When considering the abilities and potential of teen pop stars from any genre, a certain amount of cynicism is not only healthy, but practically essential. Yet if you indulge too deeply, you overlook performers like Mario, the Baltimore-born singer whose Top Ten debut still flew under a lot of people's radars in a year dominated by B2K, Bow Wow, and other pubescent urban artists. Mario's self-titled first album, however, offers doses of the real thing; its combination of Nickelodeon-style charm and authentic substance are reminiscent of nothing so much as a young Michael Jackson, with none of the creepy subtext. While it misses out on the humor of the original, the cover of Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" proves a shrewd update of the unwillingly platonic classic, and serves as a gateway to better originals, including a few slow numbers most teens have neither the chutzpah to try or the chops to handle. "Chick Wit' da Braids" and the swirling, organ-laced "Never" lead that pack, and the second song about cornrows, "Braid My Hair," manages to evoke the downside of being a child star without sounding like an ungrateful punk. Naturally, you have to excuse a certain amount of filler to believe fully in Mario's potential, but most of these 11 tracks offer generous hints of it.
by Dan LeRoy