Mario’s “Let Me Love You”

Written by on December 20, 2022

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

It’s-a him! Mario!

That was rude, wasn’t it? I don’t feel great about it. Mario, the teenage R&B star who spent the first nine weeks of 2005 atop the Hot 100, has nothing to do with Mario, the stereotypically Italian video-game plumber whose psychedelic exploits have delighted the world for the past 40 years. They’re not the same person at all. If you put the two of them next to each other, you’d immediately know which one hit big with a softly aching unrequited-love ballad and which one was out to save Princess Peach from Bowser. I’ve just been playing a whole lot of Mario Kart with my kids lately, and I couldn’t resist. Apologies to both Marios.

I have my own reasons for rooting for the singing Mario. That Mario comes from Baltimore, my hometown, and I don’t get too many opportunities to write about Baltimore natives in this column. Mario came along almost a decade after Dru Hill and former Number Ones artist Sisqó. When Mario first blew up, he was wearing a Ray Lewis jersey and dancing in front of rowhouses on BET. Because of that and that alone, I’m always going to be a little bit in the tank for Mario. It’s not easy to get famous when you come from Baltimore. It’s harder than finding the Warp Whistle.

It’s also hard to stay famous. Mario came out of the gate with a big hit, but that big hit didn’t exactly promise a long career. Early on, Mario was part of the Scream Tour circuit, the whole scene of teenage R&B-singer heartthrobs that dominated the BET video-countdown show 106 & Park but rarely put up big numbers on the Hot 100. On his second album, though, an 18-year-old Mario outdid all of his peers. That LP’s lead single was a soft and unfussy midtempo love song. It wasn’t flashy. It didn’t leave much room for dancefloor pyrotechnics. It didn’t feature any big-name guest-star rappers. But that one song fully crossed over and probably became the biggest hit ever to come out of that whole Scream Tour world. Mario never came close to that success again, but for a few months in 2005, he had the invincibility star.

Mario Barrett was born in West Baltimore about nine months after the Nintendo Entertainment System first went on sale in North America, so there’s at least an outside chance that he’s named after the other Mario. (When Mario was born, Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” was the #1 song in America.) Mario was mostly raised by his grandmother in Baltimore County because his single mother spent many years struggling with heroin addiction, an all-too-common problem in Baltimore. But Mario’s mother did buy him a karaoke machine when he announced that he wanted to become a singer. Before long, Mario got his shot.

When Mario was 11, he sang Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” — not the most appropriate song, but whatever — at a talent show at Coppin State College. A music manager named Troy Patterson heard Mario singing and signed him as a client. Patterson also adopted Mario and moved him in with his family in New Jersey. Mario’s grandmother had died, and he really didn’t have anywhere else to go. At 14, Mario auditioned for Clive Davis at J Records, and Davis signed him. Before he turned 15, Mario made his debut with “Tameeka,” a Fabolous collaboration on the Dr. Dolittle 2 soundtrack. (Fabolous’ two highest-charting singles, the Tamia collab “Into You” and the Lil Mo collab “Can’t Let You Go,” are both from 2003, and they both peaked at #4. “Into You” is a 5, and “Can’t Let You Go” is a 3.)

In 2002, a 15-year-old Mario released his self-titled debut album. That album’s big hit was “Just A Friend 2002,” which is almost a straight-up cover of Biz Markie’s 1989 classic. (The original “Just A Friend” peaked at #9, and you already know it’s a 10.) I’ve never been sure what to make of “Just A Friend 2002.” Biz Markie famously sang the original “Just A Friend” in an atonal howl; the bad singing was the point. The whole idea of a smoothly, sweetly sung version of “Just A Friend” seems utterly absurd. Like: why? But that hook still worked even in Mario’s hands, and “Just A Friend 2002” actually became a bigger chart hit than the original, peaking at #4. (It’s a 5.)

I’ll tell you what, though: The “Just A Friend 2002” video? That video makes me feel things. Today, the “Just A Friend 2002” clip stands as a time-capsule memorial to Baltimore in the long T-shirt era, and I can’t watch it without feeling the raw ache of nostalgia. The movie theater in the video is the Senator, which was my movie theater as a kid; it’s where I spent practically every Saturday. Even the Biz Markie cameos have a Baltimore resonance, since the man was living in Maryland at the time. I don’t expect you, the person reading this, to feel the same way I feel when I watch the “Just A Friend 2002” clip. For me, though, it’s a time machine.

