Playlist Combat: The Piano Ballad Edition, Rihanna VS Bruno Mars

 Ever since Adele had to add on a new wing to her house just for her Grammy collection, it seems like the other top names in music are trying to follow her example. After the unexpected success of Someone Like You, it seems that piano ballads are on their way back! In fact, given the latest single choices from Rhianna and Bruno Mars, you could even say that heart wrenching ballads are in! It has yet to be seen if they will in fact become a trend, or if this just happens to be a well timed string of singles, but it does raise one very important question….

Which sad and soppy piano ballad is the saddest and soppiest!?

Our first contestant, wearing absolutely nothing, is the emotionally vulnerable Rhianna, with her latest single, Stay.

Her challenger? The man who was recently “locked out of heaven!” Its the sad and lonely Bruno Mars, with When I Was Your Man!

Round 1: The Vocals
Piano ballads are the perfect way to demonstrate some raw, powerful, and emotionally charged singing. As we’ve seen from each of their discographies, both artists are capable of producing some big notes and tender moments. The question then, is which one put their voice to better use?

We all knew that Bruno Mars was one hell of a singer, but in this song, he has something to prove. His raw power is unleashed with a passionate fury. His range is impressive. He demonstrates a fantastic upper register in some places, soulful rasp in others, and a tone that’s crystal clear in others. Overall, his range is fantastic, and works to really make each note special. Overall, its a stellar vocal performance.

Unlike Bruno, Rihanna doesn’t go at this “piano ballad” alone. She has recruited newcomer, and New York performance artist Mikky Ekko as her duet partner. From the first lines of their respective verses, their vocals come off as raw and vulnerable. They clearly channel the song’s emotions through their charged delivery. The two focus on delivering a passionate vocal, never delving into senseless belting. Unfortunately, as a result, the verses are almost too restrained, and comes off as forgettable. Its the moments when they harmonize, and the lingering “I want you to stay” in the chorus that really grab you.

The Winner: 
This was a tough call, but not really. Rhianna’s tone and vocal texture was much more emotional, and conveyed the complex emotions of the song much better than Bruno. However, when we look solely at vocals, Bruno is hands down the winner. His delivery was intricate, powerful, and truly impressive.
Buno Mars +2

 Round 2: The Lyrics
Lyrics can make or break a song, especially one without a catchy beat. Every piano ballad needs lyrics are powerful, endearing, and compelling. Without these qualities, you simply have a sad and wishy washy mess that nobody wants to listen to. Isn’t that right, Lana Del Rey?

Stay is a song about a complex love/hate relationship. Its clear that the relationship is the cause of much pain, confusion, and heartache. But at the same time, the lyrics make it clear that there also exists a longing between lovers. They can’t be together, but they can’t be apart either. The bottom line of this song is that both speakers are hurt, and hurt people hurt other people. Its a complex and tangled tale that shows complex emotions through poignant lyrics.

When I Was Your Man is a little more strait forward. Summed up, Bruno was in a happy relationship, but then his woman left him sad and alone. He reflects on his failed relationship with longing and regret, naming off a list of things he wishes he had done. This is a song that will melt the hearts of women all over the world, especially in the final chorus when he wishes only for his woman’s happiness with her new man. However, it all comes off as a bit cliche…and in my opinion, a little too soppy. Suck it up, man!

The Winner:
This one was a bit easier to call. While When I Was Your Man is well written, and says exactly what listeners want to hear, Stay was simply a bigger undertaking. Its ability to say so much in so few verses, and channel so many different emotions through its imagery is truly the result of top notch writing.
Rhianna +2

Round 4: The Piano
Ah yes…what would a piano ballad be without the piano?
I’m going to make this easy…both songs are accompanied by only a piano melody, and each has the same effect. The pure and simple instrumentals are a powerful effect which convey just as much emotion as the vocals and the lyrics. In Stay, the instrumentals are a bit stagnant. They are restrained through out the song, and are almost a little too low key. Bruno Mars offers just a bit more complexity in his piano playing, which do help to keep the song moving, and even build some momentum.

The Winner: Bruno Mars +1

Round 3: The Music Video

There is power in simplicity, and this is something that must be channeled through a ballad’s music video. Each artist takes the minimalist approach to demonstrate their emotional vulnerability.

Between the two, Rihanna takes this a bit more literally. To demonstrate her emotional nakedness, she makes it a point to strip herself naked as well. The video plays out with her in a murky bathtub, soaking wet and sulking in her own filth. It actually creates some powerful imagery that matches the tone of the video. Her nakedness reflects her vulnerability. The murky water reflects her stained relationship, and how she can’t “come clean.” There is a theme of reflections in the video, as Rhianna sees herself in the water, and Mikky sings into a mirror. Overall, I have to say that the imagery, along with Rhianna’s acting is aprticularly powerful.

In his video, Bruno tries to channel the classic music videos of the 1970’s. His outfit, the setting, and editing style are all reminiscent of a simpler time in music. In his video, we see him performing in front of a visible camera crew, which is capturing his emotional performance. There really isn’t much else than that. He delivers his song with conviction and passion, but its actually a bit difficult to see through his sunglasses, and the barrage of editing effects. I have to say…the video is actually kind of lame.

The Winner:
While they are both simple in direction, one is actually powerful, while the other is kind of lame. Stay‘s powerful imagery, and convincing acting make this an easy call.
Rhianna +3

Final Score:
Rhianna – 5
Bruno Mars – 3

Overall, I think that both songs are about equal. While Bruno Mars offers better vocals and instrumentals, I think that Rhianna and Mikky provide more emotion in their voices, more complex lyrics, and a much more captivating music video. For those reasons, I’m giving this victory to Stay.

That said…Sara Bariellis still has my favorite piano ballad with Gravity.


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