Mario may have earned some street cred by hosting joints with rappers Juvenile, T.I. and Cassidy on his sophomore disc Turning Point, but for his third outing, the R&B crooner wants to strip down the flash and get back to the basics.
"I think the last album was more hip-hop and R&B, but this one is gonna be more soulful," explained the 19-year-old of his yet-untitled new album, due out in June. "[There'll be] more singing involved because that's what my first love is: the sound of a voice touching somebody."
The singer has been in the recording studio for a few weeks now, laying down material with a posse of A-list producers (including Jermaine Dupri and Scott Storch) and songwriter/fellow vocalist Ne-Yo, who, along with Storch, spearheaded Mario's 2004 smash single, "Let Me Love You" (see "Jay-Z's Picks: Teairra Mari, Rihanna, Ne-Yo"). So far, the crew already has completed four tracks, and Mario considers them all winners.
"Musically, there are different instruments and different sounds. It's more mature, more in-depth with the person I am [now] and some of the things I've experienced," he explained. "Writing-wise, it's more direct ... and I'm doing a lot of writing on this album myself."
To really bring in some soul, Mario will also be collaborating with friend and J Records labelmate Alicia Keys, who produced two tracks on his 2002 debut disc Mario.
"I'm really looking forward to working with Alicia [again]. We discussed it at [Clive Davis'] Grammy party, and her schedule's kind of crazy now, [but] I'll be getting in the studio with her soon," he said of the singer, who is currently filming her first big-screen role in "Smokin' Aces" opposite Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds and Ben Affleck (see "Jeremy Piven Psyched To Have 'Amazing Artist' Alicia Keys In 'Smokin' Aces' ").
And banking on the success of their platinum debut PCD, Mario also wants to recruit the Pussycat Dolls to add some spice to the forthcoming disc. "I like their music and I dig their style. I think that would be a cool mixture," he noted.
Meanwhile, the singer-turned-actor is also shooting his next feature film role, opposite two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, in the coming-of-age drama "Freedom Writers," set to open this fall. The movie is based on the true story of a high school English teacher who transforms her misfit students into model community members by sharing their own street-smart stories by way of an anonymous diary.
Mario's involvement in the inspirational project has spurred him to become more creative in his own songwriting process. "This is one of the only times I'm experimenting with my writing, by learning how these kids had to express themselves and live through their [words]," he explained. "I'm very free with my writing and it [holds value for me] because I know this is something that's going to last."
The budding actor doesn't have any qualms about trying to stage a successful acting career that has long been sought (for the most part, unsuccessfully) by many up-and-coming artists before him — Mario says you just have to know how to play the game.
"There are a lot of young rappers and R&B singers who try to break into acting, but I think it's about the way you do it, the character [you choose to] play and the script," he said. "I think ['Freedom Writers'] is a great start for me because I can totally relate to the character and I'm not stepping off my ground [too much]. I'm still on the right path."
Also on deck is the Disney flick "Music High" — a modern take on 1980 hit movie "Fame" — about a teen delinquent, played by "Coach Carter" star Channing Tatum, who is forced to do community service at a performing arts high school and ends up falling in love with a dancer (Jenna Dewan) currently attached to Mario's character, Miles, the school's resident DJ. It's slated for a September release.
Check out everything we've got on "Smokin' Aces."
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