Happy 15th Anniversary to Mario’s self-titled debut album, originally released March 19, 2002.
If you’re not from Baltimore, I can imagine how hard it might be to see the charm in a city that has earned a reputation for its toughness, but 15 years ago a soulful teenager emerged from my hometown with an eponymous debut album that showed the world the softer side of our concrete jungle.
The album was a welcome contrast to the true grit tales of our town which seemed to rarely take a gentleman’s approach to anything, including the championship run of our Ravens football team, who made Baltimore the home of the Vince Lombardi trophy after the culmination of the first NFL season of the new millennium. Battering opponents with a record setting defense, the smash-mouth style of our football team helped reinforce the hard-nose character of the blue-collar city nestled between the throne of political power and the world’s economic epicenter.
Making room for the next major sports accolade, the NFL Championship was joined by the unified Heavyweight boxing title when another Baltimore native, Hasim Rahman, shook up the world by knocking out British Canadian Lennox Lewis, only months after Super Bowl XXXV.
While the city still celebrated its sudden athletic renaissance, Mario’s debut album—which captured listeners’ attention by way of three consecutive singles produced by Warryn Campbell, notably of Mary Mary’s fame—became the much needed soundtrack along the blocks of marble stair rowhomes and the jewel of local radio.
The veteran producer’s remake of Biz Markie’s 1989 classic “Just a Friend” propelled our native son into the top echelon of teenage heartthrobs, with a song that not only won the affection of high school girls across the country, but also became the guilty pleasure of woman old enough to remember partying to the original. “Just a Friend 2002” was one of the irresistible pop hits clutched by every DJ as a reliable crowd pleaser amongst their playlist, in the era just before music became almost exclusively on demand for consumers.
Almost completely re-envisioned from Biz’s tale of infidelity, Mario’s smooth tenor, reminiscent of Tevin Campbell’s years earlier, delivered the beckoning of a hopeless romantic, desperately trying to escape the dreaded friend zone, with a convincing plea from an awestruck young suitor. The “Sucker MC’s” sample used as the baseline further solidified the song as a rare multi-generational hit, that came just in time for March Madness watch parties as our entire metropolitan area cheered on another Baltimorean, Juan Dixon as he helped Maryland’s Men’s basketball squad claw their way to the team’s first-ever NCAA Championship in 2002.
The late spring of 2002 saw the launch of possibly Baltimore’s most famous depiction in the HBO series The Wire. Convincing as the setting for somber themes including urban blight and the war on drugs, Baltimore was thrust into national political debate and became a more frequent reference in hardcore hip-hop lyrics.
Seizing this opportunity to become an ambassador of the area’s culture, Mario’s third single, “Braid My Hair,” showed how the children of such despair sought refuge in each other and the age appropriate lyrics revealed how the strongest bonds between childhood sweethearts were often sealed in apartment stairways and front porches with this sincere yet innocent gesture of affection.
Using his debut to showcase all of his talent, the dancing and singing young soul man reached for triple threat status with successful attempts at songwriting which made for some of the more poignant moments of the album, offsetting what appeared to be the album’s main agenda of dominating radio with uptempo tracks. Assisted by The Underdogs, who were famous for being Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins’ production team, “What Your Name Is” unlocked a local secret that even the teenaged Baltimore man possessed mystical powers over women, once they mastered our slang lexicon and seized the ability to charm women with our struggle.
Perhaps the most authentic moment of the album comes near the end, with “Chick with the Braids,” the humorous ode to Baltimore’s around-the-way girl, whose dazzling physique can mask the sometimes combustible temper. Mario’s crooning lulls you to reflect on the sassiest girls inside every pocket of the city, but brings to mind the adage “girls ain’t nothing but trouble.”
All in all, I would say Mario is far meatier than simply a bubblegum album, unless its success is viewed as a negative. A hometown favorite that has earned a spot alongside Cal Ripken’s Iron Man streak, Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” and Omar’s shotgun. Mario’s debut album unveiled a voice that remained relevant for well over a decade and showcased a corn-rowed kid intent on becoming a gentleman from the town many forget is nicknamed “Charm City.”