The second act of Mariah's comeback doesn't wisely expand her sound: it instead succumbs to the blueprint so carefully laid out by its predecessor, a pointless remake that exists only because it has to.
Ladies and gentlemen, please take a moment of silence before reading this review. We are currently experiencing the death of one of pop music's greatest institutions: the Age of the Diva.
In April of 2008, Mariah pulled off one incredible feat after the other: breaking the record books with her chart-topping "Touch My Body", releasing her new album E=MC2, and then seeing said album sell nearly half-a-million copies in its debut week. Indeed, only three years had passed since she emancipated Mimi and a staggering seven years since she became the laughing stock of the industry with the fiasco known as Glitter. The fact that she was able to make a comeback at all was nothing short of extraordinary, but the failure of Glitter and its quickly-produced follow-up (2002's much-maligned Charmbraclet) signaled not only Mariah's then-waning popularity, but also the death of the modern-day diva.
When Mariah first arrived on the scene with her eponymous 1990 debut, it was her oft-discussed multi-octave range that wowed people en masse, a young girl whose innocent charisma would have stormed American Idol had it been available at the time. Mariah co-wrote all of her own songs, but her producers knew that her lyrics were only secondary to her vocal ability. As long as her wine-glass shattering pipes were placed front and center, we would be stunned time and time again, flustered by Mariah's talent and overwhelmed with her naïve charm. It was that same charm that courted the girls, her pin-up ready figure that pulled in the boys, and those glorious pipes that rounded up the rest. Suddenly, it didn't matter what song her name appeared on: it would be a hit. It's this kind of branding that made her one of the last great American pop divas, a force to be rallied behind through songs both good ("All I Want for Christmas is You", "Dream Lover") and unspeakably bad ("Make It Happen", "Butterfly"). As time grew on, Carey was soon flirting with both pop and urban audiences with equal regard, racking up #1 singles at a rate that would make even Whitney Houston blush (Whitney, of course, being the template upon which Mariah's entire career was based off of). Needless to say, they were good times.
Yet as the 20th century drew to a close, those pop and urban audiences gradually turned into the same thing, but Mariah's handlers didn't know any better. When the pop-oriented Glitter project crashed (Sidebar: there's a great drinking game when watching Glitter: take a shot anytime they cut to an exterior shot of the city … which is roughly every five minutes), it was her rushed 2002 follow-up that proved to be her ultimate undoing. Charmbraclet attempted desperately to believe that the Age of the Diva was still going on, but the album was so lightweight it felt as if it'd fly away at any moment. Mariah's pipes were no longer what they were: no more octave chasing or ear-piercing high notes. Suddenly, Miss Carey's name wasn't worth as much as it was in the '90s, and soon she was juggled between labels and multi-million dollar contracts while drowning under a sea of negative publicity.
Of course, as your daughter's iPod player has already told you, Mariah officially came back in 2005 and in a big, big way. Finally acknowledging that actual songs -- not just Mariah's pretty face -- would be the thing that actually makes money, the newly-single Miss Carey soon poured out prom-dance anthems ("We Belong Together") and amazingly-good slinky pop songs (the incredible "Shake It Off") in equal measure; The Emancipation of Mimi actually deserving the successes that were going its way. It was a summer blockbuster in an age where albums aren't really considered blockbusters anymore, so really, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that E=MC2 tries to recapture that same chart-topping magic track-for-track, right down to the practically-photocopied cover shot redo. Like its title, however, there's a remarkable difference between Emancipation and E=MC2: while the former had something to prove, this album takes after its title by containing songs that are simple, cold, and far too carefully calculated.
Since day one, Mariah has always been known as a singles artist; a crafter of great albums she is not. Yet when E=MC2 opens with the grating, club-centric "Migrate", all notions of proper melody are immediately thrown out the window. With a descending echo-synth carrying the song almost entirely by itself, Mariah's voice gets thrown into countless vocoder filters, the whole thing coming off as a tepid and uninvolving attempt at a club anthem. Even when produced by Nate "Danja" Hills (Britney's "Gimme More") and featuring T-Pain, it serves as a painfully dull opener, a vibe that carries into "Touch My Body", itself stealing the structure that made "We Belong Together" such a great song. Here, Mariah coos soft-core phone sex fantasies over plinked piano notes, all while referencing YouTube in what appears to be a desperate grab for relevance (listen to any songs that feature Napster in the lyrics recently?). For being an album from one of the world's biggest pop stars, its amazing how hook-free and dated if feels a mere two weeks after its release.
After that, the list of duds keeps on coming: the reggae-flirting "Cruise Control", the lifeless mid-tempo club romp "O.O.C." (that stands for out-of-control, naturally), the late '90s R&B throwback "Thanx 4 Nothin'", the soulless breakup ballad "For the Record" (featuring the no-really-I'm-not-making-this-up line "Them other regularities / They can't compete with MC / The whole entire world can tell / That you love yourself some me"), etcetera etcetera. Mariah was never a gifted lyricist (ever), but she at least could sell an innocuous pop song like no other (hell, it's personality alone that made Whitney's "How Will I Know" one of the greatest guilty-pleasures of the '80s). So the few times that she is handed a truly effortless stunner on E=MC2, she absolutely knocks it out of the park. "I'm That Chick", with its late-night disco-bass groove, could very well be the disc's highlight, sounding both gritty and effortless in equal measure, even if Carey sounds like a completely anonymous pop starlet this time out. The Young Jeezy-assisted "Side Effects", in fact, could be considered a not-so-thinly-veiled swipe at former husband Tommy Mottola ("I was a girl / You were 'the Man' / I was too young / To understand / I was naïve / I just believed / Everything / That you told me"), though its reference to "dreaming 'bout the violent times" will certainly raise some eyebrows, even amidst the sweaty synth haze the Scott Storch-produced track is swamped in.
At the end of the day, however, E=MC2 is nothing more than a shallow imitation of its predecessor, the unexciting kid cousin of an arena-sized R&B watermark. Its great songs are certainly worthy of some greatest-hits canonization ("I'm That Chick", "I'll Be Lovin' You Long Time"), and its worst songs ("I Stay in Love", "Last Kiss") are forgotten the second that they're over. Its sales will still be stellar and it will probably spin off a few more chart-toppers, but the second act of Mariah's comeback doesn't wisely expand her sound: it instead succumbs to the blueprint so carefully laid out by its predecessor, a pointless remake that exists only because it has to. If you ever had a doubt as to its formulaic nature, you need to look no further than its title.
Long live the Diva.