‘An Evening With Silk Sonic’: Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak Bring the Funk With Soulful ’70s Fare

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak are both perfectionists whose music displays visionary zeal. While both find much inspiration from soul and funk stylings, the two inhabit separate spheres, with Mars having secured a spot in within the confines of glossy pop and R&B and Paak residing on a plane all his own, defined by retro-informed idiosyncrasies. Pandemic quarantines have inspired curious musical collaborations, and the joint venture of these two is surely among the most exciting. Mars and Paak have joined forces as Silk Sonic, a revivalist duo that looks back to the sounds of ‘70s funk, taking after Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and groups like the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and the O’Jays. They have painstakingly recreated the sounds of the era, enlisting veterans such as Larry Gold to arrange strings, and collaborating with legendary bassist Bootsy Collins, whose work spans from James Brown to Parliament Funkadelic. The resulting album, “An Evening With Silk Sonic,” is a thrilling meeting of minds that stands out for both its camp humor and dedicated musicianship.   

True to its title, “An Evening WIth Silk Sonic” simulates a full live show experience. The “Silk Sonic Intro” begins with a handclap-led hype man chant, with ‘70s sonic signifiers rapidly piling atop one another and transporting the listener, in a flash, to a ’70s Black nightclub packed with afros and bell bottoms. We are introduced to the MC, Bootsie Collins, who in turn, introduces the billed act, and makes the evoked setting twice as vivid just by uttering a few words in his distinctive voice. It’s the camp, melodious stylization that served as the template for Snoop Dogg, and the music that follows seems to extend spontaneously from its mellow cadences. Immediately, it’s clear that this is going to be an occasion of fully committed, wide-grinning retro fare.    

“Leave the Door Open” kicks off with a playful call and response, every word issued in a breathy falsetto. The speaker is “sippin’ wine (Sip, sip) in a robe (Drip, drip),” having gone to great lengths to give his home the ideal, romantic ambiance, and resolved to “leave the door open.” Mars glides with finesse, and swells into impassioned la-la-las, expressing his enthusiasm for the night to come in the most theatrical manner. The languid, anticipatory lounging gives way to full-on funk festivities on “Fly As Me.” The whole track builds on the force of a driving breakbeat, just the type that was sampled in the earliest hip-hop of the ‘70s. Pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would loop the portions of tracks from groups like Chic and Rare Earth in which the instrumentation dropped out, using the elemental percussive force for hypeman interjections, which, over time, evolved into rapping as we know it. A song like this takes you back to that specific moment in musical evolution, and skips both forward and backwards in time seamlessly. Rather than limit themselves to the sounds of the period, Paak and Mars take liberties with what they throw into the mix. Here, Paak raps over the track, with a meter that recalls the idiosyncrasies of Outkast’s Big Boi. 

“After Last Night” loosens and extends the underlying funk, kicking off with loungey, wah-wah drivelry. The same enthusiasm with which the band looked forward on “Leave the Door Open” now takes a retrospective focus. Bootsy Collins leads the way, with his musings fleshed out into choruses and allowed to drift off into tangents that occasionally indulge the proggier aspects of funk, with fanciful extended fills, and some spacey, psychedelic undertones, dissolving into “La la” refrains. Virtuoso bassist Thundercat, joins the band on this track, and there could hardly be a more suitable feature for this sonic space. 

The story continues, with the peaks and troughs all communicated with a perpetual, unflinching cool. On “Smokin Out the Window,” Paak and Mars lament on how the femme fatale of the narrative has now “got her badass kids runnin’ ’round my whole crib / Like it’s Chuck E. Cheese” and “put me in a jam with her ex-man in the UFC.” This is comedy gold — but that isn’t to discount the musicianship on display. In a project as unabashedly camp as this, it’s easy for the underlying levity to override the emotive potential of the adopted musical stylings. It takes a remarkable commitment to craft to convincingly balance frivolity and substance, and Silk Sonic manages it impressively. “Put On a Smile” is a definite standout, with Mars’ and Paak’s inspirations extending well beyond the scope of mere amusement. Paak’s drumming is of the highest calibre, and the whole band thrives off its conveyance. At several moments, the drums build and drop out, leaving Mars in the spotlight for a truly spellbinding performance. 

The band springs back into freewheeling funk on “777,” another breakbeat-driven banger, perhaps the most hard-hitting, festive romp of the whole set. It’s a high octane, packaged party, full of spastic acrobatics. A song titled “Skate” is a natural next step in the ‘70s vision on display, and the whole roller disco aesthetic is consummately captured, with delightfully outlandish strings, and Paak’s drumming decisively leading the entire affair. Lines like “Do a little spin / Do it again” come upon a pause and succession of fanciful fills, before the rhythm returns, spurring on the skating again. Finally, “Blast Off” brings the album to celestial proportions with some stoner humor. Paak’s drumming again leads the way, in a string-laden, jazzy excursion. Mars and Paak sing, “Let’s go into the sky,” and the music follows with impassioned guitar solo passages. Bootsie Collins has the final word, declaring, “All the way from the stratosphere / Sendin’ love from up above / Happy trails, baba.”

“An Evening With Silk Sonic” flows from start to finish without a moment of filler. The accuracy with which Paak and Mars recreate ‘70s soul and funk sounds is uncanny. When they depart from the sounds of the era, for instance with some of their hip-hop incorporations, they do it so well that they effectively rewrite music history to suit their purposes, never sounding the least bit forced. There are plenty of fun moments that will make you laugh, alongside moments that recapture the most passionate and poignant force of ‘70s soul stylings. The album is a joyous experience, pairing two artists impressively well-versed in tradition, reviving a rich history of music in a delightfully camp, masterfully executed showcase. 

An Evening With Silk Sonic” releases Nov. 12 on Apple Music.