“Love is a real thing. Being open to love is OK.”

Following a nearly decade-long album hiatus, Grammy Award-nominated R&B artist Mario re-emerges with his fifth studio LP, Dancing Shadows, and its transformative songwriting was worth the wait.

Dancing Shadows‘ 11 tracks launch listeners into Mario’s New Citizen label (in partnership with EMPIRE) and the crooner’s vulnerable perspectives on manhood. Utilizing newfound creative freedom, Mario’s LP is an ode to intimacy. Tackling everything from being lovesick while physically investing elsewhere, to the power of monogamy, Mario — well-known for the charismatic hits “Just a Friend” and “Let Me Love You” — offers raw honesty over each track’s ethereal melody.

Already boasting 15 song titles on Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, Mario’s passionate project and falsetto position him for aerial heights. Billboardconnected with the heartthrob to discuss the maturation on Dancing Shadows‘ lead single “Drowning,” the many dimensions of his artistry, and how he identifies with his Empire character Devon.

You’ve said each track on Dancing Shadows represents “a different dimension” — what do you mean by that?

Yes, in terms of Dancing Shadows and the dimension of being an artist, I felt like when I was starting as an artist, I was following the flow of the records that were given to me. I was not exploring my artistic skills. I think, with this album, I have gotten into the many dimensions of myself. I try to use the music. Pretty much, the album is a representation of my taste in music and my experience as a creative.

The opening lyrics on “Drowning” are “I never thought I’d be in between her legs/ While I’m still thinking ’bout you.” In your opinion, do you think men can be alone following a breakup? Some listeners have mistaken this for a cheating record.

Well, “Drowning” is not a cheating record. It is about vulnerability and honesty, you know? A lot of times men do not want to admit that we are not over our ex. In the record, I acknowledged it. I even told the girl I was with at that moment. [I let her know], “I can’t stop thinking about my ex. Still, at the same time, I enjoy intimacy with you.” So it was one of those records where I was honest with myself. It was made for men or women who may be in that scenario. They are drowning emotionally.

Dancing Shadows has 11 records. Which speaks best to where you are as a man in the present day?

I would say the songs “Goes Like That,” “Cares for You,” “Too Many Options” and the whole album, really. Well [let’s add] “One Man Woman,” oh, “Good Times” too. It is just kind of hard to choose. Each record represents something different.

“Good Times” is where I am within my awareness. So, as far as on outlook on love the tracks, “Care for You” and “One Man Woman” [speak to that]. Where I am regarding being a cool ass dude, or somebody that is fun to kick it with is [the song] “Goes Like That.” They all have there place when it comes to expressing my character.

The songwriting on “Too Many Options” is timely. How challenging do you believe it is for the younger generation to narrow down their list?

[Laughs] I think for the generation right now it is really tough. Not only are there so many options, but you’re also able to [mentally] sort [through] so many different places. You might be dating one person, but you are used to looking on Instagram at so many different people. You know that the option is there.

It can be a good thing, though. It challenges you to focus your energy in one place. It can be a good or bad thing depending on how you deal with it. That is pretty much what the song is about. Too many options are not good for you, I am good for you. I also understand we both have options, but I am hoping that we choose this moment. I think it just goes back to the conversation of honesty. Anything you do too much is not good for you. I also believe that we live in a dimension where contrast is real.

Yes, contrast is a real thing. There is always going to be up, down, right, and left. There is zig-zag, light, dark, cold, and hot. It is about finding that balance.

Additionally, your song “One Man Woman” echoes when R&B championed for monogamy. Why was it essential for you to create something that brought that back?

Well, so often, I have had conversations with women about how “there are not any good men,” or heard, “all men cheat.” You know? I grew up without a father. I grew up not loving myself [as a result of] lacking relationships with men.

I wanted to make a song that pertained to men and women. The title of the song is “One Man Woman.” It can go both ways. I wanted to make a song about how one experience with the right person can change your whole outlook on love. It shifts your perspective on connecting on that level with someone.

