Timberland boots and ‘Janet: Live In Hawaii’ included.
by Emily Rosati Publishing date: Sep, 27, 2023
“Music is time in the flesh,” Mario tells me, as he’s driving through the woods outside of Jacksonville, FL, right after getting off his tour bus. What he’s speaking to, is the idea that in the ever-evolving landscape of music, some artists have the remarkable ability to transcend time. Their songs become sonic time capsules, preserving the essence of a bygone era while effortlessly weaving into the fabric of the present. Mario, the multi-talented R&B sensation, is undoubtedly one such artist and his impact on the genre has been nothing short of iconic. If you asked me to summarize 2004, I’d tell you to listen to “Let Me Love You” and watch the music video, and that it’s all you would need to understand the times.
What sets Mario apart is not merely his ability to evoke nostalgia, but his perpetual evolution and dedication to crafting music that stands the test of time and anchors in new sounds. In 2023, this Grammy Award-nominated artist returns to the scene with a sizzling single “Main One” featuring Tyga and Lil Wayne, following a new deal with Epic Records in conjunction with his own New Citizen label.
As we take a Nardwuar-style journey through his world and past, we unearth core memories from the 2000s until now, using his milestones as time stamps. Below, we step into Mario’s Y2K time capsule, unpacking R&B gems that defined an era, reminiscing about oversized jerseys and Timberland boots, and delving into the moments that have been instrumental in shaping his musical odyssey.
Tell me about your journey in the music industry. You were quite young when you first gained prominence.
Mario: I came out in one of the best eras of R&B for our generation, during that transition from the 90s into the 2000s. We were making music that people are remaking now. I’m really grateful for that. It also came up when social media was getting popular and was really about connecting with fans, touring, and merchandising. A lot of my fans are day-one fans, that I still see being on tour now. I started singing when I was four years old. My mother got me this mic that tuned into the radio. I would sing every morning. She got it for fun but didn’t realize I loved music and had an actual gift to sing. That turned into her getting me a karaoke machine when I was about eight, and by the age of ten, I was doing talent shows with adults.
What songs would you sing for karaoke?
Mario: I was singing Boys II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You,” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” No kids’ songs, really. That’s probably why a lot of my songs were way more mature than what my lifestyle was.
Your new single, “Main One” features Tyga and Lil Wayne. What was it like collaborating with them for this track?
Mario: It was a lot of fun. Tyga and I went out one night in L.A. and we ended up going back to the studio and having a little party. This track came on, produced by Mike Crook, it was “Main One”. Everyone started dancing and started vibing so we put a mic into the room and started recording. I work differently with different people, and when the vibe is like that, it’s super organic and helps with writing. “Main One” was created out of that environment and vibe. Wayne did a remix for “Crying Out For Me” years ago but we hadn’t done an official song together. I sent this one to him because I wanted someone else to be on the record with us and he was the best pick.
Congratulations on your new deal with Epic Records in conjunction with your New Citizen label. What inspired you to move, and what can we expect from this partnership?
Mario: I’ve been independent for the last seven years, after leaving a major system. I was able to learn through different perspectives, being a boss, a businessman, as well as an artist, and understanding what it really takes. You have to be super hands-on. When you’re working with a label, everything is in-house. I wanted a more concentrated process, and that’s what the label afforded me. New Citizen is my imprint, I started that about eight years ago, and it basically represents being a new citizen of your own personal universe, with ownership and sovereignty. It’s a lot more spiritual than it is business, but it connects. It’s all one and the same when it comes to creating and believing in yourself.
I’m going to take you on a bit of a time capsule dive. You were about 16 years old when “Just A Friend 2002” came out. Do you remember the outfit you wore in that video?
Mario: You talking about the oversized jersey? Of course. Back then, Ray Lewis was like a mentor of mine. He played for Baltimore, I’m from Baltimore. I went back home to shoot that video because I wanted to remind people where I was from and that I was proud of it.
How would you rate that outfit now?
Mario: Haha, you know what’s crazy? My boy had a 2000s birthday party and I told my stylist to find that exact outfit to wear to the party. How would I rate it now? At a 2000s party, an 8.5 At a 2023 party, a 5.
Do you have a favorite fashion trend from that era that you look back on with nostalgia?