Anyway. Mario. Let’s-a go. The first album went gold, and Mario made it to #72 with the follow-up single “Braid My Hair.” That song wasn’t a big hit, but it established something that was already an undercurrent on “Just A Friend 2002.” Mario was a sweet, romantic kid. He was vulnerable and approachable. His voice was soft and thin, and he never sounded horny. Instead, romantic longing was his thing. Mario didn’t have swagger, and that set him apart, even in the teenage-R&B-heartthrob world. That world was where Mario lived after his first album. He toured with Bow Wow and then with the third iteration of the Scream Tour, and he eventually cut his braids off — a brave thing to do after releasing a single called “Braid My Hair” — and got to work on his second album.

Mario was 18 when he released sophomore LP Turning Point, and J Records was definitely putting some money into the record. Turning Point has guest-verses from rappers like Cassidy and former Number Ones artist Juvenile, and it’s got one beat from Lil Jon. (You know who wasn’t especially well-suited to the whole crunk&B phenomenon? It’s-a him. Mario.) Mario spent about a week in Miami with Scott Storch, the super-producer who’d already made “Baby Boy” and “Lean Back.” We were really going through the peak Storch era at the time. Storch’s work will appear in this column again very soon.

Scott Storch co-wrote Mario’s big hit “Let Me Love You,” and he had two collaborators. One of the co-writers was Kameron Houff, an old bandmate of Storch. Back in the early ’90s, around the time he joined the Roots, Storch was also in an R&B-pop group called Madd Crop that was briefly signed to Ruffhouse/Columbia but never released anything. Kameron Houff was the group’s drummer, and he’d gone on to play drums and to do engineering work on a bunch of big pop records. Storch’s other “Let Me Love You” collaborator was Shaffer Smith, a young Arkansas-born songwriter who went by the name Ne-Yo.

Ne-Yo soon became a pretty big star, and we’ll see him in this column before long. When he co-wrote “Let Me Love You,” though, Ne-Yo hadn’t yet become a recording artist. Instead, he was trying to make his name as a songwriter. A few years earlier, Ne-Yo had tried to work with Dr. Dre, and Dre had sent him away. But Scott Storch, who was working with Dre a the time, liked what Ne-Yo was doing, and he invited Ne-Yo to come work with him in Miami. Ne-Yo happened to arrive in Miami when Storch was working on the Mario album. Later on, Ne-Yo admitted that he should’ve kept “Let Me Love You” for himself, but the success of “Let Me Love You” probably helped Ne-Yo become a pop star in the first place.

There are so many songs about wishing someone was with you instead of their shitty significant other. It’s an evergreen pop-music concept, and it’s the whole idea behind “Let Me Love You.” Mario’s narrator is stuck on a girl, but the girl is with some asshole who cheats on her: “Baby, I just don’t get it, do you enjoy being hurt?/ I know you smelled the perfume, the makeup on his shirt.” Is she really going out with him? Is she really gonna take him home tonight?

I don’t think we’re supposed to imagine Mario actually saying these things to the girl of his dreams. Instead, we’re hearing his internal monologue. The song casts Mario as the Ducky figure, the shy nerd pining for the girl he can’t have. This was a good role for Mario, a classic nonthreatening nice-guy type. Mario wishes he could sweep this girl away from the guy who doesn’t appreciate her. In its own way, maybe “Let Me Love You” really is about saving Princess Peach from Bowser.

Scott Storch’s “Let Me Love You” track is a mechanized melodic backbeat with sturdy, clap-heavy drum track and some lost, wandering ’80s-style synth-pillows. The arrangement isn’t dramatic, but it gets the job done. Over that beat, Mario sounds crushed, like he knows that he’s already lost. Mario doesn’t sound like Michael Jackson or anything, but he does sound like a kid who’s listened to a lot of Michael Jackson. There’s at least a bit of that fluidity in his delivery, and you need that fluidity for some of the profoundly goofy lines on “Let Me Love You.” Consider, for example, the mathematical implications of this lyric: “You’re a dime, plus 99.” You know what Mario means. He’s saying that this girl is way more beautiful than a simple 10. But it also sounds like he’s saying that she’s worth one dollar and nine cents, which does not sound very romantic.

