Bruno Mars Steps Out Solo After Hitting No. 1 with B.o.B.

Andrew Zaeh
Bruno Mars

Atlanta rapper/singer B.o.B and Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy both share a knack for bridging the gap between hip-hop and rock. However, their current Billboard Hot 100 singles reveal another common thread between them: Bruno Mars.

Mars -- who until now was primarily known as one-half of songwriting/production duo the Smeezingtons -- co-wrote and produced B.o.B's Hot 100 chart-topper, "Nothin' on You," and sings its anthemic chorus. "Billionaire," McCoy's solo debut single, was also co-written and produced by the Smeezingtons and is No. 28 on the Hot 100 after just five weeks.

Video: B.o.B. featuring Bruno Mars, "Nothin' On You"

The success of both songs is due in large part to Mars' sprawling, emotive tenor and earnest melodies. "It's good because they're totally different," the 23-year-old says of his collaborations. " 'Nothin' on You' " leans toward the more R&B, soulful side, and 'Billionaire' is a more acoustic-reggae type of record. I think it sets me up real nicely."

Mars will capitalize on the buzz by releasing his solo EP, "It's Better If You Don't Understand," May 11 on the revived Elektra Records. "We could just throw him in the studio and try to get an album out right away, but we prefer he had a bunch of great songs," says John Janick, the label's co-president with Mike Caren. "We felt like [the EP] would be the right introductory piece and a good strategy."

The four-song EP showcases Mars' wide-ranging influences. It segues from the blippy electro-pop of "Somewhere in Brooklyn" and the surging, Cee-Lo- and B.o.B-assisted "The Other Side," to the folksy "Count on Me" and the yearning, OneRepublic-esque ballad "Talking to the Moon."

Before "Nothin' on You," Mars and creative partner Phillip Lawrence's production and songwriting credits as the Smeezingtons included Flo Rida's "Right Round," Matisyahu's "One Day" and K'Naan's "Wavin' Flag," the official anthem of the 2010 World Cup. Born and raised in Hawaii, Mars (real name: Peter Hernandez) says he first caught the performer bug at age 4, when he joined his parents, uncles, four sisters and one brother in local doo-wop family act the Love Notes. By 18, Mars was playing several instruments (piano, guitar, bass and congas) and recording demos. One caught the ear of an A&R executive at Motown, who flew Mars from Hawaii to Los Angeles and signed him. The deal fizzled, however, and Mars found himself back at square one. "I figured, 'I have to do everything myself, so I'm going to just produce and write these songs on my own and hopefully get lucky,' " he recalls.

Video: Travie McCoy featuring Bruno Mars, "Billionaire"

Mars met Lawrence through his collaborations with other songwriters, and the two have worked together ever since, co-writing and producing his debut EP. "Bruno always had the voice," Lawrence says, "but we just needed to put together the right song and the right package for him."

"We're big fans of the Beatles, the Police and Michael Jackson, so whether we're doing an R&B or a pop record, we're always trying to chase those big choruses that our idols have given us," Mars adds. Now that he and Lawrence have provided those hooks for other artists, Mars is circling back to his original goal of being his own hitmaker.

"I'm really switching gears right now," Mars says. "You can't knock on opportunity's door and say you're not ready when it answers."