Soul music is something that has been part of Black culture since the genre’s inception, constantly expanding and evolving in sound until it became a staple. Consisting of sub genres such as classic rhythm and blues, Motown, jazz and even gospel, soul music is something that is synonymous with Black music. Much like other genres of music, soul has gone through constant shifts in sound over the years that are spurred both by location and time period.
The genre has been named as the foundation for other genres such as disco and modern hip-hop and smooth jazz. Musical duo Silk Sonic, the brainchild of hit musicians Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, have brought the classic sound of 1970s soul and disco to modern times.
A Journey with Silk Sonic
The duo made their debut in early 2021 with the song “Leave the Door Open.” The track garnered a lot of attention, both from critics and music enjoyers of all ages, and reached the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The song created an easy sense of nostalgia for those who were exposed to classic soul music. Starting from the piano flourish intro, Bruno Mars’s harmonies accompanying Anderson.Paak’s lead vocals, and the simplistic visuals of the music video focused on the artists playing their instruments. The more slyly sensual lyrics and smooth instrumentals were an easy reprieve from the more openly vulgar lyrics and heavier tracks that can be seen in modern music. The harmonies were straight out of the 1970s, and could’ve been played at the infamous Studio 54 during its heyday.
In an interview with Ebro Darden at Apple Music, when asked about the group’s second single, “Skate,” Paak described it with a simple “we’re providing a vibe.” Mars elaborated on how they came up with that particular vibe, “if we were to have a party, what would it feel like?” While the duo were talking specifically about “Skate,” their words can work for any song on the album.
It wasn’t until the end of 2021 that Silk Sonic released their highly anticipated first studio album, An Evening With Silk Sonic. The nine-song concept album featured funk music legend Bootsy Collins, who was a mentor through the duration of recording process. The album outlines the highs and lows of a fictional relationship, but Silk Sonic manages to keep the listener on their toes with the unexpected shift in tone. The relationship turns from something of the narrator’s dreams to a nightmare between tracks “After Last Night” and “Smokin’ out the Window.” The album received critical and commercial success–it debuted at number two on the Billboard Top 200 chart and sold over 100,00 units in the first week. However, the majority of the praise revolved around the duo bringing back the classic 1970s soul sound and aesthetic.
Influences of the Past
The sound was intentional, as outlined in a Rolling Stone interview the duo did in August 2021. Anderson .Paak said the main foundation of their sound was “the sixties, seventies, and the old school” while Bruno Mars followed up with, “I don’t know what year it is. I’m not looking at the charts.” In the same interview, .Paak went on to name their influences as some of the greats all across the classic soul music genre: the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
The influence of the soul music greats is apparent in their sound as they borrow the piano flourishes and brass instruments that are staples in classic soul music. That’s not where the influence stops, as within their lyrics there is a sensuality and a usage of wordplay that was prevalent in soul music in the 70s.
Identities Informing Music
Historically, there is a lack of understanding that comes from non-Black musicians attempting anything under the soul and funk genres. This lack of understanding isn’t something that preys upon Silk Sonic though, despite .Paak being the only member of the duo of African American descent.
Bruno Mars, on the other hand, is of Puerto Rican, Filipino, Spanish and Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicities. Despite his ethnic background, he was raised around soul music and other Black created genres, which gave him the understanding and appreciation of the genre’s history, appreciate it and make it his own without the fears that come with being accused of appropriation. Even within his songs prior to the inception of the duo, the funk and soul music influences were apparent with hits including “Treasure” and “Uptown Funk.” He even had such an authentic grasp on the genre, that listeners of his songs just assumed he was of African-American descent, something that has shocked his fans.
Bruno Mars’ knack for melodies, and a catchy hook, coupled with Anderson .Paak’s own ear for a complex but not overly complicated production style, as well as both members’ chemistry both on stage and behind the scenes, Silk Sonic was destined to be a force to be reckoned with since their original announcement of inception. While bringing back classic sounds and keeping them modern isn’t an easy feat, especially not in an era where most releases are under 3 minutes and labels are notorious for looking for the next TikTok hit. Silk Sonic did exactly what they set out to do, by creating something that paid homage to the originators of soul music, all while keeping their own sound.
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