Originally Published on May 27th, 2014; Updated on June 24th, 2014
“I’ll just sit right here and sing that good old school shit to ya/I won’t fool ya” Mariah coos on the first verse of “Dedicated,” a breezy throwback jam to 1980’s hip hop featuring hip hop heavyweight — and probably one of the last remaining hip hop poets — Nas. That’s one of the themes of Mariah Carey’s Me. I Am Mariah … the Elusive Chanteuse, the singer’s 14th studio album; devoid of the tricks and spectacles many singers today employ to dazzle and fool their massive fan bases, Carey’s new album relies only on three basic principles:
- Quality songwriting
- Organic production
- THE VOICE!
Don’t let the detractors fool you: Ariana Grande was not sent in to dethrone Mariah Carey. This is not a Voldemort-Harry Potter situaion where neither can live while the other survives, especially because, if you’re listening, Carey’s new album shuts down all comparisons. Carey is the original, and to quote the 1999’s “Heartbreaker” remix, she’s “often imitated, [but] never duplicated.”
Carey is fooling nobody on Me. I Am Mariah. Her voice is front and center, and more often than not, her background vocals are used as instruments to enhance the song, adding layers and depth to each and every song, giving the body of work an ethereal quality, which works as Carey herself is as elusive as her chart-topping success.
It’s not every day that a female singer has success that spans three separate decades, but it’s been 24 years since “Vision of Love” climbed the charts to #1, and last year Carey saw success with her Miguel collaboration “#Beautiful,” a track many critics and casual fans alike declared as the “Song of the Summer.” Unfortunately, after Carey’s controversial stint on American Idol and the initial pushback of Me. I Am Mariah (then titled The Art of Letting Go), she fell and dislocated her shoulder and promotion shut down, effectively ending it’s chart run prematurely. Still, the song was a simultaneous return to form for Carey and showcased a great deal of creative growth; “#Beautiful” was a much needed break from the EDM-dominated radio playlists and helped to usher in more organic-sounding songs.
Me. I Am Mariah continues where “#Beautiful” left off. Carey herself touts the album as her life since she last left us with 2009’s “Memoirs of an imperfect Angel,” but that it’s also a body of work that spans her entire career (the back cover of the album is a drawing done by Carey when she was 3 1/2 years old, her only “self-portrait”).
The story that this album tells begins with the opening track, “Cry.” which finds Carey at her most vulnerable, raw, and powerful. Given all that she’s been through in her private life in recent years — a miscarriage in 2008, a difficult pregnancy coupled with gestational diabetes as she carried her twins, Monroe and Moroccan — not to mention her tumultuous and mentally abusive marriage with former Sony head Tommy Mottola in the 1990s, it’s easy to read into the lyrics and interpret them by filling in the spaces between the lines:
Maybe I didn’t leave much between us that day
And maybe I shouldn’t have told you I loved you
Played the game, and now I understand
Wish I could have you back
And kiss you soft and feel your hands on me
Till we both break down
Till we both break down
Till we both break down and cry
And maybe I didn’t give you your space back then
And maybe I should’ve just held out a little bit longer
But I was seduced by you and I didn’t know enough
Truly too enchanted to disregard the words you said to make me yours
I need to hold you till we both
Till we both break down (Break down)
Till we both break down (I should have known that you were tired of me)
Till we both break down (Oh, till we both break down and cry)
My love, Imprudently, I left every cell in me
So naked, somewhere at the core of you
Bless our soul
I just need you till we both…
Till we both break down (I’m just saying)
Till we both break down (Might as well tell the truth about the matter)
Till we both break down (Yes, I guess it’s selfish of me to just expect that I’m entitled to have you)
Till we both break down (But tonight all I wanna do is just hold you till)
Till we both break down (We both break down and cry)
Oh, we both break down and cry
Till we both break down and
Great lyrics are like poetry; they hold symbolic resonance and can be interpreted any number of ways. As Carey sings during “Cry.,” you not only feel her pain, but you’re experiencing it right along with her. She begins with her signature low register whispering, and as the song progresses and the lyrics become more wrought with emotion, so does her voice. Halfway through the second verse, she begins belting, and even though there’s a feeling of clarity in her voice, she’s never felt more consumed with anguish and pain. The nuances and intentional ambiguity in the lyrics are what make Carey an exceptional songwriter and an even more powerful singer.
