Bruno Mars’ second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, a successful number one in itself, came packed with no less than five singles that would enter the charts. Out of those, When I Was Your Man is the second, following and matching the top position achieved by Locked Out of Heaven. But in opposition with the funk vibe of its predecessor, When I Was Your Man features nothing but Mars’ vocals and piano.
Mars expanded on the ballad character of the song to Rolling Stone: “When we started the record, I was like, ‘I’m never singing another ballad again,’ but that came from the gut – it’s the most honest, real thing I’ve ever sang.” This prompted the magazine to label him “the lonely balladeer” in another article. One of the song’s co-writers, Phillip Lawrence, explained the process to American Songwriter: “We always wanted to find a stripped down song like that, which is how that song came to be. The subject matter was real life; Bruno had experienced that, so we tried to say it in the best and catchiest way we could.” And indeed, Mars admitted that the song was written about his girlfriend, model Jessica Caban.
When I Was Your Man received favorable critical reviews. Pop Dust felt the song was “certainly one of the rawer songs Bruno has recorded – though not so raw that it lacks his professional songcraft and ability to hit show-stopping high notes.” Billboard predicted that it will serve as a “killer lighters-in-the-air moment in concert”, while The New York Times went as far as labeling it “the beginning of the Billy Joel comeback”.
When I Was Your Man spent 1 week at number one in Billboard Top 100 before being dethroned by Pink’s Just Give Me a Reason (featuring Nate Ruess).