Silk Sonic is the opposite of sexy, but still fun : Pop Culture Happy Hour Silk Sonic is a new musical showcase for two familiar faces: Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. Their soulful collaborations started trickling out this past March, when the duo released the single "Leave The Door Open." Now they've dropped the album An Evening With Silk Sonic, which features classic funk and soul updated for the present day.

Silk Sonic is the opposite of sexy, but still fun

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Silk Sonic is a new showcase for two familiar faces - Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. Together, they make music that recalls the classic Technicolor funk of the early 1970s.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Mars and .Paak recently released their first full-length album together. It's called "An Evening With Silk Sonic." I'm Aisha Harris.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about Silk Sonic on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: Joining Aisha and me is NPR Music editorial assistant Latesha Harris. Hey, Latesha.

LATESHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Morning, Stephen. Hi, Aisha.

A HARRIS: Hey.

THOMPSON: In February of this year, Bruno Mars announced the existence of Silk Sonic, but the band has percolated in secret for years. It formed when .Paak opened for a Bruno Mars tour back in 2017. Music started trickling out this past March when Silk Sonic released the single "Leave The Door Open" and performed it at this year's Grammy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN")

SILK SONIC: (Singing) I'ma leave the door open. I'ma leave the door open. I'ma leave the door open, girl. I'ma leave the door open, open. That you feel the way I feel...

THOMPSON: The Grammys were actually an appropriate launch point for Silk Sonic, given that Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak have 15 trophies between them, and the sound of "An Evening With Silk Sonic" seems ideally suited to add to their total. It takes classic funk and soul sounds and updates them for the present day. The album is even introduced by the funk legend Bootsy Collins, who gave the band its name. Aisha, I'm going to start with you. Where do you stand on, one, Bruno Mars, two, Anderson .Paak and, three, their new incarnation as Silk Sonic?

A HARRIS: Bruno Mars, I stand - I think he's sort of a consummate showman in the best possible way. You know, I did not actually really start getting into him until around the era of "Uptown Funk" and when he started really just going all in on the - recreating these previous eras of music. You know, his last album was very heavily focused on the new jack swing era. It had, you know, "24K Magic" and "Finesse." Like, I thought it was really, really fun. I was not a fan of sort of his earlier pop hits, which sounded a little bit more generic for that era of, like, the early '10s, like "Locked Out Of Heaven." I was like, eh, You know, they're fine.

THOMPSON: "Grenade," yeah.

A HARRIS: "Grenade," yeah. "Lazy Song," eh, not my thing. But when he started going all in on these sounds, I was all about it. Anderson .Paak, the first time I discovered him was at Governors Ball Festival, like, several years ago. I'd never heard of him, and I just happened to be by the stage. And I saw - I was like, who is this dude? He's, like, playing the drums. He's rapping. It's awesome. So I've been a fan since then. And I think it's just - this is just a really great example - Silk Sonic is a great example of kismet. I think they are meant to be. They've both been pulling from these sounds and are very old-school and retro in that way.

And so to hear them collaborate on this - I wouldn't say that the album is, like, perfect. And I do feel it's a little bit slight in some ways. But overall, I really enjoy the sound. And there's a few songs that I've been bopping for forever and are now, like, permanently lodged in my brain. So they got this down pat. I'm into it.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Nice. All right, how about you, Latesha?

L HARRIS: I think I'm in a limbo state with this album. On one hand, I think it's a very significant sonic achievement, just like Aisha was saying. Like, it's from these two perfectionist music powerhouses that just know how to make hit after hit. And it's also hilarious, you know, not in a clever way, just in a - wow, look at those fools fly their fool flag so freely.

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Yes.

L HARRIS: And even in its pastiche, you know, it's true to form. They have those passionate lyrics and, you know, Mars and .Paak bring me life by, like, moaning and crying like they're Jodeci in the desert.

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: Those explosive drums, the screaming horns. I think I am much more of a .Paak fan than I am Bruno Mars fan, and this album feels way more skewed to Bruno's sound and his little funk retro thing that he always has going on. But, you know, on the other hand, I have to ignore, like, oodles of, like, misogynoir and the commercialization of Black music to really enjoy it fully, which I can do if I'm tipsy, but it's a little harder if I'm sober. So I'm like...

