Mario has been a busy man over the last year. Along with his role on the TV show Empire, he spent the majority of 2019 on the road as part of the Millennium tour which ended up being one of biggest R&B moments in recent history. We also saw Mario release his project “Dancing Shadows” which was his first as an independent artist. YouKnowIGotSoul had a chance to talk to the talented vocalist about his journey as an independent artist, his experience on the Millennium tour as well as some of his favorite songs from his discography. We also discuss the success of his single “Let Me Love You” which was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts 15 years ago. We talk about the importance of that song for his career and why he’s decided to re-create the song with Scott Storch in 2020.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You dropped your last album “Dancing Shadows” back in 2018. This was your first release as an independent artist, so what was your biggest takeaway from it?
Mario: My biggest takeaway is that I love making independent projects. I loved the process of moving to London and working with Jake Gosling. I never worked with one executive producer on a project and I never worked in one specific space. Being in London really influenced the sound and vibe of the album. I think it was different from my other projects because it was less commercial and it was more introspective. It was fun to create in that space and know what that feels like. Having the freedom to do that as an independent artist is great.
YouKnowIGotSoul: When we first listened to the project, we didn’t quite get it because it wasn’t as commercial as some of your previous work. Once we sat wit the project, it really grew on us. Did you already know that people would need to sit with this album a bit?
Mario: Definitely expected because I have so many different layers to me as a person and artist. Unless you’re there for a process, it’s such a large leap from what they’re used to. I never expected it to be a breakout project. I just knew it would be something that certain people would gravitate towards. For me it was an ode to real and raw music. Fans that like that music would be able to relate to it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You were part of the Millennium tour last year and that was such a big moment for R&B. What did that tour mean to you as an artist?
Mario: I think the Millennium tour was just a nostalgic experience for both the fans or artists who participated in that show. I felt really excited to introduce those hits that people were familiar with in a new way and in a way my fans never experienced it before. I was trying to show that I was a better performer than when I first came out. Being a performer is one of the biggest parts of the artistry. If you’re not a performer, I feel like it takes away from the fans’ experience. The main thing was to put on the best show I could so when I put out new music, my fans would look forward to seeing it live again.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Now that you’ve seen the reaction to your music on that tour, what kind of music do you plan on creating moving forward?
Mario: I plan on continuing to show fans that you can be whatever you want. I don’t put myself in a box, I just create what I feel. This next project is definitely more mainstream. There’s no specific sound for the project. I’m just going in the studio with my friends to make good music. We’re at a time where you should just do whatever you love and if you want to share it with the world, you should share it. I think that’s the message we should be sending out to people. It’s about ownership, staying creative and fresh.
YouKnowIGotSoul: As an independent label owner, are you still looking to push singles to radio? It didn’t seem like you did on “Dancing Shadows”.
Mario: For that particular project, it wasn’t part of the plan. That was just a vibe. Some artists are about the vibe and some are branded to be label priority type of artists because they focus more on radio records. I’m somewhere in the middle. I have the vibey side and then there’s the more mainstream side of me that I understand my fans want and I have undoubtedly one of the best voices in the industry that nobody can fuck with. If I’m at home, I’m listening to my own shit. *Laughs* There’s just a lot of layers and that’s what makes me different as an artist. It’s exciting because where we are in this digital space, it allows me to play all of those parts and stretch across all fronts of this creative platform.
YouKnowIGotSoul: 15 years ago, the number one song on Billboard was “Let Me Love You”. Take me back to that time in your life.
Mario: I definitely enjoyed traveling. My second big tour after the Scream tour was with Destiny’s Child. I was really introduced to the world on such a big platform. As a teen, all you can do is take it in. You really just try to learn as much as you can and as fast as you can and try not to lose yourself in the process of finding yourself. That was the biggest thing for me back then. But I had a lot of fun on tour and I got to live a lot of grown men’s dreams at the age of 17/18. I was living like a grown man. I was traveling and meeting people and I was having a good time on the road. Going back into the studio to record “Let Me Love You”, that was my second album so I definitely felt pressured to have more success than my first one. But I didn’t understand what that meant because I never had a number one record. “Just A Friend” made it top five but I hadn’t had a number one yet. It wasn’t like I was trying to beat that. I was just trying to make sure I had success with the second project and the stars aligned the way that they did. That song to this day is as special as it was back then.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You just released a 2020 version of “Let Me Love You”. What was the idea behind that?
