Mario emerged on the scene in 2002 a bright-eyed 15-year-old singing about the joy and angst of adolescence on his major label debut, Mario. His first single, “Just A Friend 2002,” an updated cover of rapper Biz Markie’s 1989 song, topped the charts. He toured and his follow-up singles were the anthems to many teen night parties.
Two years later, his more mature sophomore album, Turning Point, was released with credits from singer/songwriter Ne-Yo, and producers Lil Jon and Scott Storch.
The Baltimore native had the success story most would dream of, but Mario was silently battling issues at home. At age 19, he moved back to his hometown, believing he knew all there was to know about the world. In 2007, the “C’Mon” singer was featured on the MTV documentary I Won’t Love You to Death: The Story of Mario and His Mom, which chronicled his relationship with his mother, Shawntia Hardaway, a heroin addict. While it was intrusive, the singer felt it helped others who face the same struggle.
His third and fourth albums, Go (2007) and D.N.A. (2009), weren’t as widely accepted by fans. The singer was battling label problems and other issues that would stop him from releasing albums for nearly a decade.
In 2017, Hardaway, 49, passed away from a drug overdose. Mario dedicated much of his work to his mother and redirected those feelings of loss into his music. With a new view of life, the 32-year-old released his fifth studio album, Dancing Shadows, which Is a deeper and more personal effort. His growth as a person and a musician pierce through the more mature content and comes at a time where rhythm and blues is making a comeback.
With a new album and a role on Season 5 of the Fox hit series Empire, Mario sat down with EBONY.com to discuss music, the everchanging industry and to offer advice to those dealing with addiction.
I just finished listening to Dancing Shadows.
Mario: How did you feel about it?
I actually liked it. The song “Good Times” was a standout for me. Then there’s another one that a couple of songs later (“Care for You”) that was a ballad about not wanting to lose a love interest that I enjoyed.
That’s probably one of my favorite songs, too. That part of the album when it gets to “Good Times” it starts to get into a deeper side of shadows. The production value allows people to hear my skills as a co-producer and where I wanted to take the album sonically.
I feel like those songs are more introspective, but the production is kind of still happy and upbeat, which gives the music a unique duality.
Yes, definitely. I’m glad you took that from it because that was my goal especially with “Good Times.” I really wanted people to be aware but still have fun listening to a record that is motivating. As a culture, R&B has always done that for multiple generations when you think about artists such as Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder and what they would do with their music, it’s kind of similar.
For the people who haven’t listened to the album, what is something you would want them to take away from it?
I think from even looking at the reviews from some fans everyone takes something different from it. That’s the beauty of listening to music because it’s like a painting. Five people can look at the same painting, but everyone will take something completely different from it. I just wanted to put the music out there, give it my all and let people digest it the way they need to for themselves.
For me, it was very therapeutic making the album. For listeners, I hope absorbing the music is enjoyable, therapeutic and fitting for any moment they need it for.
What was your inspiration for giving the album such a layered title?
It came from a plethora of different things. It’s an overview of my life, my career as an artist and the layers I chipped away to learn new things about myself. It also represents the things I was holding in creatively because I was scared to try.
When you’re just starting out as an artist, you get locked into this mechanical system of creating and breaking out of that is a challenge. When I went to London to work with Jake [Gosling] it was me learning how to undo the mechanics, be in the moment and be an artist who makes. I had to learn to be OK with something not sounding like a record I’ve done before. That’s a big part of why I named it Dancing Shadows because the album has those things that I’ve never shared before.
You were compelled to test artistic freedom after releasing your debut album nearly two decades ago in 2002. Do you feel the music industry not changed in terms of artistic ability?
Oh, yeah! I think the music industry has changed a lot. There have always been real artists out there in the universe and the world. Around the time when I started, if you didn’t have a deal, you weren’t going to be seen or heard. It was harder for unsigned artists, [many of them] sold CDs out of their trunk. Now, you can just throw your music on Soundcloud and have it reach millions of people. Social media enhanced the ability to share your music. Anybody can release a project if they have the focus, the willpower and a team around them. That’s the biggest change to see and with that people can choose the music that they want to listen too. They’re not forced to listen to anything they don’t want to unless you’re talking about radio of course [Laughs].
Why was there such a long gap between your musical projects?
