It's been a while since we've heard from Mario - a whole two years. And much has changed since the Baltimore teen sensation dropped his self-titled, gold-selling debut. The high-pitched voice that breezed through his fun, frenetic Top 10 smash, "Just a Friend," has deepened a bit. The cornrows he crooned about on "Braid My Hair" - they're gone.
Mario is 18 now: strikingly handsome with a neat, low haircut and meticulously trimmed facial hair. In new promotional shots, he rocks stylish blazers and crisp dress shirts. No jerseys. No baggy sweat suits. Mario becomes a man on his likable new album, Turning Point.
Calling from a Los Angeles restaurant, the singer says, "With the second record, I wanted to prove that I deserved a place in R&B.; I wanted to invite people into my journey into manhood. All my fans will understand what I mean when I say turning point - and some of the older listeners will understand too."
One thing you'll notice right away while listening to the 13-song set is Mario's fine, melodic voice, which anchors the mostly trend-conscious productions. He's developing into a sensitive interpreter, reminiscent of vintage Michael Jackson. His talent is best showcased on "Let Me Love You," his latest single. The spare, lilting ballad sits at No. 2 on Billboard's pop and R&B; charts - an amazing feat considering the record has been on the airwaves a little over a month.
"It's timeless," Mario says of the song. "I think most people gravitate to it because there's nothing else like it right now on the radio. It helps define R&B; because it's so simple and meaningful."
"Let Me Love You," in which the singer confesses his love for a girl who's caught up in a dead-end relationship, is indeed a gem, radiating a classic, Quiet Storm feel. The creamy melody floats over a rolling programmed beat with subtle wah-wah guitar and whining keyboard lines. Mario provides his own background vocals, sounding like a one-man New Edition. The song is definitely the highlight of Turning Point.
He says, "I took those feelings that were human, those feelings that were me and put it in the song."
The emotional (and physical) growth the New Jersey resident experienced during his two years away has emboldened his artistry.
"I can have people believe what I'm saying now at 18," Mario says. "I think people can feel me when I sing."
Folks were feeling his soulful approach early on. The performer was born in Charm City and "grew up all over, really: We lived in Pikesville, East Baltimore, all over Baltimore." In elementary school, he developed his keen sense of melody and harmony singing along to his karaoke machine and plunking on his piano. He absorbed the music of Brian McKnight, Stevie Wonder, Joe and Usher.
At age 11, while singing Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You" in a talent show at Coppin State College, Mario was spotted by Troy Patterson of 3rd Street Music Group. He became the boy's manager and arranged a meeting with Clive Davis, who had just formed J Records. Davis signed Mario to a deal. (The B'more singer was among the first to join the J roster, which includes Alicia Keys, Luther Vandross and Angie Stone.)
He was a 15-year-old student at Milford Mill High School when his debut, Mario, dropped in 2002. His surprise remake of Biz Markie's irreverent 1989 hit "Just a Friend" rocketed into the Top 10. Mario became a regular in Right On! and Teen People magazines, his videos mainstays on MTV and BET. He also toured with other sensational teen acts - Bow Wow, B2K, Nick Cannon - on the successful Scream 3 tour.
"Being on tour taught me how to handle the stage on my own," Mario says. "And now I'm ready to do it again. I'm excited."
A tour for Turning Point is in the works for next year.
"I'm more curious about growing as an artist," he says. "I'm focused. I have a lot I want to do later on, like helping kids who want to get in the industry. You can have all the money in the world. But if you give nothing back, it means nothing."
Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. at WTMD-FM 89.7.