Mario: I think the oversized style is back. Tight jeans are out. And I must say, the ladies started it, the oversized t-shirts and jeans.
We’re going to do a rapid-fire style this or that.
Timberland boots or JNCO jeans?
Mario: Timberland boots all day. I wore Timberlands all through middle school, especially on the East Coast. I’d wear Timberlands in the summertime.
Fubu or Wu-Wear?
Mario: Fubu. I wore Fubu the day I was signed when I was 14, with some jeans and Timbs.
Your memory is very impressive.
Mario: You’re bringing back a lot of memories, I’m starting to feel like I’m talking to Nardwuar.
Kangol Caps or Von Dutch?
Mario: I’m going with Von Dutch.
Ed Hardy or Lacoste?
Mario: I’ll say Lacoste. There were few Ed Hardy pieces I was into, I would have worn Lacoste more for some casual vibes.
“Let Me Love You” played a part in shaping R&B at the time and what we know of the genre now. If someone asked me what a quintessential y2K R&B song is, I’d say “Let Me Love You”. What would you say?
Mario: I’d say Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call”. Anything from 8701. I also think of “Beautiful” by Snoop and Pharrell.
My siblings went to that Usher tour back then and I remember being so gutted that I was too young to go.
Mario: Yeah, I feel you. I missed out on Janet Jackson.
Janet Jackson is still touring, there’s an opportunity there.
Mario: Yeah, but you know the Janet I’m talking about. I used to watch Janet: Live in Hawaii. I’d sneak my mother’s DVD and watch it over and over, I was obsessed with it.
What do you think made “Let Me Love You” so special and how did that impact your career?
Mario: The timing. During that time, we were trying to figure out, as R&B lovers, what the new sound was. I was a new face, just turning 18, and there was no real sound championing R&B. When it came out, it was like, okay this is that sound. I think Scott Storch did a great job at illustrating it, production-wise, and creating such a classic feel. And Ne-Yo is an incredible writer, and I think he’s the Babyface of our time.
How would you describe the evolution of your music and style from then until now?
Mario: I’ve always tried to make my music relatable and classic. There are a few records I have that are trendy but in my catalog, I really try to make music that I think will stand the test of time. As I’ve explored different sounds, every time I came out with a new single, it was at a time when R&B was making a shift. When you think about “Break Up”, “Crying Out For Me”, and “How Do I Breathe”, all these songs came out during different growing stages of R&B. I’ve always wanted to be a part of anchoring in a new sound. Even now, I feel we’re going through a new phase, there’s a lot of alternative R&B coming out, or young artists doing older feeling soulful music. I think R&B is about to get back to that early 2000s, fun vibe again.
Are there any newer artists or other Y2K legends that you haven’t worked with yet that you’re eager to?
Mario: I really like H.E.R. Leon Thomas is great. Summer Walker, SZA — there’s a lot — Lucky Daye is dope. I like Eric Bellinger, he started as a writer, and he’s dope. I haven’t worked with Usher yet, but I think we could do something great together. Snoop. I have always been a Snoop fan, and he’s always been into soulful music so I think something special could happen there. And I’m a huge Beyoncé fan, I know that’s a stretch but she will always be one of my favorites. You know who else I like? Coco Jones and Victoria Monét. Lots of ladies out here representing R&B.
I just remembered — did I not see a video of you at Usher’s concert where —
Mario: Yes! I went to one of his Vegas shows recently — great show — and he played “Let Me Love You” and the crowd went crazy. It was a lot of love.
Before we go, I really loved the way you were talking about New Citizen and how it’s rooted in a spiritual philosophy. I want to know more about that and how you see it contributing to the R&B scene.
Mario: I’ve been a mystic for twelve years. I’ve studied world religions, bio-spiritualism, and symbolism — I’ve studied a lot of things to help me understand the relationship we as humans have with the unknown. I was adopted by a Muslim family when I was fourteen years old, so I studied that as well. For me, everything is rooted in sovereignty, being your own person, and having your own personal relationship with God. I incorporate practices into how I live and have a balanced life. That’s what New Citizen and I represent. Music is a form of entertainment, fun, and expression, but also has a lot of science behind it. I always say music is time in the flesh because you’re trapping sound in a specific time capsule. That’s what makes timeless music and what resonates with people.