Critical Eye

Mario: Being real and doing right

On the release of his new CD, the singer speaks of stardom and struggles

December 23, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

We hear he's in the building. Mario will be here shortly."

That's Squirrel, the popular DJ on WERQ-FM, chattering away on the microphone. He and 92Q co-host K-Swift stall the crowd of mostly black teenage girls excitedly filling Security Square Mall's Downtown Locker Room and forming a snaking line outside. As local fans wait for the platinum-selling, Baltimore-born performer on a chilly Monday evening, cuts from Mario's latest album fill the air and the airwaves during a live broadcast from the store.

Fans have been waiting a while for Mario. Go, the follow-up to 2004's double-platinum Turning Point, was finally released this month, after being held up for nearly two years because of conflicts with J Records. The delay may have hurt Mario's momentum nationally: The uneven album sold only 77,000 copies its first week, making its debut at No. 21 on Billboard's pop album charts.

But urban radio has embraced the melodic, synth-based ballads from the 12-song set. At the store, K-Swift leads a sing-along of "Crying Out for Me," one of the album's best tunes. And starry-eyed girls behind the dark velvet ropes belt every word in unison.

Squirrel begins an introduction, but before he can finish, Mario, lithe and handsome, struts out from the rear of the store. The shrieks are almost deafening. He's surrounded by label reps and two massive bodyguards. But at 6-feet-1, Mario is easily seen. He hugs girls in line and slaps fives with guys before stationing himself behind a table, where he poses for pictures and signs autographs for nearly three hours.

Over six years, the 21-year-old performer has established himself as a burgeoning pop star. But behind the cool half-smile and icy bling, the young man born Mario Dewar Barrett has encountered real setbacks. He has devoted much of his time to helping his drug-addicted mother. Blessed with a yearning, silken tenor, he has been struggling to establish an individual presence in the overcrowded urban-pop arena. Among male peers such as Chris Brown, Trey Songz and Ne-Yo, Mario is far and away the best singer -- but his latest material doesn't always serve his vocal prowess.

The day after the store appearance, Mario, in steel-gray skull cap and matching leather jacket, looks out of place in Washington's Old Ebbitt Grill, a formal, clubby den filled mostly with older white men in business suits. Slouching in a booth, he moves easily between private feeling and public pride.

"For Baltimore to have someone on the entertainment side that's done something, that's living his dream, it's great for people to see that," he says. "It feels great, man, to come home and get all the love. I wanna help somebody else get to that point too."

To do that, he has just started Mario's Do Right Foundation, a nonprofit organization for underprivileged children whose parents struggle with substance abuse. It's a subject the singer knows all too well. Throughout his childhood, Mario's mother, Shawntia "Shawn" Hardaway, was addicted to heroin.

"You'd have to ask her how long she had been using," he says between forkfuls of grilled salmon. "But I noticed her using when I was around, maybe, 9 or 10."

Mario was one of the producers behind I Won't Love You to Death: The Story of Mario and His Mom, a gripping MTV documentary that chronicled his struggle to help his mother kick her daily heroin habit.

The cable station aired the show in October. Filmed mostly in Hardaway's Baltimore condo, the documentary pulled a few punches but did show emotional truth -- such as heated arguments that often ended with Mario in tears.

"I'm not the best director, but I had full control over it," says Mario, who has acted in such films as Step Up and Freedom Writers. "I wanted something that was real, that wasn't a reality show. ... My mother was down with it. She had had the drug addiction for a long time."

In documenting the struggle within his own family, Mario saw a way to help others who might feel hopeless.

"More than anything for me, it shed a light on the fact that you can still follow your own dreams and at the same time still go through serious situations. But that doesn't mean you can't be a star. I wanted to show kids that."

Which is not to say it was easy.

"It was very emotional. Eight-seven percent of households in America suffer with some kind of substance abuse. So the struggle is real."

After the documentary, Hardaway successfully completed rehab and is pondering a career as a motivational speaker.

"I think she has the power to inspire people to help themselves," Mario says.

While filming the documentary during the morning and afternoon, he'd put finishing touches on Go at night.

"All that emotional stuff I was dealing with, you know, the stuff with my mom, went into my singing," Mario says. "I was in the studio sometimes 16, 17 hours straight. I'd watch the sun come up sometimes. I didn't leave until the songs were right -- until I felt the songs were right."

Mario is one of the executive producers on Go, a collection of trendy, meticulously crafted songs tailored for urban radio and exhibiting an edgier, more sexually charged version of himself. Of Mario's three albums, Go is the first to come with a parental advisory sticker.

"I still sing love songs, you know. But sometimes, it's not about love songs," Mario says.

The album does still speak to the older audience he gained with the tender "Let Me Love You."

"There's a little bit of fantasy and a little bit of reality in the lyrics on this record," says Mario, who divides his time between homes in Baltimore and Atlanta. "But it's where I am right now. I'm being real with my audience."

He stops a beat; his eyes are serious: "I'm being real with me, and that matters."

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