Mario Premieres 'Pain is the New Pleasure,' Discusses New Musical Approach & Therapeutic Creative Process

Hao Zeng
Mario

Mario is changing course for his upcoming project, titled Cosmos 17. "I’m pulling from real experiences to make this project and its interpretation as raw as possible -- musically," he tells Billboard. "Now, I’m at the place where my life and who I am as a man parallels with the sound and the music that you’re going to hear."

The Baltimore native, born Mario Barrett, broke out in the early 2000s when his debut album Mario –  led by the Biz Markie-inspired single “Just A Friend 2002” – dropped, and primed the then-teenager for a career in R&B stardom. Now, making the transition from a major record label to his own recently launched imprint, New Citizen, with a full-length project on the way, the 30-year-old crooner reveals that his forthcoming effort is his most vulnerable and “musically versatile” project to date.

Mario initially released 2016’s Caribbean-tinged “Let Me Help You," which was slated to appear on the now-scrapped EP Paradise Cove, but opted against completing the tropical-influenced project, to focus on creating Cosmos 17  -- a more cohesive body of work that he says best represents his maturation over the years. Enter "Pain Is the New Pleasure," Cosmos 17’s lead single, premiering exclusively on Billboard.

"I can see the signs/ Found it right between my eyes/ Had to look a little deeper to see those thoughts weren’t even mine," he laments on the four-minute track, which finds the singer grappling with his inner demons over an atmospheric, ominous melody.

Billboard spoke with Mario about the meaning behind "Pain Is the New Pleasure," his "uni-soul" sound, and what fans can expect from Cosmo 17.

After some time away from the music scene, what inspired you to begin creating music again?

Music has never been something that I stopped doing, I just think I evolved more.

After securing hits like "Just A Friend 2002" and "Let Me Love You," you’ve matured over the years and have entered your 30s. What’s your headspace like right now?

I feel like music is so important right now, just in terms of the world and where we are -- it’s a soundtrack of the times. I’m a very intuitive person, very conscious of who I want to be and how I want to be perceived. I think my music, my images and my videos are all more important than they’ve ever been just in terms of relating to the culture, but also helping to push the culture forward musically. 

Personally, it’s about authenticity and being able to do the music that I feel pushes the culture forward. A lot of people may know me for those records like “Braid My Hair," “Let Me Love You," and "Crying Out For Me," which have that traditional R&B sound, but I think it’s important for me to show my fans and show the people who have been following me what I can do musically, and how versatile I am.

For "Pain Is the New Pleasure," you’re peeling back layers to reveal your vulnerability. Why lead with this song for your new album?

The song deals with my thoughts and feelings towards self-sabotage, self-love and the experience in relation to the material world we live in. The song is really about finding true happiness and I feel like that’s something that can only come from within. The record represents finding that space where you choose to finally love yourself and choose to make better decisions.

In "Pain Is The New Pleasure," you talk about battling your own demons. What experiences were you going through when you wrote the record?

Every day we battle our own demons and some people’s demons are darker than others. For me, it was more of a mental thing. Being authentic, making the right decisions when it comes to women, staying away from negative people and negative vibes, not allowing my fears to stand in the way of what’s [best] for me.

Were you at all reluctant to introduce new sounds to fans who are used to your traditional R&B sound?

I think I was more hesitant about releasing the older sounds than the new sound. When I released "Let Me Help You," I was more hesitant about that than I am about releasing “Pain Is the New Pleasure,” just because I’m sure about where I’m at as an artist, and the fact that the music that is coming out of my soul is raw and it real. I’m sure about the content, I’m sure about the lyrics. I wasn’t sure about how my fans were going to receive [“Let Me Help You”] and some of them received it well, but when I listen to it, I don’t feel it in my soul the way I feel this new music, just because it’s coming from a different place lyrically.

Does the song’s message resonate even more now that you’re going through a difficult time trying to cope with the loss of your mother?

One hundred percent. When I did the song, it was like me thinking of all the things that could possibly hold a person back from reaching their level of greatness, and then I also spoke about the fact that I hadn’t talked to my mom in a while because she was fighting her own demons and I was fighting my own demons. When you go through hard times, you have to deal with it on your own, and you have those thoughts that come to you, and there are different ways you can cope with the pain. But deciding not to do that is me fighting my demons. So now it definitely resonates more, because I didn’t get the chance to play the song for her or let her hear how raw and how real I was finally being through my music, in a way that I never had before.

But you know what’s crazy? Throughout this experience, I found out that there are so many people that feel the way that I feel. So it’s a blessing for me to be able to be a voice for millions of people around the world who feel the same way.

Would you say that developing the album was more of a therapeutic experience for you?

Absolutely. Music has been an outlet for me to communicate not just with myself but the world. When you’re growing and understanding the levels of creativity, sometimes you can’t communicate through conversation, but music is a great medium to express those eclectic and difficult things.

What can we expect to hear on Cosmos 17?

Cosmos 17 is a lot more edgy than my previous records, sonically. I’m doing a lot of co-production on this project and working with a lot of new producers. "Pain Is the New Pleasure" is one of the heavier songs on the album as far as content. This album is like a sound bite of the times that we’re in and the soundtrack to my life. It’s a mixture of everything. I got disco on the album, electronic soul. I still have the R&B vibes as well. I like to call it "uni-soul" because it’s a universal sound.

How complete is the album?

I would say 85 percent complete.

Aside from "Pain Is The New Pleasure," what other sides of Mario will appear on Cosmos 17?

It’s going to be a mix of everything. You’re going to get classic music, love songs just with a different sound and a different approach than traditional R&B. It’s definitely going to take you on a ride. I have another song on the album that I just finished called “Dancing Shadows,” and that’s more of an R&B, mid-tempo, sexy record.

If you could collaborate with one older artist and one new artist, who would you choose?

Childish Gambino [for the newer artist] because he’s one of those artists that does not have a ceiling when it comes to his creativity, and neither do I, and fans will hear that on my album. I can only imagine what we’d come up with if we linked up in the studio. As for as the older musicians, I would say Prince. Prince was the epitome of an artist. He played instruments and he went through real shit in his life and expressed it through his music.

How do you maintain your perspective?

I look at all my family members, my friends, the music industry -- it’s like do or die. In my mind, it’s show up time. It’s like, you’re in the middle of two generations -- what are you going to do with your influence? If you leave tomorrow, what am I leaving behind?