Refined contemporary R&B artist Mario debuted in his mid-teens with the Top Ten pop hit "Just a Friend 2002." The deeply impassioned (and on-key) update of Biz Markie's humorous 1989 hit ignited a career highlighted by a string of high-performing albums for Clive Davis' J label. Most successful of all was the platinum, Grammy-nominated Turning Point (2004), the source of his similarly successful "Let Me Love You," which also topped the Billboard Hot 100 and provided the breakthrough for song co-writer Shaffer Smith, later known as Ne-Yo. After nearly a decade without releasing an album — a period that included label differences and shake-ups, scrapped material, and intermittent singles such as "Somebody Else" (2013), featuring Nicki Minaj — Mario returned with his first independently released full-length, Dancing Shadows (2018).
Born and raised in Baltimore, Mario Dewar Barrett developed his talent while singing along with his mom using a karaoke machine at home. Discovered at the age of 11 in a local talent show, he later traveled to New York City to establish a career and scored a contract with Clive Davis' Sony-distributed J label. After a contribution to the Dr. Dolittle 2 soundtrack ("Tameeka," featuring Fabolous), Mario was primed for stardom. In February 2002, he paid tribute to Stevie Wonder ("You and I") at Davis' Grammy Awards party, and in the same month released "Just a Friend 2002," produced by Warryn Campbell (Yolanda Adams, Mary Mary, Alicia Keys). Mario's first lead single scaled to number three on Billboard's R&B/hip-hop chart, and was a major crossover move, peaking just one slot lower on the Hot 100. Mario's self-titled album arrived that July. It went Top Ten R&B/hip-hop and pop, peaking respectively at number three and nine, and within two months was certified gold.
The singer's second album fared even better. Turning Point arrived in December 2004 and was powered by "Let Me Love You," written by producer Scott Storch, Kameron Houff, and background vocalist Shaffer Smith, the artist who would become known as Ne-Yo. The ballad was the first number one pop hit of 2005 and reigned through February. By the time the song was unseated, Turning Point had hit the Top Ten of the Billboard 200 and was platinum. "Let Me Love You" was subsequently nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and the parent LP was up for Best Contemporary R&B Album. Having appeared as himself in a handful of television shows, Mario soon thereafter landed a true acting role in the first installment of the Step Up franchise, which premiered in 2006. The next year, as he worked on his third album, MTV aired I Won't Love You to Death: The Story of Mario and His Mom, a documentary centering on his mother's struggle with heroin addiction.
Preceded by Mario's work outside music and held back by delays, Go, the follow-up to Turning Point, was released in December 2007. Its biggest single, the Polow da Don collaboration "Crying Out for Me," went Top Ten R&B/hip-hop and Top 40 pop, and it also included a song about Mario's mother, "Do Right." Go peaked at number four on the R&B/hip-hop chart just before Mario competed on the sixth season of Dancing with the Stars. In October 2009, Mario's streak of Top Ten R&B/hip-hop albums continued with D.N.A. "Break Up," featuring Gucci Mane and Sean Garrett, became its biggest single, narrowly missing the top of the R&B/hip-hop chart and topping out on the Hot 100 at number 14.
For much of the following decade, Mario was beset with label issues, including creative differences and organizational changes, and recorded a fair amount of material that was ultimately scrapped. He did manage to release a handful of singles, and after being moved from the dissolved J label to RCA, he hit number 27 on the R&B/hip-hop chart with the 2013 single "Somebody Else," on which he was joined by Nicki Minaj. Independently released tracks were scattered from 2015 through October 2018, the month he released his fifth album, Dancing Shadows, on his New Citizen label. Just before the LP was out, Mario joined the cast of Empire, and in January 2019, he performed in Rent: Live. ~ Andy Kellman