Firstly, let’s just skip over the whole Uptown Funk debacle shall we? Fleur East’s performance on X Factor may have been a cheeky move by Simon Cowell, but if anything, the resulting early release of the single has raised expectations far beyond what they would have been.
Expectations that are not met by the full album.
Ronson has always dabbled with soul music, not least his instrumental work with Amy Winehouse. But ‘Uptown Special’ is utterly indebted to the music of old, predominantly retro soul, disco and funk. It’s no wonder Stevie Wonder features on a number of tracks – he sounds right at home.
When Daft Punk looked to the past for ‘Random Access Memories’ it provided influence, but the album itself was a novel fusion of old and new. Aside from some modern synth effects, Ronson has failed to achieve the same. The album is a love letter to the past. It is wholeheartedly derivative.
Intro track Uptown’s First Finale is deceiving: it begins with a whirring space-age bass, but Wonder’s instantly recognisable harmonica playing soon takes over. It’s followed by the shuffling, bossa beats of Summer Breaking that may as well come with a flickering sepia-toned film montage. Then there’s Feel Right with rap from Mystikal, a repetitive attempt to replicate old school rap tracks from the likes of The Sugarhill Gang but with distasteful lyrics (“still rapping, slapping kittens and grabbing my cock”). Perhaps Ronson should be commended for such convincing recreations of the past, but what’s the point if there’s no injection of originality?
The album is at its best when Ronson focuses less on the past and instead lets loose on a pop jam. That’s where Uptown Funk comes in. It might be as derivative as the rest of the album (all the best bits of Michael Jackson and Prince, with a dash of Oops Upside Your Head), but its dance rhythms are nothing short of infectious. In Case of Fire is also a standout, its laidback funk verses launching into a guitar eruption, and Daffodils is a sun-drenched dream with the vocals of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. The real highlight, though, is I Can’t Lose, the sort of track Chaka Khan would be proud of. Newcomer Keyonne Starr provides a rich vocal to production filled with neon stabs of synths and guitars. It’s a genuinely exciting pop track.
Yet too often the album settles into a groove of glorified lift music, from the banal Leaving Los Feliz, to the melodically meandering Crack In The Pearl, and the pedestrian Heavy And Rolling (that’s neither). There’s no denying the production is slick and polished across the album, but much of the songwriting is average at best. Those expecting an album of Uptown Funk-esque bangers will be left wanting.
‘Uptown Special’ is in parts an enjoyable album, but it’s just too derivative to stand up to the classics it so brazenly apes.
* Uptown Funk
* I Can’t Lose
* In Case of Fire