First off: Mariah Carey's ninth album, The Emancipation of Mimi, doesn't suck as comprehensively as 2001's Glitter or 2002's Charmbracelet. Those back-to-back flops suggested that her famous multioctave voice was shot, her judgment impaired and her decade-long pop dominance as over as the Nineties. On Mimi, the Neptunes, Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri deliver unimpeachable grooves, and there are no out-and-out disasters here.
But contrary to its claims, The Emancipation of Mimi doesn't free the diva from what constricts her: There aren't any great songs among Mimi's club tunes and pop-chart-conscious tracks, and Carey is still suffering from a serious crisis of confidence. The Neptunes tracks — "Say Somethin'," with Snoop Dogg, and "To the Floor," featuring Nelly — have beats that make you move, but the songs' pop hooks don't stick. Here and elsewhere, the thirty-five-year-old songbird employs the thin and airy warble she's used since the turn of the millennium with breathy, anonymous results. On Kanye West's "Stay the Night," she rides the opposite extreme, blaring and straining with a vengeance. West's low-rumbling smooth rhythms lay a comfy foundation, but Carey seems uncomfortably forced. She's upstaged on Dupri's "Get Your Number," where the Atlanta producer does Nelly better than Nelly himself while sampling Imagination's Eighties club classic "Just an Illusion"; at least here, though, Carey's belabored voice finds a pleasurable medium.
Still, on ballads like "Mine Again," she wails notes that don't need emphasizing, then whispers what would ordinarily be climactic phrases, and the outcome doesn't make emotional or musical sense. Carey seems to be past the worst in her career, but Mimi's A-list hitmakers don't bring her all the way back.