It only takes one man to show you or be faithful with his love. That man can be your preacher, a cousin, or your boyfriend you are with right now — even if you did not have a father figure. [The song is referencing] these [kinds of] relationships. It can feel like, “Oh, my God. I did not know this was possible.” It is not specifically geared toward romantic relationships. It is geared towards the ties you have with the opposite sex that show you that level of care, and give you hope. Love is a real thing. Being open to love is okay.

You’ve been vulnerable with fans by detailing your assistance with your mother’s recovery. You were able to reconcile your differences prior to her death. What advice do you offer to a listener who may have a similar experience with a loved one overcoming addiction?

Giving advice is hard. I feel like everyone’s situation is different, but I would most definitely advise them to talk about it. Do not hold it in. They should know they are not alone. There are so many people who face this. Millions of people deal with it on different levels. Also, I’d say to protect themselves. Please do not blame yourself. I went through a moment where I blamed myself, not for [my mother’s] addiction, but for not being able to get her clean. I could not force her to get clean. We cannot force people to let go of their demons.

What we can do is help them work through the demons, and help [those afflicted] to heal from them. We can continue to give [those overcoming addiction] love and support. Give support without letting it tear you down. It can definitely hurt you internally. You have to be strong for that person and yourself.


You are playing the new character Devon on Empire‘s fifth season. Your character has both the Empire label and Lyon Family Management competing to sign him. How do you identify with this character?

Yes, I identify with Devon in a major way. As an artist, he has to decide whether or not to go with the Lyons or to go with this big conglomerate, Empire. It’s a moral decision he must make. I have been faced with that. We are faced with ethical decisions every day. So, I think this character relates to everyone. It can be as far as our careers, or our personal lives. It is a concept that goes all the way across the board. When I was younger, I had to decide to move from Baltimore to pursue a career.

That was a big decision for me. Also, creating this project, and making music that I felt good about, the kind that was from my soul, versus making music that I think will work for radio [exclusively]. Dancing Shadows is me as an artist creating music from my heart. I feel the world will appreciate [my new LP].

You’re in control of your art more than ever under your New Citizen label. What has been the most significant aspect of this album’s creation, considering it is your first release since 2009?

To be honest, the most significant aspect has been seeing my fans reaction to the music. We just released it, and I got thousands upon thousands of responses that have been amazing. Getting that support from my core base, and communicating this art to the people is amazing. I see how they have grown with me. Ultimately, when I am on stage that is what matters the most. Also, having a new team, working with new producers, and the building block of the project [was significant]. We are tearing down the layers.

We opened the creative process. Playing instruments on the album [felt] fresh and renewed for me. It made me feel like I was a new artist again. It got me excited about releasing music.

What is on the way?

There will be a tour. I want to tour at the top of next year or close to New Year’s. It will be after my fans have had time to digest the music. I will release more [song] visuals, films, and some other cool creative projects that we are working on right now. Overall, there will be more Mario.

As it pertains to your legacy, who is Mario?

Wow! That is a great question. I am still creating my legacy. That is hard. If I am being honest, I want you to remember me as a creative, a cosmic being, and strong man. I’d say those three things, along with everything that falls under that.

By Bianca Alysse Mercado for Billboard.com

About The Author

Bianca Alysse is a creatively driven Bronx-born writer and editor. Before becoming The Knockturnal‘s music editor she served as Latina‘s creative coordinator and was a contributor at Billboard. The Boricua scribe has a lengthy resume in the music industry and has penned for Universal Music Publishing Group, Epic Records, G.O.O.D. Music, Compound Entertainment, Artistry & Récords, and Arcade Creative Group. Her work has been seen on platforms like VIBE, mitú, TIDAL, Remezcla, and behind the scenes at New York Fashion Week. As an independent contractor, she has written for Sony Music Entertainment’s global business affairs department, Warner Music Group, and currently Roc Nation.

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