“Cry.”, a stripped down piano ballad leads into “Faded,” a moody production by Mike WiLL Made It, the man largely responsible for last year’s highly successful and impeccable pop album Bangerz, Miley Cyrus first real claim at post-Hannah Montana stardom. “Faded” finds Carey going back to a more traditional storytelling motif, something she had mastered with 1997’s Butterfly, which many consider to be Carey’s most artistic, raw endeavor to date, that showcased her growth as a songwriter with songs like “Breakdown,” “Babydoll,” “The Roof,” “Fourth of July” and “Close My Eyes” as well as declared her independence from ex-husband Mottola. In “Faded,” Carey is haunted by a former love: “You come and you go, you’re just an echo / A whisper in my ear, but in the morning you’re not here / So intangible, just like an echo.”
Continuing with Carey reflecting on the past, the album’s third track is the Hit Boy produced “Dedicated,” a luscious R&B jam where Carey’s harmonies (with James Fauntleroy) are sumptuous ear candy. The track contains a sample of Wu Tang Clan’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” which should, once and for all, prove that Carey wasn’t lying in 1995 when she defied logic — and pop music standards — and collaborated with Wu Tang Clan’s Ol Dirty Bastard for “Fantasy,” one of the most well-known and loved songs in her extensive catalogue; “Fantasy” did more for Carey’s successors than it did for her. Without “Fantasy,” which saw one of the most beloved and wholesome pop princesses collaborating with a rapper (a “hardcore” one at that), the pop-rap collaboration that seems so commonplace and welcomed on radio today with Carey-wannabe’s like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and most recently Ariana Grande (whose “Problem” featuring newcomer Iggy Azalea garnered much attention for it’s comparison to Carey’s body of work and sensibilities) simply wouldn’t exist. Carey was ahead of a trend that exploded because of her fearlessness in the face of many detractors. Back in ’95, nobody believed her devotion to hip hop; fast-forward 19 years, and Carey is staying true to her claims and showcasing her love in “Dedicated,” which, as a result, feels more authentic than anything on Beyoncé’s most recent surprise album, and allows for more appreciation of her timeless classic “Fantasy.” Here, Mariah Carey has never felt more ‘dedicated.’
The fourth track on the album, “#Beautiful,” feels like a completely new track set in between these new ones; it still feels just as fresh as it did over a year ago, when it premiered. It’s fun, it’s flirty, it’s sexy as hell.
“Thirsty,” the Hit Boy-produced uptempo diss track with an infectiously sticky beat, sees Carey at her shadiest. For those not in the “know”:
Carey is known for casting a wide net of shade, from J-Lo (the infamous “I don’t know her” line followed by a glazed-over smile when an interviewer asked what she thought of Jennifer Lopez; the two had a long-rumored rivalry fueled by Tommy Mottola, who took Lopez under his wing after his divorce from Carey):
… to Christina Aguilera to her public battle with often defamatory Eminem. Carey wrote 2002’s “Clown” and, most recently, 2009’s “Obsessed” about Eminem.
And Me. I Am Mariah continues Carey’s reign as Queen of Shade with “Thirsty,” a thinly-veiled attempt at shading some “guy” who is only thirsty for celebrity, using Mariah for attention. Here’s my theory: I’m 99% certain that “Thirsty” is actually not about some “guy,” but rather Nicki Minaj, who Carey has been beefing with since American Idol announced that both would be judged on their upcoming 12th season during the summer of 2012, and Carey changed the gender pronouns in “Thirsty” to “he” and added a few “boy”s to conceal the shade. The lyrics 1,000% fit their current ‘beef,’ which surface-level reports claim stems from Carey’s jealousy over Minaj being the “other female judge,” and that Carey was promised the sole female judge slot on the show. I have a hard time believing these rumors, especially since, prior to Idol, the two were friends, even collaborating on one of Carey’s songs, 2009’s “Up Out My Face.” Many credit Carey for bringing Minaj to the forefront of mainstream pop culture.
Take a look at the lyrics to “Thirsty,” and substitute the male-oreinted words (like “Mr.” and “Boy”) for female-oriented words: “Just seen them bright lights / And even change your name / Say you a boss now / Ain’t nothin’ out your range / Well, almost anything / You used to be Mr. All About Me / Now you’re just thirsty for celebrity / The best thing that happened to your ass was me / Pull down them Tom Fords and act like you see.” Carey could very well be referring to ‘Nicki Minaj’ as a stage name, nothing more than a persona who can’t see what’s right in front of her, and would rather follow the path of insta-lebrity than realize that it was because of Carey that Minaj was able to climb as high as she did.