“Let Me Love You” isn’t a great song, but it works as a long sigh. A lot of that comes down to the chorus, a sneaky little earworm that’ll rattle around in your mind for a while if you let it in there. I wish “Let Me Love You” had a better bridge, but the key change arrives at just the right moment, and Mario sings some really nice ad-lib runs at the end. The song is clearly the work of professionals. It’s not adventurous. It’s not evocative. It’s definitely not exciting. But it’s got an easy warmth that’s hard to dislike.

Unlike “Just A Friend 2002,” “Let Me Love You” does not have a video that sends me into a nostalgic fugue state. The video is cute, though. Director X films Mario dancing around in one of those gigantic empty loft apartments with precisely manicured graffiti all over the walls — the spaces that would be way more believable as photo-shoot studios than as places where Mario’s character might live or hang out. Mario pines for this girl and eventually charms her with his dance routines, and as the video ends, they’re dancing together and about to get intimate. Mario gets the happy ending that the song never really implies.

“Let Me Love You” got a pretty bad uptempo remix with a different Scott Storch beat and verses from Jadakiss and T.I., the two rappers who were on just about every remix of every pop hit in that era. (Jadakiss’ highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2004 Anthony Hamilton collab “Why?,” peaked at #11. Jada also got to #3 as a guest on Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 single “Jenny From The Block“; that one is a 7. T.I. will eventually appear in this column.)

Mario spent much of 2005 as the opening act on Destiny’s Child’s final tour. The “Let Me Love You” single and the Turning Point album both went platinum, even though Mario’s follow-up single, the heartbroken ballad “How Could You,” stalled out at #52. In 2006, Mario fired Troy Patterson, the manager who’d discovered and adopted him. Mario claimed that Patterson had only paid him a grand total of $50,000 even after he’s sold millions of records. Patterson countersued, and the two parties settled out of court.

Mario found new management, and he kept working. In 2006, Mario made his film debut as Channing Tatum’s best friend in the first Step Up, which takes place in Baltimore and which has very little of the zany dance-battle absurdity of the great sequels. (Find me when I’m stoned sometime and ask me about Step Up 3.) A year later, Mario played one of Hilary Swank’s at-risk students in Freedom Writers, maybe the last major motion picture about a heroic white teacher battling to save a classroom full of at-risk Black kids. That movie is not set in Baltimore, so I’ve never seen it.

Mario never returned to the top 10 after “Let Me Love You.” “Crying Out For Me,” the biggest hit from his follow-up album Go, peaked at #33. Mario had a bit of a bounce-back two years later, when he teamed up with Gucci Mane and big-deal songwriter Sean Garrett for the #14 hit “Break Up.” Pretty good song! Great Gucci Mane era! (Gucci Mane’s two biggest hits as lead artist, the 2017 Migos collab “I Get The Bag” and the 2018 Bruno Mars/Kodak Black collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” both peaked at #11. As a guest, Gucci will eventually appear in this column.) Mario hasn’t been back on the Hot 100 since “Break Up.”

After his 2009 LP DNA, Mario went nine years without releasing an album. He and Scott Storch reportedly recorded a whole LP together, but it got shelved. Mario lost his major-label deal when RCA dissolved J Records and absorbed the label’s roster. Mario started his own label, but the singles that he released were mostly non-starters. He joined a songwriting and production team called Knightwritaz, and they worked on some tracks from Nicki Minaj, an artist who will eventually appear in this column.

Mario joined the cast of Empire for a couple of seasons at the end of that show’s run. He released a couple of singles last year, including one with Chris Brown, an artist who will appear in this column pretty soon. Earlier this year, Mario took on former B2K frontman Omarion, the early-’00s R&B teen heartthrob whose name is just his but with two extra letters, in a Verzuz battle. General consensus says that Mario won the battle, though the one clip that went viral was Ray J singing extremely badly while holding his son.

I really think Mario is primed for a comeback, and I think it’s about to happen. Next year, a big-budget Mario biopic is coming out. I’m not really sure why that’s happening, but apparently it’s animated? And Chris Pratt is playing Mario? That’s weird casting.

Wait. Shit. That’s the other Mario. My bad.

GRADE: 6/10

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