While the friend zone usually isn’t a coveted space and getting braids isn’t usually a romantic revelation, Mario took it there for us with 2002’s “Just A Friend” and 2003’s “Braid My Hair.” He was responsible for creating adolescent anthems that kept us going and brought the Baltimore born R&B singer right into the seat next to us as we navigated those hormone-driven years.
Fast forward a bit and after acting in Step Up and Freedom Writers, the crooner seems to be on a hiatus. For seven years we don’t hear much from the triple threat as he splits from his label, a lengthy process, and begin his own called New Citizen. There’s no gossip to be found and the “Let Me Love You” singer is in the cut. The question begs, where is Mario?
Now, the crooner has officially returned to the scene with the new single “I Need More” under his label. In an enlightening sit-down with VIBE, the singer born Mario Barrett opens up about where’s he’s been, his new spirituality, his upcoming project Paradise Cove and exactly what he learned in his 20s as he rounds his 30th year.
VIBE: Let’s start in the beginning. You started out the gate with “Just A Friend” and it was such a nostalgic moment working with Biz Markie. Do you feel like that shaped your music going forward from there?
Mario: I’m going to be honest with you, the first song that I ever recorded was with Fabolous. It was called “Tameeka” and it was on the Doctor Dolittle 2 soundtrack. It was first studio session I’d ever been in. I just remember being super young and being in the studio for like 16 hours, recording the same parts over and over. I was like “I don’t wanna do this,” I was crying. I was like 14 years old. He kept me in the studio for hours. So my first session was like… jail cell. It was punishment for wanting to be an artist.
But you made it through.
I made it through, but it ended up being a big song on the soundtrack. Then yes, my first single ended up being “Just A Friend.” I think what that song did was it made me relatable. It was very boy-next-door meets young, soulful kid. Although the song was a remake, the way that I approached it, there was a lot of soul in there. That fun boy-next-door vibe. It shaped the relatability for sure.
“Braid My Hair” is still one of those songs. If someone says “I’m going to get my hair braided”, its guaranteed that someone in their 20s in the room is going to sing the song. How does that feel to still have that moment?
It gives me a sense of appreciation for the people I was working with coming out the gate. The people I was around, they were very adamant making sure that the first album was relatable and I didn’t loose that kid from Baltimore vibe. Although I was turning into a machine when it came to doing those interviews, shows, etc. I still had moments. I was telling this story the other day about when I was going to record “Braid My Hair” in New York. I was in the studio, my hair was looking crazy and I didn’t want to record that day. I didn’t want to work, I was out of it. I was telling Harold Lilly, “Yo I just want to go home bro and let my girl braid my hair. I don’t want to be here right now.” He was like, “Well if you don’t feel like working, then we going to get something out of it. We’re going to write a song about you getting your hair braided.” I’m like bro, don’t nobody want to hear that. The song ended up a moment, so I appreciate those types of approaches to music. It wasn’t calculated, it just happened. Sometimes that’s where the magic is.
How was it working with Gucci at peak” Gucci”? Was that calculated?
You mean when I did “Break Up”? That was little more calculated. I was in Atlanta recording with Sean Garrett and originally… I’m going to tell you the real story, originally it was just my song. Sean liked the record so much that he was like I’m not giving it to you unless I’m on it, too. Because he was doing his artist thing so he was like I got the relationship with Gucci so I should be on the record. Gucci got out of jail the night before, like the night I recorded the song he had just got out, the next day he was in studio recording. That was the song that took him into the mainstream so it was a good look for everybody. It was a fun song, it was a fun time. Doing the video in my hometown was super cool. it was the second video i shot in my hometown so it was cool. I actually shot “Break Up” at my crib back in Baltimore.
Getting into the present, outside of the music, where have you been at? What have you been doing?
Personally, a lot personal growth. A lot of deciding and digging into who I am as a person. The things that I desire, more into my spirituality. I’ve always been into spirituality, but now its become such a big part of my life because its been what’s helped me balance out my life in the settings that make me who I am. From music, from the artist, to the person who grew up in Baltimore that never really dealt with issues that I had growing up, to the creative individual who can tap into himself confidently and can be confident about what I believe in instead of just being like, oh well, let me just be an artist on the label that they tell me what to do.