The chorus finds Carey cooing, “You, thirsty for a drink / Leaving me drowning / Boy there ain’t no S.O.S. / Filled with discontent / Finding you can’t quench / Why you try so damn hard?” and the ad-libs at the end find Carey griping about Twitter-related feuds, “@-ing me constantly,” which could possibly allude to the Twitter feud between the two during last years Idol season, where Minaj and her fans attacked Carey weekly via Twitter. Considering Carey is the Queen of Shade, I wouldn’t put it past her to shade Minaj, who disrespected Carey week after week on the live Idol shows.
Call it a coincidence, but Minaj dropped her new single “Pills N Potions” last week, and I’d say the lyrics hit pretty close to Carey. Minaj raps:
“They could never make me hate you / Even though what you was doing wasn’t tasteful / Even though you out here looking so ungrateful / I’mma keep it moving, be classy and graceful / I told ‘em Miss No Friends In The Game / You ain’t learned that yet / All the bridges you came over, don’t burn that yet / Niggas want respect, but niggas ain’t earned that yet / Self-righteous and untitled / But they swear it on a bible that they love you / When really they’re no different from all your rivals / But I still don’t wish death on them, I just reflect on them.”
Something tells me that these two have beef that stemmed way before (and cuts way deeper than) Idol.
Some of the album highlights include the Jermaine Dupri-produced tracks. “Make It Look Good” — Stevie Wonder makes an appearance playing the harmonica — is a doo-wopping good time that is guaranteed to get you out of your seat and dancing. Full-voiced, Carey reminds us why we fell in love with her 24 years ago. Her vocal acrobatics are in full swing, and she effortlessly belts her way in and out of her many registers and proves once and for all that she is a force to be reckoned with. The timeless feel of “Make It Look Good” coupled with Carey’s vocal prowess makes it a standout!
Another highlight is the uptempo disco-infused “You Don’t Know What To Do” featuring rapper Wale. It’s a rollerskating rink anthem that perfectly echoes the trend of Hip Pop (pop + hip hop) that Carey pioneered during the ’90s and perfected in the ’00s with 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, one of the biggest comeback albums of all time, spawning two Billboard Hot 100 #1’s (“We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us”; the former was declared “Song of the Decade” having broken the record for most weeks spent at #1, a record previously held by Carey’s 1996 smash hit “One Sweet Day” with Boyz II Men). Halfway through Me. I Am Mariah, “You Don’t Know What To Do” is a fun, footloose and fancy-free breath of fresh air and a clear winner for Carey, a song that would fit perfectly on radio today among disco-revival tunes like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Pharrell’s “Happy,” and a welcomed departure from EDM.
“Supernatural” completes the Jermaine Dupri-produced trifecta, and is a sugary sweet ballad about her twins, Monroe and Moroccan, who she affectionately calls “Dem Babies.” Over a soft, ethereal, other-wordly beat, you can hear one of the twins say, “You make the beat go.” Ms. Monroe coos behind Momma Carey’s soaring vocals that boast with pride. It’s genuine and not forced, like other Diva’s odes to their babies (Beyoncé’s “Blue” and Christina Aguilera’s “All I Need” come to mind.) This is Mariah at her most genuinely happy, when she declares that true love is between her and her children, and that that love is supernatural, unlike any other love. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve shed a few tears listening to this track (in addition to the tears I shed listening to “Cry.”)
Continuing with the “other-wordly” theme, Mariah delivers the most shocking moment of the album: the Q-Tip produced track “Meteorite,” which was the standout of the album. Part disco, part dark hip hop a la Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope,’ with a dash of hypnotic-synth-y EDM and a splash of a Katy Perry “Firework”-esque inspirational moment, “Meteorite” delivers the biggest punch. It opens with Mariah saying, “Andy Warhol said, ‘In the future, everybody will be famous.’ No, he said, ‘Everybody will be WORLD famous. For 15 minutes’.” In a post- Carey-on-Idol world, it’s easy to see that Carey was inspired by watching young hopefuls put themselves out there every single week, all hoping for their 15 minutes of Fame. In today’s pop culture landscape, 15 minutes of Fame is not only easy to ascertain, it’s commonplace. There’s such a thing as Twitterlebrities and YouTubelebrities, and they have legions of fans, just as your favorite singers or actors. “Meteorite” is a biting commentary on this phenomenon, having to sell your soul for fame: “Your fame is the flame / And they watch you burn up, turn up, turnt up all the way.” We live in a culture that thrives on the insta-celebrity, and we love watching them get by week after week on their thirst for fame, and when they burn out, we move on.
