[Exclusive] Mario Talks Upcoming ‘Dancing Shadows’ Album, Creative Freedom & Keeping R&B Music Alive
In 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, Michael Jackson's untimely death stunned the world, Beyoncé kicked off her legendary "I Am ... Sasha Fierce" World Tour and Oprah Winfrey announced that her talk show was ending after 25 seasons.
Cut to present: The "Braid My Hair" singer is putting the finishing touches on his forthcoming project, titled Dancing Shadows, which is slated for a fall release.
"I really want to reel my fans back in and let them know what I've been doing creatively ... [Dancing Shadows] is a body of work that I'm really proud of," he tells The Boombox. "It wasn't forced. There were no outside influences in terms of A&R ... everything about [this project] is grassroots, guerrilla style. I feel grounded within myself, so I feel like it's the right time."
He continues, "It represents all the interpersonal work that I've done from the spiritual side, life experiences, the [music] business — all these different shifts of dimensions within myself."
The R&B crooner burst onto the music scene in the early 2000s with the release of the Biz Markie-inspired track "Just a Friend 2002." His sophomore effort, Turning Point, produced the chart-topper "Let Me Love You." Penned by Ne-Yo, the smash hit has generated over 230 million streams on Spotify to date, and it received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. During this time, R&B thrived as rising artists kept the genre fresh and exciting. In recent years, the genre has taken a backseat to hip-hop, but there are ways, Mario explains, for R&B artists to stay on the cutting edge.
"Make it culturally relevant. Don't just talk about love; make it more introspective. I definitely took more risks with this album, but it's gratifying," he says. "When I'm making an album, I'm thinking, 'Is this going to play five years from now? How can I make music that lives on?' R&B in a traditional sense is one those things that lives on forever, but the artists who've [enjoyed] the most success are always on the cusp of the shift."
Mario describes the long-awaited Dancing Shadows as "eclectic" and "not your typical R&B album." The inspiration for the album's lead single "Drowning," which premiered on July 20, stems from a real-life situation, and it was also one of the last songs recorded for the album.
"I never thought I'd be in between her legs/ While I'm still thinking 'bout you," Mario confesses in the opening verse.
"I actually wasn't looking for anything new. It just happened that this person came in my life when I was trying to focus on me and we had an incredible connection," he explains. "Yet in the midst of that, I still wasn't over my ex, so that's how the concept came about."
Pulling from real-life experiences isn't new territory for Mario. The evolution kicked off last year when he dropped "Pain Is the New Pleasure," in which fighting one's demons take center stage, lyrically. At the time of the release, Mario was mourning the loss of his mother Shawntia Hardaway, who struggled with heroin addiction throughout the singer's childhood.
"When you go through hard times, you have to deal with it on your own, and you have those thoughts that come to you, and there are different ways you can cope with the pain. But deciding not to do that is me fighting my demons," he told Billboard. "So now it definitely resonates more, because I didn’t get the chance to play the song for her or let her hear how raw and how real I was finally being through my music, in a way that I never had before."
Recently, Mario launched his own record label, New Citizen, which marked another step toward creative freedom. Going independent means there's no red tape, but it also requires the artist to take on more responsibility and wear different hats, from navigating social media right down to engineering the records and editing videos themselves.
"Nine times out of 10 [as a new artist], you're signed to a label, and they're trying to figure out what to do and how to brand you, so ... you kind of get lost," he says. "The translation of who you are you as an artist might not be exactly what you want. Over the years, you experience things and you learn how to communicate your ideas."
Following a nine-year hiatus, the multi-platinum artist promises to "stay consistent" after Dancing Shadows. He's rolling out more music in the coming weeks, and he plans to embark on a worldwide tour following the album's release, so die-hard Mario fans will have something to look forward to. Sonically, many of the tracks are edgy, leaning toward strength and liberation — a cornerstone of the hugely anticipated album.
"I have a record called 'What You Started,' and I talk about taking your power back and understanding that you are in charge of your own power," he says. "We can finish what we started, as in finish creating greatness and finish your purpose."
Selling 2.3 million albums worldwide and garnering nearly 5 million downloads since his debut, Mario earned a spot on Billboard's "Artist of the Decade" list, and he's racked up more than a dozen entries on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. At 31 years young, the Baltimore native feels like he's just getting started, with a laser focus on creating music that comes from a raw place and resonates with listeners on a more profound level.
"I'm very in tune with the concept of life and the concept of growth in my personal life and just making sure that [this album] really tells a story of where I'm at and where I've been," he says. "I've been paying attention to more of what's going on [from] a cosmic level, the world and how that reflects and affects where we are now. I really do believe that the things we can see happening in the world are also shadows on the other side."
Watch Mario's "Drowning" video below: