Sam Lanksy of Idolator gave the song a favorable review, calling it "an emotional ballad that shows off Mars’ sweet vocals." Lansky also praised it, naming it "another exceptional offering from Unorthodox Jukebox, which is shaping up to be one of the year’s best pop releases." Andrew Unterberger of Pop Dust gave the song a rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars, commenting that 'When I Was Your Man' is "a much more satisfying, less ostentatious ballad than 'Young Girls'— though maybe the lyrics are a little too clichéd to result in a classic soul ballad the way Bruno seems to be going for." However, he praised Mars, which according to him, "nobody puts a song like this over quite like him, and when he hits the big high note on the song’s bridge, it’s about as striking a moment as you’re likely to hear on a pop record this year.It might be a little too perfect to be as devastating as a song like 'Someone Like You', but it might be a big hit just the same, and it’s guaranteed to absolutely slay in a live set." Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly was positive, writing that "Old-school charm still gets Mars the furthest, and the best thing here is the classic torch song 'When I Was Your Man', which finds him at the piano listing all the ways he wronged an ex.

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With "When I Was Your Man" topping the Hot 100, Mars reached the same mark as Diddy, Ludacris, Prince and Lionel Richie.

Elvis Presley was the only male who reached five leaders more quickly than Mars.

" He also noted that, "'When I Was Your Man' goes minimal with the musical accompaniment, featuring just Bruno and his piano, sounding halfway between an Alicia Keys ballad and Prince’s 'How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?

'." Sam Lansky of Idolator agreed, writing that "while evoking Elton John, the track sounds like it was recorded live in a piano bar, with audible background noise, like the spooling of film on a projector." The song has received generally positive reviews from most music critics.

It features Mars singing and a piano accompaniment as the sole instrumentation.

"When I Was Your Man" received mostly positive reviews from music critics, who generally praised Mars' vocal prowess; calling it a "vulnerable and emotional ballad".

At that time, "Locked Out of Heaven" was at number 2, and thus Mars became the first male artist to place two titles as a lead act in the Hot 100's top 10 simultaneously since "Grenade" and "Just the Way You Are" doubled up for eight consecutive weeks.

On February 27, 2013, the song jumped from number 8 to number 3 on the Hot 100 with "Airplay Gainer" honors for a seventh week in a row, tying it with Rihanna's "Rude Boy" (2010), T-Pain's "Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin')," featuring Yung Joc (2007), and Beyonce's "Baby Boy," featuring Sean Paul (2003), for the longest streak dating to the award's 1985 launch.

"When there are no safe bets, that's when I feel my blood move." Philip Lawrence explained the inspiration of the song: "I think Bruno and I are both huge fans of older music, like Billy Joel and Elton John.