There’s not a specific reason that it took this long for this body of work. There are multiple different variables one being the current landscape of music. The digestion of music has also changed if you think about the blending of genres. [There are] artists who are doing R&B but are considered hip-hop artists. I was always trying to keep the style authentic, so there was a weird space where I didn’t understand what was happening or where music was going. I questioned if I would be appreciated. I wanted to make an album that came out in a time where traditional R&B was making a resurgence. That’s happening right now, and people appreciate it, and they want it more.
The thirst for R&B is back. The universe works in mysterious ways and I feel like right now is the perfect time for my album.
I agree. What R&B artists are you currently listening to?
Right now, I’m listening to H.E.R., Alina Baraz and Miguel. I like some of the more hip-hop-laded R&B like 6lack and Travis Scott because of some of the harmonies. Ty Dolla $ign, Sevyn Streeter’s new single, [“Girl Disrupted”], is crazy.
New music aside, you’re also playing a new character on Season 5 of Empire. Is there a difference in the satisfaction you get from acting as opposed to singing?
I’ve seen Empire on and off for a couple years now. Seeing the growth of the series and what they’re doing creatively and musically is exciting, [especially]for this kind of content. Being a creator and having the ability to surround myself with other creatives behind the scenes and learning more about that part is exciting to me.
Playing the character Devon on the show is great. Being able to see where he goes from where he started – it’s a great character and story. He has humble beginnings: he lost his parents, he’s taking care of his sister and music is everything to him. Devon also never had any real success. The character having the opportunity to work with the Lyons makes his rise to success very relatable today. [Several] kids from the inner city or coming from struggling homes who want to make music will be able to relate to this character.
Are there any correlations with Devon’s development and your musical journey as a young kid from Baltimore?
There’s some relation there, though I didn’t get discovered on Instagram [Laughs].
There were experienced people who saw my talent and gave me the opportunity that led me to where I am today. I can definitely relate to growing up in the inner city although I was much younger than Devon, it gave me that toughness and that rawness. There’s an authenticity to the character that I can relate to.
How’s it been working alongside Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard?
I love the crew because they keep it fun. You’re talking about Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated actors and actresses. I’ve learned a lot and I am having [loads] of fun. The opportunity to see the things they created from scratch because a lot of the content you see on the show they are creating as they go. It’s cool because they have a different director every episode and creatively it’s just genius what they’re doing.
Speaking of greatness, recently Aretha Franklin passed, and I just wanted your opinion on losing a great legend and how you think it will impact the singers coming up.
First of all, I grew up listening to Aretha through my mom, aunts and uncles. I just feel like she represented not only soul but [also] a cultural time period that included Motown and having soul was the epitome of cool. Soul music was pop, it was urban, and it was the foundation of everything. She was one of the godmothers of it and The Queen of Soul.
Female artists, directly and indirectly, are influenced by Aretha’s music and what she stood for. She was the original diva, and someone who was honest and authentic in her music. She was a powerful beacon for women and her legacy will live on forever.
I just wanted to extend my condolences to you on the passing of your mom.
Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.
The music world is mourning the passing of Mac Miller and Lil Peep, whose deaths were also caused by overdoses. Do you have any advice to offer your peers dealing with addiction or others who may be witnessing someone close to them battling it?
I think that sometimes people intervene too late or may think that certain things are cool when they’re not, especially younger people. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t have an overdose or that your body can handle this constant filling with chemicals and drugs.
Just continue to reach out and show love to those who are having this issue and be honest with them. Never stop helping them in the fight to get clean. Ultimately, it’s that person’s choice, but we just must be their backbone and give that tough love. Sometimes they need tough love. You can’t continue to run away when they’re upset because somethings the right thing to do is to be there and give that tough love. In the end, you will wish you did.
Dancing Shadows is available on all streaming platforms and Empire airs on Fox on Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
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Christina Santi is a news and culture writer for EBONY.com. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she considers herself a well-read, not so traditional feminist with a heavy interest in music, fashion and pop culture. Christina currently lives in New York City, where she refers to her Cuban & Jamaican descent often while writing about her experiences as a first-generation Afro-Latinx in America. She also devotes time writing personalized reading material for her tutees and turning ideas into words for streetwear brand, PUER By Noel Bronson.