Mariah Carey called her last album Rainbow and the one before that Butterfly. So many Mariah fans will probably be disappointed that she didn't decide to title this one Unicorn. (Or how about Kitten? Maybe Koala?) But damn if Glitter isn't a big step forward in terms of maturity for one of pop music's eternal kids. One of the many deeply weird things about Mariah is that she's never had much interest in growing up: She blew up big in the great teen-pop boom of 1990, and she's stayed teen pop all the way to 2001, coming across as a sweet, suburban middle-school girl who's crazy about hip-hop but always makes it home by ten. Only Mariah could make a record with Ol' Dirty Bastard or enjoy a much-publicized, much-denied public canoodle with Q-Tip and still project herself as such an innocent. Even her fashion sense remains that of a twelve-year-old playing dress-up in her mom's closet, which is one of the reasons Mariah has always kept it real with her devoted pubescent-girl fan base. She never tries to pass herself off as true hip-hop — she's not stupid, G. Instead, she just comes on as a pop singer who doubles as a true hip-hop fan.
With Glitter, Mariah takes a step toward staking her claim as a grown-up. It's the soundtrack to her first movie vehicle, Glitter, in which she plays a hungry young aspiring singer named Billie who's hanging around the club scene in the early Eighties, trying to break into show business. (Judging from the title, it sounds like her version of Sparkle.) Accordingly, Glitter is a concept album about the dance sounds of the early Eighties, the moment when New York Latin disco and hair-salon soul and this new sound called hip-hop were slide-slide-slippity-sliding together all across the radio, bringing the perfect beats of the big-city clubs to a worldwide audience of underage superfreaks. Talk about high-concept: Mariah covers club classics "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" and "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life," she duets with Cameo and, for the conceptual coup, she gets Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to produce half the tracks. The vintage-flavored music evokes classic R&B groups like Ready for the World, Atlantic Starr, Skyy and even my beloved Klymaxx. As disco time travel goes, Glitter sure beats the hell out of Moulin Rouge's "Lady Marmalade."
Of course, there's a load of contemporary hip-hop in the mix. Mariah kicks it with the usual horde of A-list rappers, including Ludacris, Da Brat and Mystikal, all of whom help her pull up to the bumper. "Loverboy," "If We" and "All My Life" have more bounce than you expect from Mariah, but the killer is her DJ Clue-produced cover of Indeep's 1982 disco hit, "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life," one of the greatest songs ever written about being a girl, listening to the radio or any combination of the two. Busta Rhymes and Fabolous cut up on the mike, teaching an old bass line new tricks. And when Mariah comes in to deliver the payoff line, "There's not a problem that I can't fix/'Cause I can do it in the mix," you can hear an emotional hunger that she's never come close to before. As Klymaxx used to sing, divas need love, too.
The downside of Glitter is the downside of all Mariah Carey albums. They're called "ballads," and Mariah still likes them big and goopy, with zero melodic or emotional punch. Glitter's gratifyingly few ballads are better than usual, especially "Lead the Way." But they make you wonder why a singer with such a famous voice can't resist such anonymous material. Her hits are always huge, but when they're gone, they're gone: Mariah still has yet to score the kind of hit that goes down in history. Only her hardest-core fans can tell "Dreamlover" from "Fantasy" from "Honey" from "Heartbreaker," and although she once had a song that stayed at Number One for sixteen weeks, you can't even remember how it went, much less what it was called. Whitney had her "I Will Always Love You," and Celine had her "My Heart Will Go On," but Mariah still hasn't found her theme song, the one people will remember her voice by. Glitter is good enough to make you hope she finds it. It's not too late, either — Whitney was a veteran if not a has-been when she hit her peak with The Bodyguard. It's nowhere near unthinkable that Mariah, for all her success, is just now starting to get her music together. Wouldn't that be something?