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: This is certainly fun. It's very, very fun. I'm not always in the mood for it. But when I am, it's really, really fun.

THOMPSON: It sounds like I'm more or less on the same page with you guys in terms of coming into this record more of a .Paak fan than a Mars fan. Like Aisha, I kind of came to appreciate Bruno Mars somewhat slowly. I really wasn't into his early work. I originally tagged this guy - and I've probably - I'm sure I've said this on the show before. But I have thought of Bruno Mars as the leader of the Bruno Mars rock and soul revue for Carnival Cruise.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And when he first came out, that's really what he felt like to me. He was just this very, very game, try-hard showman. And I think he's come into his own. He's kind of figured out who he wants to be. And as Aisha said, a lot of that is, like, putting together pastiches of older styles and kind of freshening them up in interesting ways. And that's certainly what he's doing here. I actively love .Paak and have really, really liked his records. And if you haven't seen his record-setting Tiny Desk Concert that has been viewed 80 million times...

A HARRIS: A classic, a classic.

THOMPSON: It's really saying something that of all the Tiny Desk Concerts we've done, that is the one that has had the most views and really speaks to just the amount of showmanship that he brings. This record, for me, it's really interesting. I've been thinking about the slightness of this record that you guys are referring to. There's an intro, and then it's eight songs in about 30 minutes. And to me, I really view that slightness as a strength. I think that if this record were 60 minutes long, I would probably hate it.

L HARRIS: Yeah.

A HARRIS: Yes.

THOMPSON: But I think the fact that it kind of gets in and out, it doesn't all sound the same, it's playing around with a few different sounds and approaches and styles and speeds, and it kind of moves - I mean, the fact that it's called "An Evening With Silk Sonic," it's a pretty short evening.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And - which I think is probably true to life. But I think that that kind of works for it here. And so I found it growing on me. I will say, like, one of the first words that popped into my mind hearing this record was perfectionist. You know, these guys are perfectionists in everything they do. But really, the first word that popped into my head when I heard this record was smarmy.

A HARRIS: Oh, that's a great word. It's true.

THOMPSON: It is a little hard to get past the smarm. And if you've heard "Leave The Door Open," which if you're listening to this, I'm sure you already have a million times - it's been a hit pretty much all year - it is really leaning hard into the smarm.

L HARRIS: You know, you thinking about how smarmy it is, Stephen, reminds me that, like, what's really missing from this record is, like, sexiness. I think this is, like, the least sexy (laughter) adaptation of funk music ever.

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: That line from "Smokin Out The Window" when he's like, she was gripping on me tight, screaming Hercules - that is so unsexy.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Let's hear that moment. It's worth visiting as we're talking about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKIN OUT THE WINDOW")

SILK SONIC: (Singing) Ooh. Just the other night, she was gripping on me tight, screaming Hercules - Hercules, Hercules.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Who among us, really...

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: That's just, like, so unsexy. I get the reference, obviously. And I get how they want to make it, like, this, like, cute, tongue-in-cheek - like, oh, look at us; we're so fun. But it just, like, takes away all the drip from what objectively could be a very cool and, like, fly album. But I think that, like, unsexiness, like, just really sends it home on, like, the hilarity of it. Like, it's just something to laugh at more than it is to, like, vibe with.

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Yeah.

L HARRIS: But laughing is still fun, too.

A HARRIS: Absolutely. I kind of want to push back on the idea that this is more of a Bruno project than an Anderson .Paak project.

L HARRIS: Please.

A HARRIS: At least in the sense that - I think that when it comes to the smarminess and the joking and the constant winking that's happening on these songs, yes, that is very much Bruno Mars, a little bit less Anderson because I think Anderson on his own is just cooler, generally.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

A HARRIS: But Anderson has been kind of dipping into these styles for a while now. Like, his last album, "Ventura," he has a song with Smokey Robinson. It could have fit easily onto this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT BETTER")

ANDERSON PAAK AND SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) Oh, baby, do you want to make it better? Do you want to stay together?

A HARRIS: Like, it's very - that song has a very - groove to it. It feels like sort of late '70s, early '80s Smokey Robinson. And even his side project, NxWorries, which is probably my favorite iteration of Anderson .Paak - and that's a collaboration with the producer Knxwledge - they're pulling from, like, so many references to classic soul songs and those things. So I feel like - it still feels to me like an Anderson album, but the over-the-top cheesiness just is all Bruno.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

A HARRIS: I'm also curious. Like, Bruno Mars has been accused or criticized for being a sort of cultural appropriator by some Black music critics and listeners because he's not Black. But he's really come into his own and made his money borrowing from new jack swing, from Michael Jackson, from all these artists. And I'm curious what you all think about that because I think it's a little bit more complicated than some people might say it is, in part because he's not white but also because despite how (laughter) silly he can be and how try-hard he seems, it does feel like he respects this in the way that, like, a - I don't know - a Robin Thicke or someone...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

A HARRIS: It doesn't - you don't get that same sense.

L HARRIS: I don't know if bringing in Robin Thicke is the greatest asset to Bruno Mars'...

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Or even Justin Timberlake.

THOMPSON: Yeah, let's - we can set the bar a little higher than Robin Thicke (laughter).

L HARRIS: I think he respects the genre and all that it takes to create music like this. And, like, I appreciate how dedicated he is to, like, really committing to the genre and, like, committing to its style and committing to all its sounds. And I feel like when he presents his music, he does it in a way that he's so clearly making fun of himself as this, like, super huge superstar performer person. But it kind of makes it hard to believe that he actually really respects the presentation. I think he respects the music itself and everything behind it and the history behind it, but when it comes to actually releasing and making it, I don't know how respectful he is, really.

A HARRIS: Well, that's fair. That's fair.

THOMPSON: I mean, that's a really interesting way of thinking about it. I mean, I think of Bruno Mars as somebody who really internalized that James Brown story about how if you played in James Brown's band and you, like, went down to the hotel lobby to grab a tube of toothpaste, you had to wear a full suit and that James Brown was so, so valued and insisted upon that kind of complete 24-7 professionalism. And I think that Bruno Mars has internalized that idea, and kind of some of his try-hard nature, I think, comes from a real belief in craft. And I think that that comes through here. But I also think, like, he's kind of a corny dude.

A HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) And so, like, the corniness, I think, he really comes by super honestly.

A HARRIS: Yeah. I don't know. Now that you say that, when I - you mentioned James Brown. But when I think of Bruno Mars, I think more of, like, Sammy Davis Jr. in that sort of, like, super earnest - also, you can tell he's really trying hard to, like, fit in but also sometimes doesn't take himself too seriously because when you think about someone like Sammy Davis Jr., like, when he was around the Rat Pack, he was usually often the butt of the jokes. And so he was, like, willing to go along. And maybe it's also just because they're both, like, sort of small, diminutive men who can dance really well.

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: And, like, I don't know. I just - it's interesting. I definitely think that, Latesha, your point is well taken, and I actually agree with you, and you've made me change my mind in many - that maybe...

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Like, at least in the sense of, like, respecting the visual sense, it's not - well, it's not respect so much as it's just, like, a different way of approaching that sort of maybe saps all of the soul and the funk out.

L HARRIS: Yeah.

A HARRIS: There's, like, the sheen over his performance that does not - like, this - "An Evening With Silk Sonic," it has Bootsy Collins. It has all the right notes. But it's also just - it does feel, in a way, artificial. And yet I still enjoy this artificiality.

L HARRIS: Yeah. I think the aesthetic veneer behind it is, like, for Bruno, this really feels like a kid playing dress-up and having the time of his life while doing it, which I appreciate. But, like, even though the heart of the craft is still there, it just makes me feel like - I don't know. His suit's too big for him. His shoes are, like, a little too big for him. And he's just, like, playing around. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I know exactly what you mean.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Does this record feel current to you guys? Or does it feel like a pure throwback?

A HARRIS: I mean, the weird part about it is that most artists at this moment are, like, reaching back to, like, the '90s.

THOMPSON: Right.

A HARRIS: But it's been a while since someone's been like, I'm going to do an entire album that just feels like funk of the '70s (laughter).

THOMPSON: It merges from 1971.

A HARRIS: Yeah, like, this is this is Soul Train-era music.

L HARRIS: (Laughter).

A HARRIS: I mean, 20 years ago, it would have sounded, quote-unquote, "dated." But this is, like, the type of album that I know that my grandmother and my mother are going to dig because this is their era. And actually, I should probably share it with them now that I think about it. I think they'll really like this.

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: I feel like it feels timely in the sense that the "Soul Train" sound has informed so much of, like, hip-hop and R&B, like, even to today. So, like, it feels like this just is a long thread, and they're calling back on, like, the start of that thread. So it feels current in that sense. But it is very random to just have a EP all about funk from Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars in 2021. But that's the kind of year we're having. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Do you guys have favorite songs you wanted to talk about? I mean, three of these songs have been floating around leading up to the release of the album, which - and then there's an intro - that leaves five other songs (laughter). Do you guys have favorites?

L HARRIS: I really like "Put On A Smile." I really enjoy how they went into a random ballad on this EP (laughter). Once again - still not sexy.

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: It certainly was an experience. I'm a big fan of "Blast Off." I know that's NPR Music's Bobby Carter's favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLAST OFF")

SILK SONIC: (Singing) I took a little something to get here - yeah, yeah. I got a little more if you're ready. We can have it all. Oh, let's tiptoe to a magical place.

THOMPSON: Yeah. My favorite is "777." I - first of all, I feel like that song is going to be, like, dominating the radio from, like, February to May of 2022.

L HARRIS: Oh, God.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And also, that it's going to soundtrack a lot of really, really, really poor decisions.

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: But I like the fact that this song kind of delivers a little bit of a jolt of electricity late into this record 'cause this record's a little ballad heavy for my taste. Let's actually hear a little bit of 777.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "777")

SILK SONIC: (Singing) Stacks on stacks - stacks. Racks on racks - racks. Moonwalk to the money like I'm Mike Jack. Yes, I'm faded, pupils dilated. But the man in the mirror saying, go on, get your paper. Pretty [expletive] with some...

A HARRIS: It kind of feels like "24K Magic," all of it.

THOMPSON: It does. It does.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I didn't say it was bringing anything new.

A HARRIS: Well, I mean, none of this is new. But - (laughter).

THOMPSON: Yeah. No, not a second of this record feels new. But it does have a certain - there's a strut to it that's not - it's not trying to be sexy; it's trying to be cool. And if you are an uncool person trying to be cool, this...

(LAUGHTER)

A HARRIS: It feels like a song that would be playing at - like, in between commercial breaks at halftime of, like, an NBA game or something.

L HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Oh, yeah.

A HARRIS: Like, that's what it sounds like. It's just - you're going to hear that playing in the background as they cut to commercial.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: A lot of people are going to hear that song in their head right before they lose a lot of money.

L HARRIS: Oh, my god.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: So I guess my last question is, where do we go from here? What do you - do you guys want to hear more Silk Sonic records? Do you want Anderson just to do the Knxwledge project on the side or make solo records? Do you want Bruno Mars to be a pop singer or a soul singer? What do you want next?

L HARRIS: I feel like both of them have done so many different things and tried on so many different hats already that they might as well keep making this, milking it for everything they've got.

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: You know, this is the kind of record I would be really embarrassed to put on at a party, and then someone else does it, and we all realize we've been dying to listen to it, and we have a great time.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

L HARRIS: So if they can keep making just carefree, ridiculous stuff like this, go ahead. Power to them.

A HARRIS: Yeah, I'm not going to say that I won't buy a ticket to their tour, assuming they do a tour.

(LAUGHTER)

L HARRIS: It'll be a fun tour.

A HARRIS: Yeah.

L HARRIS: And you know it'll be a great, awesome show.

A HARRIS: That's the thing 'cause I've already seen Anderson .Paak live. We've seen the way they are, so even if the music isn't my favorite, like, to be able to see them doing their thing on stage together, I think, would just be really fun. But yeah, I want to hear more Anderson .Paak, and Bruno can do his thing, and he'll put out bops, you know?

THOMPSON: (Laughter) That's the thing. I think they just continue making bops into eternity.

A HARRIS: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about Bruno Mars, about Anderson .Paak, about Silk Sonic. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to both of you for being here.

L HARRIS: Thank you, Stephen.

A HARRIS: Thanks, Stephen.

THOMPSON: And we will see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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