Mariah Carey - Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse

Mariah Carey
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Mariah Carey was in her late teens in 1987 when George Michael dropped one of decade’s best albums, Faith. Michael was the Robin Thicke of his era – or if we don’t want to be gender specific, the Adele of his era - because he was an artist from another country with big crossover appeal. Michael recorded and performed in an industry that is different than the one that artists such as Carey currently encounter. Radio, even urban radio, was far more diverse than it is now. A performer such as Michael shared the R&B airwaves with Public Enemy, Dianne Reeves and Denise LaSalle in the late 1980s. That is where Mimi spent her formative years. She grew up listening to the second generation of female pop megastars such as Madonna, Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle. Hip hop was in the middle of its golden period and producers such as Teddy Riley fused hip-hop production techniques and swagger to create a hybrid R&B subgenre called “New Jack Swing.”

Mariah Carey was in her late teens in 1987 when George Michael dropped one of decade’s best albums, Faith. Michael was the Robin Thicke of his era – or if we don’t want to be gender specific, the Adele of his era - because he was an artist from another country with big crossover appeal. Michael recorded and performed in an industry that is different than the one that artists such as Carey currently encounter. Radio, even urban radio, was far more diverse than it is now. A performer such as Michael shared the R&B airwaves with Public Enemy, Dianne Reeves and Denise LaSalle in the late 1980s. That is where Mimi spent her formative years. She grew up listening to the second generation of female pop megastars such as Madonna, Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle. Hip hop was in the middle of its golden period and producers such as Teddy Riley fused hip-hop production techniques and swagger to create a hybrid R&B subgenre called “New Jack Swing.”

So as Carey’s career evolved from the young beauty who wowed us with her Minnie Riperton vocal range on “Vision of Love,” she always had to deal with living up to the expectations to become the artist that others wanted her to be. The disappointment was often palpable when Carey didn’t meet those expectations. She often made music that appealed to the younger demographic rather than to go totally in on more adult oriented pop and soul that seemed a natural fit for her considerable talent.  Despite what others wanted, Carey the artist refused to ignore commercial considerations and her love of dance music and hip-hop.

Musical tastes and the music industry itself underwent a generational change starting in the 1990s. Carey’s primary competition wasn’t LaBelle, Baker or Madonna. It was Mary J. Blige, TLC and other artists fluent in R&B and hip-hop. Ultimately she made a business decision, and the results have been mixed over the past twenty years.  And there was often a tension between the power ballads that many thought fit and stretched Carey's multi-octave voice and the hotter, more heavily-produced, less vocally challenging tracks that radio favored.

Carey’s new album, Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, contains material that more often than not strikes the balance between those modern hip-hop influenced production techniques and the soulful understatement that provides space for next level vocal talent to shine.

That allows us to circle back to George Michael and Faith. Carey covers “One More Try,” one of tracks off Faith that received considerable airplay in 1988. Carey’s virtues as an artist who can pay respect to a pop classic while also putting her imprint on the tune is evident. Although her version of “One More Try” has the same pace as the original, Carey’s arrangement plays up the soul/blues element with drummer’s steady pounding on the high hat. That’s a little Stax right there. Of course, Carey’s vocals carry the freight. She riffs and hits those high notes for which she is famous.

Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse feeds fans a good helping of slow songs. “Camouflage” is the type of intimate and sparse ballad that critics believe Carey should sing more often. With a piano serving as her only instrumental accompaniment, Carey sheds the glamour and glitz that comes with her diva status and displays her honest and vulnerable side on a song about a woman who hides her pain and confusion behind a mask.

Carey struggles against temptation in the form of that brother her mother warned her about on “Make It Look Good,” a blue light slow jam that includes an allusion to the O’Jays classic “Let Me Make Love to You.” Carey is in total control of her vocal instrument even as she sings a song that tells the story of a woman who might not be in total control of her emotions. Carey’s vocals combine a youthful innocence even as the song’s reveal a mature awareness of the feelings this man elicits.

Still, a Mariah Carey album would not be a Mariah Carey album without a few dance numbers. “Beautiful,” featuring Miguel, is a summer anthem (even with Miguel’s frequent F-bomb dropping) sporting a bouncy pop arrangement from the Beach Boys styled guitar riff that opens the song to the synthesized percussion that contrasts with the funk influenced bass line.

“You Don’t Know What to Do,” is a 1980s styled funk number that finds Carey giving her indecisive man his walking papers. She is paired with rapper Wale, and the two have a nice rapport. Wale’s player swag and clever wordplay and Carey’s sassy retorts on the hook give the tune the feel to two people having an actual conversation.

Me. I Am Mariah is not a perfect album. With 16 tracks it’s probably three or four songs longer than it needs to be. The album loses steam after Carey’s stirring rendition “Heavenly (No Ways Tired).  “Thirsty,” the album’s one fully contemporary R&B track pales in comparison to “Beautiful” and “Make it Look Good,” tracks that sandwich it. Still, even as it continues the struggle that has been the hallmark of Mariah Carey's career, this is an album that will remind listeners that Carey is a mature artist who can easily handle any song in any genre. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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