second, "Billionaire," comes from Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes. Mars co-wrote, co-produced, and sings the chorus on each tune, but when this 24-year-old Hawaiian native opens his eyes, to paraphrase a line from "Billionaire," it's not his name he sees in shining lights.
"Yeah, I'm the 'featuring' guy," he says with a knowing chuckle. We're backstage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, where Mars is opening for K'Naan later tonight. "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." Not sure why that would've been a bad thing, but you have to admire the guy's altruism here: At a moment when pop-star egocentrism is at an all-time high—two words: Kanye's Twitter—Mars is the rare Top 40 tunesmith more concerned with The Song than with The Self.
At least for now: Later this year, Elektra Records is slated to release Mars's solo debut, the delayed fulfillment of a professional aspiration that originally brought him to L.A. following his graduation from high school. The songwriting-and-producing sideline sprang up when an artist deal didn't; the singer began working with two pals, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, as the Smeezingtons, and soon scored gigs for Brandy, K'Naan, and Flo Rida. "We kind of produce like a band," Mars says, and indeed their stuff does have an identifiable soul-rock swing. Midway through our conversation, K'Naan drops in and recounts his first meeting with the Smeezingtons, when they charmed him in spite of the terrible song they'd presented. "I didn't walk out because they're hilarious," says the Somali-Canadian MC. "But they were amazing after that. They're literally the most talented team of producers I know."
In May, Elektra put out a four-song Bruno Mars EP; a new single, "Just the Way You Are," landed last month. (At press time, the track had racked up more than a million plays on MySpace.) 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 at the House of Blues. On-record shit can get kind of wimpy: "People have said to me, 'You're not a nun—why does your music sound like it should be in Toy Story?' " he admits. "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."
Lawrence cautions against thinking of his buddy as a lightweight: "What people don't know is that there's a darker underbelly to Bruno Mars," he says. "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," says Mars. "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."
Bruno Mars plays the Bowery Ballroom August 25