Mariah Carey's Current Moment? Legacy, Dahling

Mariah Carey's Current Moment? Legacy, Dahling
Image:Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

Stanning a veteran pop star comes with at least a modicum of anxiety: Will future generations get it? Will those who did not witness this person’s peak in real time understand the full extent of her majesty? Poor career choices on the part of the artist in question and a palpable desperation to keep up with the times—getting caught in a doomed loop of relevance-reaffirmation—add to the fears. On top of that, those who persist do so in an industry that barely resembles the one in which they made their debuts. Today, music is fast and free, an endlessly shuffling landscape that moves at such a clip so as to make it seem that greats—particularly of the virtuosic diva singer variety—are an endangered species.

Mariah Carey’s career has not been without its hiccups, but recent years have been good to her legacy. Most outstanding is the perennial reminder of her greatness, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” a snapshot of Carey at her vocal peak and in full mastery of her songwriting prowess that has reached across generations. As long as that song is around, no one will ever wonder why she achieved the superstar status that she did. Her 2018 album Caution was, above all else, a show of confidence. It achieved a level of artistic relaxation that no Carey album did previously, integrating trends without exploiting them—or her talent on material that didn’t deserve her effort.

And now, with the nearly simultaneous release of her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey and a new collection of musical ephemera, The Rarities, Carey is in legacy-cementing mode. The book rather overtly, for anyone who’s paying attention, paves over potholes in her public narrative: Shoddy live performances, that terrible reality show, rather naked attempts to recapture success via songs that either sound like past hits or other artists’ current hits. With new depth and clarity, her book reasserts something that she’s been saying since her first album promo cycle—that she writes her own songs—but has bemoaned ever since is ungraspable to the general public. This is never more pertinent than in the section regarding the creation of her landmark sixth studio album, Butterfly, which coincided with personal upheaval: The split from her emotionally abusive husband and boss of her label Tommy Mottola and winning the battle for creative control of her music. The latter manifested in a decidedly more hip-hop sonic inflection, as evident in songs like “Honey” (a collaboration with Sean “Diddy” Combs and Q-Tip) and “Breakdown,” her song featuring members of Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony. The former finally grounded her music in her reality.

“I’m sure Tommy could sense that the songs written for Butterfly were no longer about far-off, fictional lovers—these songs, though certainly poetically embellished, were full of specific details and sensual realness,” she writes about the album, several of whose songs were inspired by her brief relationship with Derek Jeter. Most notably, the song (and eventual video for) “The Roof” recounts a brief stolen moment on the rooftop of Jeter’s building. After Carey sneaked away from Jeter’s place, Mobb Deep’s “The Shook Ones (Part II)” was playing in her limo as she rode home, providing the musical foundation for the eventual song that Carey started writing that night in bed that night. This is one of my favorite moments in the book, the explication of how Carey rendered life into art. “The Roof” has long been in my Top 10 of Carey’s singles, but after reading about its creation in such longing detail, I’m hearing it with new ears. This is the power of narrative.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey mostly serves to underscore Carey’s artistry, which she has always contended goes way beyond standing onstage and singing. The book’s metanarrative centers on the crafting of a persona. It illustrates how even someone as fabulously well known as Carey can feel misunderstood and why she shouldn’t be. It finds Carey putting on a face that is more self-assured and contained than that which she has often exhibited in public in the past 20 years. While part of the fun of following Carey is watching her slide into silliness or idiosyncratic diva tendencies when her guard is down, after all these years, she’s cleaning up so well and I can’t begrudge her for wanting to do so. For someone who doesn’t believe in birthdays, her career is aging remarkably.

Few people outside of her fandom would probably regard her as an artist with a vault of unreleased material (a la Prince), and so to the unknowing public, Carey says, “Pow!,” with The Rarities, a career-spanning collection of b-sides and previously unheard songs. Beyond hitting on the more-artistic-than-meets-the-eye theme of The Meaning of Mariah Carey, much of The Rarities underscores her memoir’s claims that her butterfly wings were clipped in the early part of her career and Carey was not allowed to make the R&B that she loved. She writes:

Apart from the ambition, Tommy and I were completely different, and the Black part of myself caused him confusion. From the moment Tommy signed me, he tried to wash the ‘urban’ (translation: Black) off of me. And it was no different when it came to my music. The songs on my very first demo, which would become my first smash album, were much more soulful, raw, and modern in their original state. Just as he did with my appearance, Tommy smoothed out the songs for Sony, trying to make them more general, more ‘universal,’ more ambiguous. I always felt like he wanted to convert me into what he understood—a ‘mainstream’ (meaning white) artist.

