World Peace, Clouds, Reverie, Ocean, Snow Globe, Panda. All could have been Mariah Carey album names, at least until now. After the utter failure of recent sugar-drenched releases, the pop princess may very well be entering a whole new age, without Puff “P Diddy” Daddy or well-publicized breakdowns. One can’t help but hope for the best when it comes to Mariah, even if she insultingly defines “emancipation” on the first page of the liner notes. After all, once upon a time she gave us many a great pop song, and one unforgettable Christmas hit.
But “The Emancipation of Mimi,” one of many recent comeback albums, is unavoidably disappointing. None of the 14 tracks’ melodies are strong, the whole thing tends to sound overproduced, and Mariah’s voice is weaker than ever. Yet, in the poor woman’s defense, “Emancipation” is a definite improvement over the humiliating “Glitter” (2001) and “Charmbracelet” (2002), so just maybe things are looking up.
When they make it, VH1’s Behind the Music special on Mariah Carey is going to be great. The Long Island girl moved to New York City one day after graduating high school, became a back-up singer and got her demo picked up by Columbia Records bigwig (and soon-to-be husband) Tommy Mottola. The next thing you know she was winning Grammys for her 1990 self-titled debut.
She composed her own music, and some of it was really good pop (to name a nostalgic few: “Love Takes Time,” “Hero,” “Fantasy,” “Dreamlover”). At her best, she boasted infectious melodies and five-octave vocals that are more impressive than aesthetically pleasing. Her string of hits was amazing: “One Sweet Day,” a collaboration with Boyz II Men, remained #1 on the charts for a record-breaking 16 weeks. She was the best-selling female performer of the ’90s, and a diva if there ever was one.
But things change. Mariah got divorced, discovered she had cleavage and realized that she had been wearing too many clothes. After signing an $80 million contract with the ironically-named Virgin Records, she suffered an embarrassingly public meltdown, including a suicidal rambling on her Web site (and an appearance on TRL where — clad only in a T-shirt — she handed out popsicles to the audience while sobbing.) Then there was “Glitter” (with its accompanying camp-fest of a film) and “Charmbracelet,” featuring mega-hits like “Irrestable (Westside Connection) and “Sunflowers for Alfred Roy.”
But with her new album and new sound, Mimi has apparently been emancipated. Backed up by an array of radio-friendly talent (Snoop Dogg, Jermaine Dupri, Twista and Nelly), and produced by R&B guru LA Reid, the album falls surprisingly flat considering its heavyweight help. “It’s Like That,” the album’s opening track and first single, is a commonplace made-for-urban radio hit. Yet, tragically, it’s one of the best songs on the album — and that’s despite the fact she’s talking about sippin’ Bacardi and trying really hard to sound like Beyonce.
On most of the hip-hop dance songs on the album, in fact, Mariah doesn’t sound much like herself. (It’s probably because the songs were made for J.Lo or Ashanti.) The Neptunes’ “Shake It Off,” featuring Snoop Dogg’s rap-singing, is catchy enough — yet it’s ruined by Mariah’s bland, restrained hush. The multi-tracked production on “Emancipation” perpetually overshadows Mariah’s voice; camouflaged by heavy beats and synthesizers, she sounds like an easily replaceable sultry vocalist.
There are signs, however, that the heavy production might be for the best. While she’s airily wailing over the album’s many ballads, it’s clear that her voice has gotten weaker since her heyday a decade ago. On “Mine Again,” a sugary ballad fueled by electric piano, Mariah sounds little more than struggling.
Then again, she can still do those amazing dog whistle notes, so there’s probably no need to be alarmed. On “One and Only,” a likable midtempo R&B track featuring the insanely skilled Twista, Mariah rap-sings with decent rhythm against the light tapping of a cymbal. The second single of the album, “We Belong Together” — a half-ballad with simple piano chords — features a pre-chorus so catchy that by its end you’ll know every word. And that’s more than you can say about any of her work since the 20th century.
But even the album’s few highlights are predictable, and nothing here compares to the gold of Mariah’s former pop dynasty. Not quite containing her signature pop sensibilities, “Emancipation” is still a thankful respite from “Glitter” movies and other lunacy. She may be a has been, but at least she’s on her way up.