At the end of Mariah Carey’s 14th album, the singer takes some time out to explain herself — or at least to explain its title, the Twitter-bio-ready fragment Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. “Please don’t judge me for such a simplistic title…come on, I was only three-and-a-half,” she says of the title’s first section, which was the caption of a self-portrait she drew as a toddler. “It was a creative visualization of how I saw myself with the purity of a child’s heart, before it was ever broken.”
A gesture like that would have been way out of character for earlier iterations of Mariah. When she first elbowed her way into pop consciousness, all the way back in 1990, there was a superhuman element about her — her five-octave voice allowed her to exist at pop’s most rarefied level, granting her one-name status, a la Whitney and Celine. That transcendent status was also evident in her dominance of the pop charts; to this day, her fans (known as lambs) can spontaneously break down the 18 No. 1s she’s achieved on the Billboard Hot 100 in painstaking detail, or hash out the particulars of why she deserved to win all eight of the Grammys she was nominated for in 2006, and not just the three she wound up taking home.
But in the early 2000s, beginning with the release of her semi-autobiographical film Glitter, cracks started appearing in the façade. Her grand statement of independence had appeared three years earlier with 1997′s Butterfly, an album that detailed her split from Sony Music head Tommy Mottola and contained pop smashes like the fluttering, sun-kissed “Honey” and the delicate “My All.” The box-office faceplant of Glitter — a well-meaning if lunkheaded girl-makes-good pic that came off like a cross between Showgirls, The Apple and a Lifetime movie — was followed by a string of increasingly erratic television appearances and a spate of contract-fulfilling albums of greatest hits and remixes.
The Emancipation of Mimi, released in 2005, was a slight repositioning; now in her mid 30s, Carey reined in her massive voice, opting for a (relatively) measured approach on the pleading “We Belong Together” and the frosty “Shake it Off.” It worked; that album served as her comeback, setting expectations high for its effective sequel, E=MC2. That album’s lead single, the light and flirtatious “Touch My Body,” ascended to the top of the Hot 100, officially giving Carey more No. 1s on that chart than Elvis Presley. But its follow-ups, including the lush, DeBarge-sampling “I’ll Be Lovin’ You Long Time,” floundered. The album ended up being the beginning of another downward swing for Carey — stalled singles, a canceled remix album, a stint on American Idol during which her often-solid judging was overshadowed by her sniping with former duet partner Nicki Minaj. At the same time, her personal life was on an upswing; she married jack-of-all-trades Nick Cannon and the couple had two children.
The run-up to Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse began during her time on Idol, and was just as fraught. “#Beautiful,” the languorous, low-end-heavy collaboration with the spitfire soulsmith Miguel, was supposed to be the smash of the summer of 2013; while I agreed with that assessment, radio programmers, increasingly uninterested in dance songs with a swing in their hips, dropped the song, and it peaked at No. 15 on the Hot 100 and No. 3 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop. (Thanks to shifts in chart methodologies that led to the latter chart effectively serving as a semi-ghettoized Hot 100, “#Beautiful” was kept from the top spot by “Blurred Lines.”) Follow-up single “The Art of Letting Go,” a crackling R&B track co-produced by Carey and Rodney Jerkins, didn’t even make the Hot 100; “You’re Mine (Eternal),” a throwback to the “We Belong Together” era of combining Carey at her most ethereal with a loping, delicate afternoon-delight beat, topped out at No. 88 despite a Valentine’s Day rollout and an assist from Trey Songz.
Perhaps disgusted by the numerous false starts, Carey last month told Billboard that she would be rush-releasing an album that she wanted the audience to consider “as a body of work,” and not just a scattershot collection of songs parceled out over time to radio. True to her word, Me. I Am Mariah is a fun, confident album that showcases Carey’s influences and ability to serve as influencer. It opens with “Cry.,” a slow-burn ballad that inevitably builds to her voice reaching its highest peaks. But from there, she travels back to her early days of listening to gospel music and George Michael (her faithful cover of his heart-wrenching “One More Try” is gorgeous) as well as her time on the radio in the ’90s (the drowsy “Dedicated” samples the Wu-Tang Clan’s shout-out to her on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”) before landing in the present day (“Supernatural,” which features cameos from her kids, has glittering synths and a slow groove). The besotted “Make it Look Good,” which is wound around a harmonica sample plucked from Philadelphia’s 1970s heyday, is a slice of nouveau-retro that fits Carey’s voice to a T. The already-released singles, too, nestle nicely into the album’s overall flow.
But the best tracks are the ones where Carey tosses caution to the wind and goes full-on into the disco revival — her voice is tailor-made for the sort of uptempo dance music that’s been slowly coming back into vogue on radio, and that’s ideal for soundtracking summer barbecues and other events where the nights are as long as the temperature is hot. The Q-Tip-produced “Meteorite” adds a little bit of processing to Carey’s voice, giving it a space-age roller-disco feel. Even a facepalm-worthy verse by the irritating Wale can’t puncture the airy “You Don’t Know What to Do.” And on the skronky “Money ($ * / …),” Hit-Boy places a sample of experimental funkster Edwin Birdsong right at the middle, with Carey’s voice curving around it like a satisfied cat.
Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse might not further cement Carey’s place in the record books, but it’s achieved something more important; it’s carefree and confident, full of effervescent charm that almost recalls those moments during childhood when finding a great song on the radio was revelatory.