With Mariah Carey’s latest album, The Emancipation of Mimi, Carey not only puts to rest the rumors of a career gone sour, she also, probably unknowingly, settles a debate that has been going on since she stepped on the scene with a “Vision of Love”.
Back in the early ’90s, Carey was one of the poster girls for all that was a diva, but she was forced to share the spotlight with another diva that already had a few years on her named Whitney Houston. Both had the vocal range of a piano, both were endorsed by industry bigwigs, and both had more hits between them than any rivalry in pop music at that time. Tupac and Biggie it was not, but everyone who followed either Carey or Houston, betted on the downfall of the other. VH1, which at the time was an adult-contemporary Mecca, even devoted some of their weekend programming to Mariah versus Whitney video shows, asking viewers to decide who was the better diva. But unlike today’s televised music contests, there were no numbers to call and vote, the decision was made by and stayed with individual viewers, and ultimately, only time would tell who would be the winner. And with Carey’s latest album, the debate has been settled, at least for now.
From the onset of The Emancipation of Mimi, Carey spawns two hit singles. The leadoff song, “It’s Like That”, produced by hit manufacturer Jermaine Dupri, was also the album’s lead single and is the perfect introduction for the rest of the album’s carefree feel. Hand claps and a playful whistle set the pulse for four bars. After Dupri’s ad-libs, the whistle drops out and allows Carey’s voice to lead the hand claps and throbbing bass, while she let’s her listeners know exactly where her head is at: “I came to have a party/ Open off that Bacardi/ Feelin’ so hot tamale.” The rhyme scheme is elementary of course, but so is the bare-bones beat, until the chorus spawns a well-placed chord progression with strings and piano. With this turnaround, “It’s like That” is able to go from catchy to infectious status.
Doing a complete 180, Carey’s next song is the willowy ballad, “We Belong Together”. Although the chords are a complete rip off Lil Jon’s “Lovers and Friends”, Carey makes the song her own, reminding fans of her “Hero” days with full, throaty vocals and a crashing climax at the end. The dichotomy between The Emancipation of Mimi‘s first two tracks is the album’s bread and butter. Not since Butterfly, when Carey first decided to get into the hip-hop/R&B/pop foray, has she managed to change styles so seamlessly.
On the Kanye West-produced “Stay the Night”, Carey is faced with the dilemma of spending the night with an ex-flame who now belongs to someone else. Over crackling snare drums, a sampled piano loop from Ramsey Lewis’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” propels Carey, whose amazing range shines by stretching every last word of her lines. Not only is this one of Carey’s finest moments on the album, it is also one of West’s finest moments in R&B production, and you only hope the two will together again soon.
Carey also teams up with her reliable rap-sidekick, Snoop Dogg, on the Neptunes-helmed “Say Somethin'”. The track is vintage Neptunes with big drums and intergalactic sound effects, and Carey adds to the breezy, easygoing feel of the song with a voice that is sexy, but subtle, like a shy woman who doesn’t need to say anything at all to get a man’s attention.
Unfortunately, like Carey’s previous efforts to bridge the gap between hip-hop and pop, she can often end up with more pop than hop. The two Nelly appearances are the album’s low points, mostly because they both sound corny and similar. On “Get Your Number” Nelly’s at-times annoying gangster twang is amplified by the even more annoying ’80s-esque synthesizers. It gets even more comedic when Carey sheds her vocals in exchange for four bars of a whisper rap, “I got a big bad house/ With a sick hot tub/ We can watch a flat screen/ While the bubbles filling up.” On “To the Floor”, there are more of the same, corny synthesizers, unnecessarily overproduced vocals, and more of Nelly’s torturous yelps and pseudo-R&B singing.
So it is, Carey does not completely hearken back to her old days, but The Emancipation of Mimi does prove her staying power. Despite what some critics have said about this album, The Emancipation of Mimi is not Carey’s comeback album. Unlike Houston, Carey has not kept her fans waiting for years to release an album of new material, despite whatever personal problems she has withstood. This is not to say Carey did not deserve the critical assault she received for the Glitter soundtrack and Charmbracelet, both albums were failures both musically and chart-wise, but it is fair to say Carey didn’t have it all together and therefore the previous two efforts suffered. Meanwhile, whatever Houston is waiting for, she needs to get going, because until she, or any of her peers (yes, Mary J. Blige, that means you too) put out an album of this caliber, Carey has emancipated herself from personal struggles and has proven to be the diva.