By Catherine Harris-White
By now you’ve heard the shimmering 24-karat magic that is the remix to Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” featuring Cardi B. It’s playing everywhere, on every radio station, and blaring out of every car on the block, and it was even performed at this year’s Grammy Awards.
But the magic goes deeper than most know. Why is this version of the song so popular? What about the addition of Cardi B has flipped it into a super hit? And why does this new song feel so dang familiar?
Since his collaboration with producer Mark Ronson on “Uptown Funk,” Bruno Mars has carefully climbed the ladder up to superstar status, changing his noted style of music. He’s been moving away from standard pop and more vigorously towards funk and R&B. The fact that Mars has made this change so successfully speaks highly of his talent and skills. Although he frequently remarks that he is just doing what he loves with his friends (the extremely talented songwriting and production team, The Stereotypes), there is still a strategy at work. Bringing back a once-chic style of music is one thing; to bring it back and also humbly credit the originators of that style is another thing entirely.
Let’s not forget that Mars is Prince-, Teddy Riley-, Jimmy Jam- and Terry Lewis-approved. So often up-and-coming artists reap the benefits of the artists that came before them without paying their respects. Mars does not seem to be interested in that kind of career elevation.
“Finesse” is track four off his 2017 hit record, 24K Magic. The song is heavily influenced by the “New Jack Swing” sound (a hybrid subsection of hip-hop and R&B richly inspired by soul, funk, disco, gospel, and big-band jazz). Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle are credited as the fathers of New Jack Swing alongside other popular producers of the style, including L.A. Reid, Babyface, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis.
There is some controversy over who is most responsible for the genre’s creation, but we won’t get into that right now — we’re too busy dripping in finesse. It don’t make no sense.
That uptempo high-energy, shuffley, drum machine pattern (especially the snare) is reminiscent of “Poison” by Bel Biv DeVoe (you know, the song that comes on and makes everyone lose their freakin’ mind and bust out the running man).
This 104 BPM beat pattern guides us through the song. It leads us along, and every fill serves to indicate what’s to come next, keeping the song energetic through until the end. The low pulsing keys and high-flying synthesizers communicate a sense of constant movement, which is definitely part of that classic ’90s R&B and hip-hop feel. The bass line (at times) is similar to Jonny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” again forward-moving yet sparse enough to feel spacious as well as foundational.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear sound design elements such as auxiliary percussion sounds, screams, and peanut gallery yelps throughout the song to emphasize the beat and accent-specific lyrics. A siren synth crescendos during the bridges of the song for intensity and to create a sense of urgency, which is Mars’ “New Jack” version of a beat drop.
It’s an excellent example of how sounds can be used to hype up a track. These components, as subtle as they are, are what make you shake your head and shimmy your shoulders. These are the key sounds that lift you out of your chair and help keep a song in your head for weeks because it now lives in your body.
The melody is spacious and simple. Only lasting eight bars, with a slight drum change-up after the first four bars, the sung verse has you paying attention. The pre-chorus has an echo effect (“when I’m walking with you, when I’m walking with you…”) that is catchy and hypnotizing in itself. When the hook arrives, it’s very modest, using words and phrases that are familiar and memorable.
Think about Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” Although technically post-New Jack Swing, it was produced by Teddy Riley, and the hook is full of catchy statements and affirmations that are relatable. It is also very laid-back with a low-ish BPM, and conversational. The harmonies are very similar to popular R&B boy bands, such as New Edition, Guy, and Boyz II Men.
Even the melody of the line “you know it, you know it” in “Finesse” sounds similar to lines from Blackstreet’s “I’ll Give It to You,” right down to the harmonies. He also throws a little Jon B run in there!
“We out here drippin’ in finesse, it don’t make no sense.”
This song is about how good Mars and his “boo” (Cardi B) look strolling around to everyone — how they complement one another basically effortlessly. Confident and braggadocious, the rhythm of Cardi B’s verse comes through with a sense of seniority, like Queen Latifah or Yo Yo, but the lyrics are straight out of the Cardi B playbook — just as they should be. Mars’ verse then rockets in, complimenting her and her body (while not mentioning specifics) and their relationship.
There’s no doubt that Cardi B is a hot commodity right now. However, I don’t think anyone could have predicted this collaboration and the epic impact it would have over everything else going on in pop music. Mars being so pop-intertwined and Cardi B being so hip-hop, it’s a great complimentary alignment. Cardi B bodies her verse; Bruno sings his heart and lungs out.
And in a way, it helps us to see the true range of of Cardi B’s skills, stepping out of the box of the slow, steady trap hit “Bodak Yellow.” “Finesse” builds on her skills, and helps her branch out and expand her audience reach into the R&B and pop worlds more effectively.
Male vocalists partnered up with female MCs is a winning combination. It’s a classic ’90s R&B structure, played out in collaborations between Blackstreet and Queen Pen, Lil’ Kim and Ray J, Left Eye and Donell Jones. There is something about hearing a woman rap that is enticing and interesting; just the intonation of her voice alone keeps the listener engaged. Cardi B’s performance has me wondering if the Grammy Awards might bring back Best Female Rap Artist as a category with all the talent out here. (Truly, there has never been a shortage of women rappers, but a shortage of attention span of the decision makers in the music industry to see and foster the vast community of female rappers.)
The obvious visual cues go towards shedding light on the retro styles and dance moves of the New Jack Swing era’s original foundation. But here we also get introduced to another aspect of Cardi B’s skill set: her versatility and talent for both improvised and choreographed movement. In this way, the video acts as a perfect extension of the goals of the song for these two artists, which is to strengthen their loyal fanbases and branch out to seek new ones.
Additionally, they dropped a video paying distinct homage to In Living Color, a late-night sketch show created by brothers Keenen Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans, which spawned the careers of such actors as Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Lopez, and is rarely ever highlighted in contemporary culture. Who better to have on a remix of a song called “Finesse” that pays homage to television history than a woman who has literally finessed her way into the music industry? From reality TV star to top-charting rapper, Cardi B has been telling us from the beginning that she was a star, and Mars saw her light.
“Finesse” is a timeless conversation that will never go out of style. This story has been told through styles of funk, jazz, country, blues, etc., and will not fade. It’s simple and relatable. It doesn’t matter what stage of your relationship you’re in — this song provides a little bounce to uplift your boo. Where other collaborations seem forced and industry-inspired, this one feels natural and organic. Cardi B and Bruno Mars are consistently breaking barriers with their style and tenacity. It will be exciting and interesting to see if this leads to further collaborations between the two.
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Catherine Harris-White (a.k.a., SassyBlack) is a space-age singer, songwriter and producer. With roots in classical music, hip-hop, and jazz, her music has been called “electronic psychedelic soul” and “hologram funk,” among other things.