It gets to a point in your career where you have to become a true artist. You have to decide who you are. I feel like in R&B, that’s where a lot of R&B artists get lost. They get to a point where they hit a ceiling. At this day and age, you’ve got to be more interesting than just a R&B artist. Or else you’ll just be the guy that people say “oh I love the music, he’s dope.” But what else? I’m more than just an R&B artist. I’m an actor, I’m a creator, I’m a writer, I’m an author, I’m a director, I’m a visionary. So these are things that I’ve decided that I’m okay with sharing this, I’m okay with being this person. Taking time off allowed me to tap into that side of myself. Also, I came in the game when it was really about the music and really about the art. Now, it’s so many smoke and mirrors and gimmicks. I was like okay, let me step back and let that happen, and then when I come back I’m going to come back in the right way from all platforms. From behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, everything that I do is going to be meaningful so that I don’t get lost in that. There’s a distinctive perception that stands out of everything that’s going on. Let me make sure there’s no misconceptions.
A lot of true artists have that reclusive moment. They find themselves after disappearing for a minute, then they come back and they are their peak highest self.
I think those in this lifetime who are supposed to reach that part of themselves, will. Some people may have to reincarnate to do it again to reach that. But it’s just interesting that I’m actually an artist, that I have this voice. Certain things I just experienced, I didn’t ask for, it just happened because I started to be conscious about my health and that trickled into other things. Like what is this vibe, what is this energy, this is different. I want to pay attention. I didn’t take no drugs, no psychedelics. Certain things are just happening.
A lot of also finding the right people to work with in the studio, that understand the vision and understand the path. Just wanting to make sure I’m in the greatest space possible to come back and take on the responsibility of influencing the culture and especially of the new generation.
You turn 30 tomorrow. You’re at this point, but what did your 20s teach you?
How did you know?! I’m kidding. Oh my God. [Whistles] It’s like three different phases. The first phase of my 20s was just me wilding out and kinda like having fun slash trying to prove to people that I was around. I felt like I had something to prove. Then the mid 20s was more like alright, love life and trying to find the type of girlfriend I wanted but, still kind of wilding out. And then the later 20s was kind of more stepping into my spirituality and stepping into my creative space and deciding this is the type of artist I want to be. I want to take this serious. I feel like my 20s overall taught me that nothing is a mistake, there are no mistakes. There are choices and there are consequences, whether they’re good or bad. And then there are lessons.
That’s what I learned in my 20s. I learned how to navigate the mental plane on a whole ‘nother level. It’s like on the mental plane, certain things can be transmuted. I learned to control my mentalism. Then after that, I learned how to do it physically. As an artist, you’re doing all these things in front of the world. So how do you communicate that through the music, through your art, through your performances? These are all things that make up real artists. 30 is like everything you do is intentional. At 30, you have the knowledge, you have the tools but there is so much more to learn.
I was listening to “I Need More” and that’s a new sound. I could see these things coming across in the new song. Like don’t get me wrong, I f**k up some commas and I have all these things but, I need more. So is that really what you want to get across to your fans?
110,000 percent. I couldn’t have said it better. Ultimately, I want people to look at me and understand when I do something and see the deeper meaning behind it. Understand that it’s art and the expression of art comes from a higher place of creativity. That should inspire people to be their own artists. Whether it’s fashion or writing or whatever. It’s all communication, everything is communication.
For R&B now, do you think it’s dying out with new wave and acceptance of trap and twerk music?
I look at things from all points of view and I think that we’re all… we have the capability to do so much, why tap into one part of yourself? Of course it has evolved and it’s changed. Because of the aesthetic, the R&B as we knew it, was so much more laid back and so much more about love and relationships, it was more musical. Now we’re in a place where everybody is exposed to so much that it’s not as interesting because their minds are being stretched, but also programmed at the same time. Stretched, but it’s being stretched in these categories. But the people who stand out are the ones who do it, then they throw you off and do something interesting. I don’t think it’s “dead” because there aren’t enough artists doing it an interesting way. It’s also dead because programming. the radio programs, TV programs, all these things program what is cool and what’s in. I love R&B, but I also love alternative music. I also appreciate trap, hip-hop.
What do I think could be better is the messages in the songs. A lot of the messages aren’t really saying anything, it’s not really leading the generation anywhere. Everything is driven by the ego, nothing is super, super vulnerable. There’s only a few people in hip-hop that are vulnerable: Drake, J.Cole, Kendrick. I think it’s coming back, though. It may not come back the way we envision it. I’ll definitely have some of those type of vibes, but it may not be super traditional.