Where “Meteorite” leaves off, “Camouflage” picks up; it’s a confessionary ballad that brings the listener closer to Mariah, the human being who bleeds and has feelings (shocking, I know!). Her voice sounds fractured here (in the best way possible), like she’d been crying and was just too exhausted to go on. In that respect, this the realist Mariah Carey has seemed in years: “I remember so many nights in the bed alone / Wondering could I muster the strength to exist in the bitter cold / But you showed up once in a while I guess that’s alright / ‘Cause I told my heart that you needed time for yourself, it’s fine / I camouflage my tears / And you wear your disguise.” She begs and pleads, “I need to know you still love me / tell me you love me / say it” and the result is heartbreaking.
“I can’t leave it like that,” Carey says at the beginning of “Money ($ * / …),” probably to let the listener know that she and husband Nick Cannon are, in fact, still happily in love. “Money” is a bouncy, hip pop jam with breezy melodies and sexy cooing harmonies with Fabolous, who Carey plucked right out of 2002 for this collaboration. This song, while fun, also contains the first major flaw. During Fabolous’ first rap, he uses the word “Gaysies,” a derogatory term referring to two men, presumably gay men, who dress the same. There is some descrepency over the line, however, and some believe that he’s saying “fugazi,” which is slang for “fake,” however it’s pronounced FOO-GAYZI (sans “s”), and Fabolous clearly says FEW GAYSIES, which probably means he was going for some sort of clever word play. The way he enunciates “GAY” alludes less to word play, and more on foul play. If that’s the case, why would Carey, who labored over this album since it was first announced in 2011, allow Fabolous to allude to a homophobic term, even if it was just in good jest, when her fan-base is comprised primarily of gay men? Granted, this is a small issue in the context of the actual song, which is infectious and silly, referring to her love for Nick being about more than money and “jets on holidays and chefs with hollandaise and expensive lingeries” because at the end of the day, she “comes home to [him].” However, it’s 2014, and hip hop is struggling to move past homophobia, and every step backward, no matter how small, is still a step backward. Also, this leads to a larger question: Are celebrities, especially ones whose star is as big and legendary as Carey’s, obligated to be conscious about slurs big and small, no matter if it’s regarding sexuality or race or religion? The positioning of “Money ($ * / …) is also interesting given this issue, since it precedes a George Michael cover, the prolific “One More Try,” a song many believe he wrote about his first sexual experience with another man.
Still, Carey’s version of “One More Try” is beautiful and reminds casual listeners while she’s still the strongest vocalist alive, and has been since Whitney Houston went down the drug-induced rabbit hole with Bobbi Brown in the late ’90s/early ’00s. Here, Carey’s voice is reminiscent of her early ’90s prowess, buttery and soothing and strong; her ability to convey emotion is unmatched and unparalleled.
All in all, Mariah Carey has delivered a benchmark album, something that many artists 24 years into their careers could never manage. It’s a tour de force, a brilliant story of who she is as an artist, a person, a mother, a wife, and a legend in the music biz. I will admit, I had my doubts before this album was released that it could be anything more than lazy, uninspired Hip Pop fluff, comprised of misguided attempts to “bring back real hip hop to mainstream” a la 2012’s misstep “Triumphant (Get ‘Em) [which didn’t make the final cut, thank Messiah], Mariah’s first taste of new material since 2010’s delightful Merry Christmas II You.
But I was wrong.
Listening to Me. I Am Mariah … the Elusive Chanteuse is a window into the woman behind the Diva persona. She’s Mariah, an elusive chanteuse, a singer we can’t quite put our collective finger on, but maybe we don’t need to. Maybe all we need is the music, this music, this album. It’s raw, it’s fun, it’s organic, it’s everything an R&B album should be, and in a world filled with protools-assisted self-proclaimed diva’s like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, and Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey proves herself to be rarest of talents: REAL.
Brava, Mrs. Carey-Cannon!
“Cry.,” “You Don’t Know What To Do,” “Meteorite,” “Dedicated,” and “#Beautiful.”