This year he became the go-to guy for hip-hop melody, shaping the sound of radio with a pair of hits on which he wrote, produced and sang. They were virtual gifts to run-of-the-mill, melodically inclined rappers: “Nothin’ on You,” which became a No. 1 Billboard pop hit for the Atlanta rapper B.o.B, and “Billionaire,” by the Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy, which went to the top five.
But his placelessness hasn’t always been an asset. Born Peter Gene Hernandez, Mr. Mars is primarily of Puerto Rican and Filipino descent, which proved to be an obstacle in his industry dealings. “I was always like, girls like me in school, how come these labels don’t like me?” he said.
An early record deal with Motown went nowhere. Race was always a concern. “Sadly, maybe that’s the way you’ve got to look at it,” he said. “I guess if I’m a product, either you’re chocolate, you’re vanilla or you’re butterscotch. You can’t be all three.” He named his debut EP, released this year, “It’s Better if You Don’t Understand” — a taunt.
“Don’t look at me — listen to my damn music,” he said. “I’m not a mutant.”
He now has before him the daunting task of getting out from a shadow of his own making. (Though the spotlight isn’t always friendly: he was arrested last month in Las Vegas on suspicion of cocaine possession.) For the moment, at least, he’s the most important male singer working in hip-hop, a short but proud lineage that includes Nate Dogg, Pharrell Williams, Akon and, more or less, T-Pain. Rap-R&B collaborations have been plentiful for almost two decades, but typically it’s a female singer called in to add sultriness to an aggressive song. Mr. Mars is part of a little-discussed parallel history, one whose shape he’s changing. These collaborations are only one part of Mr. Mars’s catalog, but they matter.
His fluency with hip-hop is an implicit part of his songwriting, even on songs that don’t feature rappers. He also has a gift for songs with global reach. Matisyahu’s “One Day,” a Smeezingtons production, was used by NBC in its coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Mr. Mars produced and wrote on “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan, a version of which was used as Coca-Cola’s promotional anthem for the 2010 World Cup. They’re songs fit for tourists.
And Mr. Mars knows how to grab attention quickly. A bit of the Sheraton Waikiki was peeking through during the Bowery Ballroom show. Mr. Mars and his band wore coordinated blue blazers and skinny ties. His tuft of hair was trimmed to a neat fade on the sides. There was dancing involved. He was a natural showman, as if he’d been doing it for decades.