Mariah Carey, the ultimate pop diva of our age, may be a joke but she’s no punchline
How seriously should you take Mariah Carey? About as seriously as she takes herself – that is to say, both extremely seriously and not at all. In 2014, the 44-year-old is a cartoon of a diva, a ridiculous entity who can always be relied on to outdo herself.
Look, for instance, at the title of her 14th studio album (and its ludicrous cover, on which Carey’s pose, colour scheme and use of Photoshop battle to go furthest over the top). Inspired by a self-portrait she improbably claims she drew at the age of 3½, it sees the bar Carey set for eccentric self-indulgence on previous titles – The Emancipation of Mimi [Amazon.com], Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel [Amazon.com] – and raises it.
Carey may be a joke, but she’s no punchline. For one thing, she’s long been in on the humour: after the US gossip website Gawker posted a video affectionately lampooning her, she tweeted back: “Your clip was aiiight but next time you really wanna get some laughs, let’s just collabo because news flash I’m in on the joke! Haaa.” She plays up gloriously in the image she’s created for herself – but it never becomes reductive. Counter-intuitively, the more of a caricature Carey makes herself, the more real (and endearing) she seems. In some ways, it feels like she’s still rebounding from the docile image that was created on her behalf at the start of her career.
The Emancipation of Mimi, from 2005, is widely seen as the milestone album of the second half of her career, her re-emergence as a major force after the collapse of her commercial success and mental health. But today’s incarnation of Mariah can be traced back to 1997’s Butterfly [Amazon.com], the first album she made after divorcing her controlling ex-manager Tommy Mottola, on which she started to really indulge herself in her latter-day trademarks: her verbose songwriting, her love of juxtaposing herself alongside street rap signifiers.
Both of those are out in force on Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse [Amazon.com]. Barely three minutes in, at the emotional climax of pillowy opener Cry, we get an “imprudently”; on the next track, Faded, Carey mopes, “We continue to subside.” On bonus cut The Art of Letting Go, polysyllables drip like jewels: “I no longer live in your dominion … evidently your words were merely lies reverberating in my ears,” she sings, luxuriating in her own vocabulary as if to confirm her superiority over the lover who spurned her. This is more than flicking through a thesaurus and mindlessly wheeling out synonyms, though. It’s illustrative of Carey’s lavish approach to her music – one of the qualities that makes her latter-day output so satisfying.
Two days after excitedly debuting The Art of Letting Go on Facebook last November, Carey returned to the social network in some distress. Over four anguished paragraphs (written, of course, while sobbing on her bathroom floor at 3.30am), she explained that the mix uploaded by a new sound engineer “whose only task was to press the space bar” was not the final one. (One imagines that new sound engineer became a former sound engineer very swiftly.) The differences were slight and barely perceptible, but Carey insisted: “Every nuance of the beat or vocal matters to me.”
Thus, Me. I Am Mariah… is crammed full of details. Vocal ad libs are sprinkled generously throughout like fairy dust. Cry is composed of layer upon layer of soft, cushioned harmonies that only magnify the tension as Carey attempts to stave off the song’s titular breakdown. You’re Mine (Eternal) is a lovingly crafted crystal vase of a song whose sound design is so intricate and inviting that it takes a few listens to realise that Carey is describing her love with words like “suffered” and “suffocating”: in a state of emotional collapse, but perfectly comfortable there. The album’s best songs – Make It Look Good, You Don’t Know What to Do – employ joyfully swooping strings in fine fashion. Even the sampled gurgling of Carey’s twins on Supernatural (“All my tears dissipate”) feels opulent.
So confident does Carey seem that it’s easy to forget how tortuous this album’s gestation was, subject to countless delays, underperforming singles and title changes. She even managed to get a last-minute attempt to imitate Beyoncé’s surprise release strategy slightly wrong – by announcing her “surprise” in advance. For if there’s one trait of Carey’s early career that she’s never been able to shake off, it’s the premium she places on commercial success. She’s long been inordinately pleased about her 18 Billboard No 1s, only two behind The Beatles’ all-time record.
But in recent years, what’s been elusive for this chanteuse are genuine smash-hit singles. This has been less about the quality of her output as a combination of mismanaged campaigns and the divergence between Carey’s beloved R&B sounds and wider chart trends. If The Emancipation of Mimi catapulted her back into relevance, 2008’s E=MC² [Amazon.com] was an opportunity squandered. Packed with effortlessly catchy, summery hooks, it gave Carey the last (to date) of her No 1 hits in Touch My Body – but choosing the cloying ballad Bye Bye as the follow-up over the album’s superior tracks (I’m That Chick, Migrate, O.O.C.) prematurely sank the campaign. On 2009’s Memoirs of on Imperfect Angel, Carey appeared to retreat from the pressure: a collaboration with R&B’s then-hottest producer The-Dream in his peak year, it was an inward-looking album, autumnal and reflective, with few obvious singles. It was one of Carey’s best – maybe, in terms of working as a whole, her most well-executed album – but it underperformed commercially, a sign of the increasingly evident tension between the music Carey wants to make and the hits she craves.
Me. I Am Mariah… eschews the uniformity Carey pursued on Memoirs in favour of a mixture of retro throwbacks and attempts to be on trend. She possesses too much old-school diva pride to consign herself to making music only for her hard-core fan base and too much youthfulness to resist adorning herself with contemporary hip-hop slang and hot, young names: thus, Carey describes herself as “turnt up all the way” on Meteorite and ropes in producers du jour Mike Will Made It and Hit-Boy for collaborations of varying success. Carey sounds in her element on the former’s Faded, a melancholy slow burn offset by rattling trap snares – but while the latter’s Thirsty was probably a lot of fun for Carey to record, its beat is too much of a chintzy rewrite of Hit-Boy’s biggest hit yet, Jay Z and Kanye West’s Niggas In Paris.
Indeed, it’s Carey’s approach to her throwback songs that seems fresher. Nostalgia suffuses the album – but instead of taking the easy route of retreading her past or appealing to the currently fashionable 1990s revival, she opts for a variety of styles: hands-in-the-air house on the propulsive Meteorite, disco on You Don’t Know What To Do, 1990s block party hip-hop (complete with Nas guest verse and Wu-Tang Clan reference) on Dedicated, a delectable Motown tinge on #Beautiful. All are irresistible – but it’s what Carey brings to the songs that elevates them above mere period pieces. Her brand of nostalgia feels uniquely personal – and, crucially, a lot of fun: instead of settling into a contented, middle-aged lane, it’s nostalgia as a vehicle for recapturing effervescent youth. Rather than settling for tastefulness, there’s a sense of frivolity at the heart of the album. (Case in point: her rhyming “jets with holidays” with “chefs with hollandaise” on Money.)
Importantly, the same applies to Carey’s own performances: the reason she can still pull off an emotional range from first crush to heartbreak convincingly is because she revels in the very idea of feelings and commits wholly to them. “The way you lick your lips, fingertips on my hips as we dip,” she coos giddily on Make It Look Good, stacking rhymes on each other with relish. #Beautiful, the album’s lead single and highest point, finds Carey eliding the roles of cougar and love-struck teenager to her younger duet partner Miguel.
“Oh! How you thrill me,” she exclaims as a tiny burst of backing vocals flutters around her like confetti. It’s moments like those that show just how much Carey revels in being herself and playing up to herself – and on Me. I Am Mariah…, she demonstrates that the more she indulges in that, the better she gets.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.
Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM