Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse * Mariah Carey * Pop * May 27, 2014
Mariah Carey has been having a tough time (musically) since 2008. While The Emancipation of Mimi in 2005 saw the singer returning to prime form after a string of albums that boasted strong singles but a wealth of mediocre filler material, the follow-up of E-MC2 returned to the previous formula and did not perform nearly as well. While the Lambs continued to support her, both Memories of an Imperfect Angel and Merry Christmas II You just barely made gold in the United States and her worldwide sales saw a massive drop as well.
In the summer of 2012 the singer returned with the single Triumphant which actually sounded like it was single for Maybach Music Group rappers Meek Mill and Rick Ross that Carey provided the hook for, and it either didn’t or barely managed to chart in most countries. The following year saw the release of the single #Beautiful (which managed to go platinum) and The Art of Letting Go (which landed with a thud), but no album release as announced dates went by without fanfare.
In 2014, just before Valentine’s Day, she released both the official and remix singles for You’re Mine, both of which were met with almost no excitement. After toying with releasing an album using the same unannounced method as singer Beyoncé, Carey announced a firm release date and a new song from the album was rushed out as a potential single.
Her first album of original material in four years (the longest break that Carey has taken to date) fans and general music lovers alike are eager to hear what the extended absence has brought her in terms of reflection and growth. Will she try to recapture the magic of her early years in the business or will she reinvent herself with an edgier sound?
1. Cry – The first thing you notice about this song is how slow it is, which makes it an odd choice to start out an album. The second thing you notice is how familiar it sounds. This song is reminiscent of Carey’s other ballads like Vanishing, Can’t Take That Away From Me, and Through the Rain. The concept is familiar; it’s about the longing for a bittersweet relationship that seemed doomed. The production is familiar, too; a melodic piano matched with a gospel-style organ that offer a lush but minimalist tone that allow the listener to focus on Carey’s vocal performance. That seems to be the point of putting this song first because it is one of the more vocally dynamic tracks on the album and shows, while she can’t quite reach the heights she used to (the signature high note at the end of the song is noticeably lower in octave than on previous albums) she definitely still has it. While it offers the wrong mood for a starter, this is a standout track.
2. Faded – This song’s concept was not what I thought it would be. It’s about longing for lost love, no alcohol involved. It does, however, beg the question as to why the was decided to start the album with Cry. While this song is mid-tempo, the more upbeat sound would have suited an opener better than the previous song. It even begins with the sound of Carey muttering to herself and writing something, suggesting that this was initially the first song. The production by Mike-Will-Made-It is still signature Mariah Carey; semi-hard beats with sweet, melodic overtones. Carey’s vocals are strong and sweet with her treating us to her higher register adlibs towards the end. One of Carey’s strength is that she always sounds invested in her music and never sounds bored and that absolutely helps this track. The biggest problem with this track is that it sounds incomplete. The dead stop at the end doesn’t feel natural. While it is not a bad song by any means, it does sound a little dated and like something you have heard from her before. Much like the subject of the song, this will eventually fade from memory.
3. Dedicated – Probably one of the most anticipated tracks on the album because it features rapper Nas, this is a great track. The Hit-Boy production is reminiscent of early-90’s R&B with the laidback bass and short but frequent sampling. The exceptional and more complicated beatwork allows Carey to show off her vocals without showing out; giving listeners a taste of the lower end of her range as well as the highs. These two components add immensely to the concept of the song. Taking on the air of a torch song, Carey and Nas are longing for the days when there was more variety and feeling in the music that was played on the radio. The double meaning style is unusual for Carey, but very well done. A standout track.
4. #Beautiful – Released in the early summer of 2013 when the album was meant to be released in June of that year, this is the lead single to this album. Featuring and written by Miguel, the song is about those moments when you find your significant other absolutely irresistible. The writing is wonderful, with specific examples that of what can connect two people but are general enough that listeners can relate. The production is strong and has Miguel’s signature all over it. The 60’s rock-styled guitar is enchanting and gives the song a summer feel. Both singers put their all into the song and bring their distinct styles and personalities to the forefront, making this song actually sound like two different people are talking. The issue with the song is that the writing styles of the two artists don’t mesh as well as they should. There is a not-quite-subtle-enough shift in the atmosphere of the song as it transitions from the Miguel’s verse to Carey’s. While his verse sounds like something that would fit in with the alternative R&B sound of his albums, Carey’s verse sounds like it would fit in with the pop/R&B sound of hers. It is also really obvious that Carey is going out of her way not to swear while Miguel has no qualms about it. The biggest issue, however, is that this doesn’t sound like Mariah Carey featuring Miguel; it sound like Miguel featuring Mariah Carey. He does the vocal work on the bulk of the song and her verse is only four bars. A good song, just not for the artist it was intended to highlight.
5. Thirsty – The track that was rushed out less than two week before the album’s release. While the single version features Rich Homie Quan, the album version does not. This concept of the track differs depending on which version you hear. The single version seems to be a shot at Nicki Minaj after their well-publicized fights when they served as judges on American Idol. The album version is about a man that has started being desperate for celebrity-style attention and is ignoring their relationship. The Hit-Boy production is close to the beatwork he created for Niggas in Paris, even to the song-ending breakdown. This does make the casual listener feel like they’ve heard the song before even if they haven’t. Carey’s vocals are strong, engaged and, much like a lot of her weaker material, the only thing that saves the song from diving below mediocrity. Not a bad song, but not a particularly memorable one either.
6. Make It Look Good – Mariah Carey has always had an affinity for updated doo-wop and tends to put at least one song of that style on her albums. The production of this song is wonderful, bringing an unexpected Stevie Wonder-like harmonica that dances in and out of the Felder/Sigler sample. The lush production would either drown out or overwhelm most singers, but Carey elevates it with her one-of-a-kind styling and intensity. About Carey admitting that she has it bad for a bad boy, the lyrics are less than stellar. Consisting of two short verses, a repeated bridge and chorus, there is nothing particularly engaging about them. Some of them are absolutely cringeworthy to the point that Carey’s vocals cannot make them sound good: Said you make it look good/You make it look gooder than them other fools. Not the best song on the album, but a strong one despite the lyrical deficiencies.
7. You’re Mine (Eternal) – The second official single from this album, this song is not awful; it’s just not anything new. This track is vintage Carey. The harmonies, the lyrical composition, the production, all of it sounds like Mariah Carey mixing her Daydream and Emancipation of Mimi eras. The concept of the song is clear; she is hopelessly in love with the man she is involved with. Carey’s vocals are strong but, for the first time, she sounds disconnected from the material and her lack of enthusiasm makes a song that already sounds warmed over sound stale. This is likely one of the five tracks that even hardcore Lambs will skip.
8. You Don’t Know What To Do – This song was previewed by Carey during her Good Morning America mini-concert and a “leaked” version started making the rounds on the internet around the time Thirsty was released. Carey’s vocals in the intro are reminiscent of Jocelyn Brown’s Somebody Else’s Guy, but are ruined by Wale doing his best church congregation impression over it. He even drops the first few lines of his verse in the middle of hers. Fortunately, this is the worst part of this song because the rest is great. The slowed-down 90’s style dance track production is an instant dancer and Carey dominates with vocals that are dynamic but not overbearing to the atmosphere the song is trying to set. About telling a temperamental lover to move on because she has, the song is fun and whimsical while still lyrically solid. Wale (despite the intro) puts in two excellent verses portraying the fickle love interest. A standout track.
9. Supernatural – A song that sounds as if it supposed to be dedicated to Dem Babies and Nick Cannon (all three are featured), this song is about a strong love and abit of a letdown. While the production is sweet and solid, offering Hiroshima-styled koto runs on top of a Jermaine Dupri production, the lyrics and vocals are nothing great. Carey does well in many parts, but the vocal effects that and out-of-nowhere key change are the only noteworthy moments for her and that’s because they are not good. The lyrics are mediocre at best, sounding so generic that they almost mean nothing. The inclusion of the You make the beat go repetition doesn’t help either. This song actually suffers from the same issue as Beyoncé’s Blue; if it weren’t for the inclusion of the children in the track, it would simply come of as an underwhelming love song about no one in particular (which it does anyway). The second skippable track.
10. Meteorite – Starting off with the inclusion of a Lady Gaga-styled reference to Warhol’s famous quote about everyone being world famous for 15 minutes, this the obligatory EDM inclusion for Carey. The production itself is highly generic, but in an old-school way. It doesn’t sound like modern dance music with its driving synth and heavy bass; it sounds like 90’s dance music with its dependence on more R&B undertones. The lyrics are surprisingly encouraging, sounding like Carey is offering advice to a younger generation of stars for their music to be about more than the latest fads and to be themselves because that will take them further in their careers. But, while the rawness of the vocals might match the mood, Carey sounds like she recorded the song while she had a cold. The higher register tones come off as screeching at times and there is an odd, raspy quality to her tone that makes her fade out behind the beatwork. This is not a bad song, but it’s not a particularly good one, either.
11. Camouflage – A Mariah Carey piano ballad is always something to behold and this song is no different. All about the inconsistency of a love affair, this track features Carey’s signature 10-dollar-word writing style and her dynamic solo vocals. The production is a lonely but melodic piano that holds its own with the singer but never outdoes her. The biggest issue comes about halfway through when the incorporation of a gospel choir to offer emphasis to certain words appears. Their inclusion is overkill, destroying the somberness and solitary nature of the song in sections. But, despite the misstep, this is one of the strongest tracks on the album and an absolute standout.
