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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Let Me Love You," a beautiful 21st-century ballad with a lot going on under its surface

Mario's signature song may seem simple at first, but closer inspection reveals several largely small, but impactful changes throughout.

Today's song had been playing in my head since around the time I finished last night's post, but I was hesitant to make it today's topic because... well, I'm not pining for anyone right now.

Getting 2000s R&B classic "Let Me Love You," by Mario, stuck in your head would seem to suggest you've got feelings for someone, but in my case, I just heard the opening few measures — perhaps inspired by some composition work I'd done earlier in the day — without any sort of personal context. It's definitely a different way to hear such a legendary ballad, but it allowed me to really think about what's musically going on. After all, you don't just sing and (try to) dance along to a song because of the feeling you get from its lyrics alone.

"Let Me Love You" strikes a rare balance between smoothness and maximum danceability, and it does so right from the beginning. The opening keys and strings slowly introduce the song's progression, while Mario hums in preparation for his crooning. Without the drums, this introduction would be calm and soft... but of course, the drums are there, and with them "Let Me Love You" becomes one of the grooviest ballads of the 21st century — I simply cannot stop myself from at least nodding my head to it.

I don't know why, but I always thought there was more to this song in terms of instruments and layers than there actually is. As it turns out, there's just the soft electric piano, the synth strings, the drum machine, and the four-note figure that plays at the end of every four measures. That last figure, on a synth I hear as sounding like a clarinet, honestly does a lot of work; with the chord over which it sounds lasting two measures as opposed to one, it helps the song avoid stagnation by anticipating the movement back to the start of the chord loop.

So if there isn't much happening instrumentally, what makes the song dynamic? The answer, of course, is Mario's vocal performance, which is full of expression and variety. Mario sings every line in the verses a little differently from the others, keeping a first-time listener waiting to hear just how he'll adapt each lyric to his style, but also making everything easy to sing along by not doing anything too radical. The term to describe all his variations is rubato, which literally means "stolen" in Italian but musically refers to a freer interpretation of time — a singer can be a bit ahead or behind the beat as they see fit, all for the purpose of expressivity.

Mario's rubato tends to fit the various lines well in terms of their place in his lyrical narrative, in which he pleads for the object of his affection to be with him over her current, unfaithful lover. Stressing the urgency of the matter at hand, Mario rushes forward as he asks, "Do you enjoy being hurt?" in the first verse. He similarly goes ahead of the beat in slight excitement when he praises the woman to whom he's singing in the second verse, with "You're a dime, plus 99," before reeling himself back in for "and it's a shame, you don't know what you're worth." (Those couple lines are honestly really good wordplay too, and they've always been memorable to me.) On other occasions, Mario slows down in contemplation — take "and I just don't know why" in the first verse as a prime example, as he exasperatingly wonders why the subject of his song, "bad as" she is, stays with someone who doesn't lover her.

Wisely, Mario does away with the rubato for the pre-chorus and chorus, allowing them to be much more catchy and hook-filled. The back-and-forth in the pre-chorus — "(If I was your man) Baby you'd / (Never worry 'bout) What I do" — is a great touch, and one of the more memorable parts of the tune. The line I marked in parentheses has a slight chorus effect and is just barely put in the background, giving a little variation in vocal tone to give the line a bit more interest than it would otherwise have. In the straight-ahead chorus, Mario makes his message even clearer — "You should let me love you / Let me be the one to / Give you everything you want and need" — and the way he does so with consistent rhythm is really satisfying for a song which has slowly but surely moved in that direction from verse to pre-chorus and now to the chorus. The harmonies which join Mario in the second and extended third chorus are also gorgeous, adding lots of warmth as they fill out chords behind the lead line; these include the soaring line Mario sings on top of everything else in the finale.

On the topic of harmony, I want to talk about the bridge before I wrap up this article. The bridge harmony is a significant departure from the rest of the song, and it always seems to surprise me a bit even though I've heard this tune so much over the years. It starts with A-flat major and E-flat major in a bright reconfiguration of the original loop, but then dramatically diverts to G-flat major (the tritone of C) and D-flat major (the minor second, a half-step above the tonic) out of nowhere.

As odd as it may look in writing, the bridge harmony works really well in the context of the musical moment — regardless of the chords' relationship to the key, they complement the vocal lines moving downward between "You deserve better" and "We should be together." The moment is a reminder that more adventurous harmony does have its place in popular music. Using those harmonies well requires a keen ear and an understanding of how the more unusual chords fit in with the more established, more 'normal' popular harmonies already present — attributes producer Ne-Yo certainly proves to have based on his work here, especially when the harmony so smoothly transitions back to the main loop for the extended final chorus.

"Let Me Love You" is a standout of its time and its genre because it's a song with just enough going on to remain really compelling throughout a full listen. The changes to the standard four-measure loop and Mario's vocal performance throughout the track are all well-thought-out and contribute to the song's narrative — something often lost when there's such a solid groove underneath everything else.


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