That was my next question, is Paradise Cove going to give the R&B vibes? What can your fans from “Let Me Love You”/”Braid My Hair” expect and what are your new fans going to get?
New fans are going to get definitely more vulnerability, definitely a more symbolic approach in respect to the music. R&B doesn’t traditionally lend itself to that type of prospective, but it’s just a new me, a new day. I can’t even think about, let me try and go back and do this for the fans, I have to give them where I’m at and keep it quality.
What are some of things, if you can tell me, that you’ll be talking about on Paradise Cove?
I have a record called “Same Thing” that’s all about cycles being repeated until we learn our lesson. The first lines go “Money, fortune, fame, and women/So much to taste in this kingdom/Don’t know if I can trust my feelings/I got the love but do I mean it.” It’s a lot deeper, the lyrics are a little more introspective. I just go into real situations that ain’t always pretty.
You were speaking about getting into the behind the scenes stuff. Did you get into any producing, etc?
Co-production on “I Need More” and writing on it, co-production on “Same Thing.” I’m pretty much involved in every aspect of it. Just to make sure it’s super authentic. I also co-directed the video [for “I Need More”] and created the concept for the video as well.
That’s awesome. Parting ways from your label, that took some time. How is your new label going?
It’s a lot of work! You want to be professional, you want the people who work for you to be excited to work for you. It’s a lot of staying on top of everything, making sure that people are paid on time and making sure things on time. Especially when you’re doing a video, you got to get through the casting, you have to get through this and that. I love that process because it comes out exactly how I want it to. It’s not like I have to argue with the label to get approvals for this or that or they like a concept and I don’t and then they’re like, well we’re spending money so you’re going to shoot it anyway. I don’t have to worry about any of that and that’s what I love about it.
Getting into the future now. What are your short term goals for your career right now?
My short term goals are to reestablish my brand. To continue to communicate as a creative through platforms like VIBE, different print platforms. To create visuals that allow people to see where I’m at now as a performer, as a singer, as an artist. And to touch as many platforms again, get in front of the big screen again.
How is that going?
I haven’t done anything in awhile, so that’s what I’m working on. Building my team for that again, that’s a short term goal. Just really getting the brand back out there and getting myself back out there as a performer, as a model, as an actor. I’m writing a book right now, Life in Exchange. I feel like we are constantly exchanging parts of ourselves for another. We are constantly in this exchange with life. Life gives us an experience and we exchange our reaction to the experience with life. That gives us our present moment in where we are. It’s just different tools and different perspectives that are used to advance the life on a personal and spiritual level.
What are your long term goals? Like 10, 15, 20 years from now.
I hope to be sitting back watching all the things that I create continue manifest new opportunities and hand it over to people that I trust to really take it forward. By that time I’ll be 50 years old, so I hope to be sitting somewhere writing another book or shooting a movie, just manifesting all the great creatives in the world and keeping the culture the going. Hopefully by that time, the world will transition to a better place. That we, as in humanity, will be in a better place collectively.
Ultimately that’s what I want to add to it. Outside just doing music and films and entertainment, I want to add to humanity in a positive manner. And show people that you can be individual and follow your dreams and you can add to the uplifting of humanity in any way creatively. I would like to have family and kids. Later on down the road.
So if you could go back to any historical period to be a singer, though, which one would you go to?
The ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, Marvin Gaye, that vibe. Play the piano, afro probably. It was where all you had was music. That was in a time in film that had really good storylines and dope music, that was really all people had. They didn’t have Instagram and Twitter, it was all about the art. Fans could only see you at your show. They had to come to the show and you had to give your all. That’s all you had. You came from small city and your parents didn’t have much, music was all you had and you gave it all on the stage.
Speaking of, how do you balance your new spirituality with being in such a high visible, social media heavy world?
For me, its kind of easy to balance that out. I’m not really out in the club every single night or trying to be that guy who f**king with all the latest models just to be able to say I bagged her, I don’t care about stuff like that. So you not going to find any gossip out about me and I don’t deal with crazy girls out here, I don’t have time for none of that. You gotta be in your square as a woman, I need a conscious woman. I didn’t bring myself this far… I’m not judging anyone, but if you want to be a writer then you should probably hang around writers or someone that can write better than you. So if I’m going to be intimate with a woman, I want to make sure I’m okay with being that person. Take on that vibration of whatever they got going on and if not, just because I understand what’s happening, a lot of people don’t understand whats happening during exchanges of sexual energy. So it’s like for me, you aren’t going to find me acting crazy.