Butterfly

On what is something of a transitional album, the recently separated Mariah Carey moves still further away from the warmed-over Whitney Houston of Carey's early recordings and firmly into the milieu of modern, hip-hop-inflected R&B. The surprise is that she does it rather well.

Carey couldn't have wished for a better start than "Honey," the latest in the apparently unending series of Sean "Puffy" Combs-produced chart toppers this year. Built around the piano riff from the World's Famous Supreme Team's infectious 1984 hit, "Hey DJ," it's an undeniably catchy pop record that revamps her sound and image.

It's not as if Carey has totally dispensed with her old saccharine, Houston-style balladry. The tracks co-produced by the singer with her accomplice Walter Afanasieff mostly conform to the slushy formulas of past hits like "Hero." But the predominant mood of Butterfly is one of coolly erotic reverie. "We floated away," she sings on "Fourth of July," "delicately lay entwined/In an intimate daze." On "Babydoll," a track co-written with Missy Elliott, Carey finds herself "zoning out, thinking about/You and me between the sheets."

Essentially, Carey has found a comfortable perch between the music of Puff Daddy and Babyface. Guests on Butterfly include Dru Hill, who duets on a version of the Artist's "The Beautiful Ones," and Wish and Krayzie Bone, who lend their inimitable vocal interpolations to "Breakdown." All very 1997. Indeed, when the grand piano and drum kit make their entrance on the closing "Outside," along with Carey's old faux-gospel emoting, it all comes as a bit of a surprise. "Outside" aside, Carey has spread her wings, and she's ready to fly.