No one’s going to mistake the first half of The Rarities for lost Stax treasures, but throughout them is a noticeable engagement with soul that with largely absent from her pre-Butterfly albums, which were recorded under Mottola’s thumb. “Here We Go Around Again,” which dates back to 1990 and was presumably rejected from her self-titled debut, has a jangling Jackson Five feel; the Jermaine Dupri co-produced “One Night” is bouncy hip-hop soul with a message of chastity; “Do You Think of Me” (originally released as a b-side to Music Box’s “Dreamlover”) is a symphony of synth sounds: rumbling electronic bass, fake horns, a pseudo-guitar, all over an 808 beat. “All I Live For,” another presumable Music Box outtake, finds Carey mimicking Luther Vandross’s adult-R&B template of the time (she flicks her voice in the song’s opening line from low to higher in a manner that seems like a deliberate tribute to Vandross’s style). “Slipping Away,” which she recorded with “Dreamlover” collaborator Dave “Jam” Hall, she has said was declared too R&B to make it on her 1995 album Daydream; it was instead released as the b-side of “Always Be My Baby,” and has been beloved by her fans since—its simultaneous, seemingly impossible glide and knock was an early preview of Carey’s unique take on R&B. She didn’t merely want to enlist in a genre she had been denied; she had things she wanted to say and do with it.

Even Carey’s post-Mottola years bore his mark—at least for a bit. After leaving Sony for Virgin, Mottola allegedly continued to check up on Carey and siphoned musical ideas Carey was working on to Lopez’s J. Lo album. Lopez’s use of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Firecracker,” the original musical basis of Carey’s “Loverboy” single, caused Carey to scrap that version of the song and rerecord a new one using Cameo’s “Candy” as its reference. The Rarities unearths the original “Loverboy,” in all of its chaotic glory. The bachelorette party exuberance (the song repeatedly shrieks, “Whooo!”—literally) carried over to the version that made it onto the Glitter album, but in its original form, “Loverboy” is spilling out all over the place, like cleavage in a bandanna worn as a shirt. To my ears, the high-pitched curlicue synth sample is not in perfect tune with Carey’s song and the beat chugs like it’s stepping on the heels of some of the vocals. The woozy effect reminds me of the pronounced rhythmic staggering of Brandy’s “What About Us?,” (which would be released the year after Glitter), but it’s likely that this original “Loverboy” could have benefitted from some quantizing.

Still, it’s great to hear a song that many fans have been wondering about for decades while never thinking it’d see the light of day—on top of its baked-in curiosity as ground zero of a diva feud. The Rarities has its enjoyable moments, but for anyone outside Carey’s diehards thirsty for new songs and already well-versed in the lesser-known material in Carey’s catalog that did see the light of day, it is merely supplemental listening. It’s at least revelatory that Carey is true to herself even when no one’s watching—her idiosyncratic glossary is in full effect on the Emancipation of Mimi-era gospel-lite “I Pray” (in which we’re once again treated to Carey lexicon staples “unclouded” and “wayward”), and she sings the ever living shit out of “Can You Hear Me,” which dates back to 1991. She makes herself audibly hoarse, careening from her fluttery whisper to a full-chested belt, feeling so intensely even when she’s singing about not doing so (she stretches the last word in the line, “Sometimes I don’t feel at all,” into about five syllables). As a bonus, a cherished concert recorded at the Tokyo Dome during Carey’s 1996 Daydream Tour, is included in perfect quality on Disc 2 of The Rarities. Carey’s vocal inventiveness is generally confined to the studio (check out the closing ad libs of the aforementioned “Slipping Away” to hear how she can chew on and pull existing melodies like taffy), and so her performance is astonishing in its conformity—she essentially replicates her songs as recorded in single takes for over an hour. As a self-contained listening experience, it’s business as usual, but as a showcase of her vocal acumen in her prime, the Tokyo Dome recording is like a victory lap’s victory lap.

Up until The Emancipation of Mimi, virtually every studio album of Carey’s was released in the late summer or fall, and so even the timing of her book and new compilation are just so her. This Mariah Carey autumnal moment of harvest and nourishment is the product of an artist who has gained full mastery of her image and is unafraid to demand respect. Instead of sitting back and allowing herself to be interpreted (and, as it goes, misinterpreted), Mariah Carey is telling you what she means. She makes an extraordinarily convincing case.

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