12. Money ($*/…) – This song, about how she loves her man because of who is his and not because the money, is another song that sounds like it is featuring Carey than Fabolous and Hit-Boy. The off-kilter production, with its horns overlaying the traditional Carey sweetness is good and a nice touch after the slower Camouflage. It’s the vocals that may confuse listeners. Fabolous and Hit-Boy provide solid rap verses that are perfectly themed and cleverly constructed with strong wordplay and nice punchlines, but Carey only provided the hook and a repeated verse as well as few adlibs over the other verses. While what she does is good and her vocals are strong, this really feels like this track would be more at home on a Fabolous album to serve as his radio-friendly single. Just like Beautiful, a good song but not for the artist it was intended to highlight.
13. One More Try – This track is a remake of the 1987 George Michael classic and it comes off as badly as her version of Bringin’ on the Heartbreak. Carey’s normally sweet sounding voice is just not a good fit for the anguished song about being afraid to fall in love again. To be fair, of all the remakes of this song that are out there, this is likely the best; it just doesn’t make it good. The harmonies are too much and take away from the lonely feel. Towards the end, the desire to end with her signature high notes comes out of nowhere and doesn’t feel natural. The sped up production with the additional instrumentation also takes away from the emotionality of the track. Despite giving it her best shot, this track is entirely skippable.
14. Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up Now) – This song is a cover of the Mary Mary song featured on their 2000 album Thankful. While Carey’s vocals are an excellent fit for the song, as her gospel sensibilities are always on point, it is the new production that brings the song down. Sped up and with an odd spoken-word sample that is far too loud and distracting for how often it is repeated, the gravitas of the song has been removed in what can only be seen as an attempt to garner some mainstream radio play on non-urban stations. Even the acapella section at the end is ruined by record scratches layered on top of the appropriate static distortion. Subsequent listens will train the listener to tune out the offending sections of the beatwork, but it absolutely turns what would have been a standout track into inspirational album filler. Unforunately, this track is highly skippable.
15. It’s A Wrap (Remix) [Bonus Track] – This is a surprising choice of a bonus track. The addition of a remix of a song from Memoirs of a Imperfect Angel seems like a bit of a slap in the face to fans who didn’t particular care for most of the album (although this was one of the better songs on it). And the term remix is actually generous because this is simply the same song–the same vocals and doo-wop production–with a new vocals from Mary J. Blige shoehorned in. And, while Blige’s vocals are not bad, she sounds like she’s trying to do an imitation of Carey. Another song about ending a relationship, this song brings nothing new to the album, but is a nice but ultimately forgettable track.
16. Betcha Gon’ Know (Remix) [Bonus Track] – Just like the previous track, this is a remix of the first track from Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel with new vocals from R. Kelly. Unlike the previous track, Kelly does a good job of reworking the feminine lyrics to something that a man would sing and puts his signature on it a way that Blige did not. He manages to turn what was originally a song about Carey leaving a bad relationship into a track about love and revenge (a la the Down Low (Remix)). The downside is that the songs ends in the same way that the original did, with the lyrics to be continued. This remix could have counted as the continuation because of what Kelly’s writing brought to it; instead, it sounds like an attempt to create a deluxe edition when there were not enough good new track to warrant inclusion. While not the most memorable song, it is good enough for more than a few listens.
17. The Art of Letting Go (Bonus Track) – The original title track of this album, there is no change between this version of the track and version that was released late in 2013 (Carey said that an unfinished version of the track had been sent out instead of the official version). Nothing has been changed in this track that is about watching a new ex walk away. There is something about this ballad that just doesn’t work. Whether it is the inconsistent rhyme scheme, the uneven meter, or the not-quite doo-wop production that tries to build upon itself and just seems to go nowhere, this is hard to listen to. Another skippable track.
18. Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse – A audio lift from the video that was used to promote the release of the album, this is a spoken outro that explains the artwork on the back of the CD (or the last page of the PDF for the digital buyers) and the origin of the title. The odd multi-layer vocal effect was distracting in the video, but here, it almost sounds as if Carey is unable to take what she is saying seriously and is laughing at herself. It is short, however, and it is sometimes nice to have a small bit of information on the an artist’s thought process when making an album.
It pains me to say that Carey has fallen back into the familiar pattern of (semi) solid singles mixed in with hit-or-miss filler. For every mountain of a track that this album has, there is valley to match it. And while Carey’s voice manages to save most of the tracks from complete doom, some of the best songs on the album are the ones that sound like they feature Carey instead of the putting her front and center.
The worst part is the absolutely lack of growth on this album. Despite being in what seems to be a marriage on solid footing with two beautiful children and a lifetime of experiences to draw from, Carey still remains the same torch singer she was when she first arrived on the music scene in 1989. The sheer number of songs about unrequited and lost love on this album is staggering…and stale. If you are not a Mariah Carey fan, this album will not make you one. If you are fan, I would suggest listening to the album first before plunking down your hard-earned cash.