- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

Mario

Turning Point

J-Records

For a musician, avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump is difficult enough. But what if you’re also trying to distinguish yourself from peers as well as shake an adolescent image?

Such is the task facing Mario, a Baltimore-bred 18-year-old, on his second LP, the aptly titled “Turning Point.”

His self-titled 2002 debut, though not remarkable, hinted at the potential of his formidable voice. It was released, unfortunately, amid a throng of other urban teen acts (B2K, ImX, Bow Wow, Lil’ Romeo, to name a few). The album spawned a modest hit with “Just a Friend” — a charming update of Biz Markie’s 1989 classic “Just a Friend” — and also gained Mario a soft spot in the hearts of hip-hop fans older than 20.

Yet he remained under the radar.

In retrospect, that may have been a blessing compared to the fate of similar acts (Kris Kross, Bow Wow, New Kids on the Block, et al.) who have had minimal success in making the awkward transition from teen superstars to respected adult artists. That minor buzz from “Just a Friend” earned Mario a second roll of the dice while enabling him to grow up away from public scrutiny — not unlike uber pop superstar Usher, who released his first album when he was just 15.

Now a show-biz veteran, Mario has maintained his youthful exuberance while also proving that he’s very much a man. On “18,” the album’s first cut, he chides detractors who took him lightly because of his age and slyly informs his competition that he is in a class all his own.

The second cut, “Let Me Love You” — crafted by white-hot producer Scott Storch (the force behind Terror Squad’s smash “Lean Back” and long-time collaborator with the Roots) — is, undoubtedly, the album’s strongest track. Over Mr. Storch’s warm keyboards and foot-tapping percussion, Mario pines for a woman mired in a bad relationship, picking up where “Just a Friend” left off. It’s as good an R&B; song as you’ll find, and definitely one of the best this year.

The rest of the album doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of “Let Me Love You.” For all his attempts to distinguish himself from his peers, Mario still generates a few cookie-cutter moments, none more evident and grating than “Boom,” the requisite Lil’ Jon-produced song that treads awfully close to ground already covered by Usher’s Lil’ Jon-assisted “Yeah!”

Those quibbles aside, “Turning Point” is a solid follow-up to a promising debut. Mario hasn’t fully completed the transition from boy to man (a la Usher) with “Turning Point,” but he’s well on his way. As long as he’s making music this enjoyable, he can be assured that fans will be along for the ride.

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