Mario: It’s more about what I’ve been able to build with fans along with Scott Storch and Ne-Yo. It’s also about owning more of what that experience is. It’s about owning my masters and this version was a big statement for me as an artist who has made a lot of sacrifices to have the success that I’ve had. I’ve had a lot of great success with major labels and now owning my own label, to have this under my own imprint that I wanted to achieve but I had to wait until I was able legally to do it. I personally feel like creatively, I’ve had a chance to live that record through in real time. When I first recorded that song at 18, I didn’t know shit about love. Now I’ve been the guy that’s been in love and also the guy that’s fucked up, so I’ve been on both sides of the record. I can really appreciate it in a different way and I think performing it as an adult, I gave it a certain edge and a level of authenticity that I don’t think the original had.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You actually went back in the studio with Scott Storch to do this new version. How important was it to bring him back in for this?
Mario: Oh man! Scott is the Einstein of this whole thing sonically. If I was blind, I wouldn’t think he played on R&B or Hip Hop songs, I would think he’s a world renowned classic piano player that plays opera and shit. He can do Urban, Hip Hop and Pop, so I think he added all of those elements to “Let Me Love You” which makes it such a cut through record. The song is just nostalgic and lives in its own space. Scott represents that bridge that connects all of the underlying and overlying parts of the creative process sonically.
YouKnowIGotSoul: There are a lot of fans that still want to hear that “Never 2 Late” project that you and Scott did a few years back that didn’t come out.
Mario: I know. Me and Scott have records that are in the vault, but we plan on getting back in and creating some more. Stay tuned! We have a lifetime of creating to do, so I definitely see that happening.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What do you remember about recording these album joints? The first one is “Never” off your debut.
Mario: I remember being in Atlanta when I first heard the track. I thought it was too empty because I was so used to recording uptempo records. This song just rhodes, piano, a hi-hat and a kick. I was outside of my comfort zone when I recorded that record. It was so raw. When I finished the song, it ended up being a fan favorite. Every time I perform it, the fans are singing every word. I would say that “Never” proved to me that being outside of your comfort zone can be a great thing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What about “Like Me Real Hard” off the “Turning Point” album?
Mario: That song was done in Philadelphia. The producers out of there are normally super talented and real R&B heads. Carvin & Ivan were responsible for all of Musiq Soulchild’s big hits, they were like “Let’s just write the most beautiful song and keep it super raw”. It was all vocals and straight forward lyrics. There wasn’t a lot of hiding behind the track which probably is what made that record for a lot of people special. I remember I had just come off tour and I was listening to Philadelphia at the time, I remember playing it for my aunt who isn’t alive today. That song was about to not make it, but it was because of her that I put it on the project and it made the album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What about “Kryptonite” off the “Go!” album?
Mario: That’s probably one of my favorite records from that era. I felt there was nothing like that out and I had never done a record like that before. I remember being in the Atlanta working with Oak and Atozzio on the record. “Kryptonite” is R&B on steroids because it was such a strong vocal position for me as an artist. Lyrically it also just had all of the character to create a space that wasn’t there before for me as an artist and for R&B. On the production type, it was colorful but it was also dark enough for it to have its own space. I could say so much about that record, but that’s one of my favorite records I’ve ever done.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What about “I Choose You” off the “D.N.A.” album?
Mario: What can I say? I remember going in the studio with Babyface and I was like “What is the secret to writing and making hits?”. I remember him telling me that as humans we make things difficult and he promised himself he would never complicate his songwriting. He focused on simplifying the records as much as he could so that anyone could sing it and remember the melody. That stuck with me. I haven’t been able to apply it as good as him, but it’s something that I still think about when I’m writing music.
YouKnowIGotSoul: And finally what about the self-titled track “Dancing Shadows” off your latest album?
Mario: Easily one of my favorites off that album. Visually and sonically, that whole album was created from scratch. There were no records that were handed to me. That one in particular was maybe the third record I did for the project. The producer is this young kid from Poland and we come from two different sides of the world, but our creative connection was instant. I instantly understood his language as a producer. “Dancing Shadows” is a very special song to me. It has so many different meanings behind it. The main meaning is when you meet someone who mirrors you in a lot of different ways, it brings out many parts that you don’t want to look at. “Dancing Shadows” represents the darker side of each other and finding the balance.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
Mario: I’ve got new music coming soon and a new tour as well. I’m also coming back to Empire in March!