Mariah Carey

    Mariah Carey (Columbia, 1990)
    Emotions (Columbia, 1991)
   Music Box (Columbia, 1993)
     Daydream (Columbia, 1995)
     Butterfly (Columbia, 1997)
   Rainbow (Columbia, 1999)
  Glitter (Virgin, 2001)
   Charmbracelet (Island, 2002)
    The Remixes (Columbia, 2003)
     The Emancipation of Mimi (Island, 2005)
   ½ E=MC2 (Island, 2008)
    The Ballads (Columbia, 2009)
    Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (Island, 2009)

She wasn't exactly a child star, but Mariah Carey has grown up in public, reaching the charts first as a 20-year-old vocal powerhouse with a touted five-octave vocal range, and emerging in the next century as a salty hip-hop-loving diva who's been divorced, dropped from her label, rehabbed and remarried. In the interim, she's become one of the top-selling pop stars of all time, and influenced a generation of female pop-R&B singers with her fluttering vocal trills.

Carey debuted with an album of uplifting dance pop and R&B ballads, each song's composition co-credited to Carey and each providing an opportunity to unleash her wide vocal range. Carey's strong, soulful voice served the sinewy R&B of "Vision of Love," her first Number One single, and the dance ballad "Someday." Carey had a number of essential and winning qualities - the novelty of her vocal top end, the tensile strength of her singing on the soulful verses, and the ability to convey a genuine joy behind the mike when she's let loose to romp through something as felicitous as "Emotions." Carey's follow-up to her top-selling debut finds the singer relaxing into her form, less self-conscious about her vocal tricks and hooked up with a sassier studio crowd, notably the postdisco super-producers David Cole and Robert Clivilles.

Carey softened her approach on Music Box, putting a damper on the just-for-fun disco of her previous records, and mainstreaming her lite soul into "uplifting" ballad territory. "Hero" soared on wings of Carey's golden tone to Number One and became an instant standard of weddings, funerals, auditions and Miss Harvest Queen competitions. While there's nothing wrong with Carey singing relatively straight for 10 songs, there is a sore lack of power here: Baleful soaring ballads, pop optimism along the lines of smiling through the tears and believing in yourself (or him, or Him), and hardly a decent tune in the lot. Clivilles and Cole roar back for the electro-synth dance number "Now That I Know," but neither Babyface nor frequent collaborator Walter Afanasieff can pull Carey out of this soft-rock slump.

On Daydream Carey edged toward the harder end of the musical spectrum in baby steps. She enlists Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Tom Tom Club and the British producer Adrian Belew to rewrite Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" as her own love song "Fantasy," unleashing again the whiplike high register that made her famous. "Fantasy" is the kind of collaborative effort that retains its party atmosphere on record, as backup singers, snippets of the original tune, and a twiddling synth line weave in and out of Carey's vocals. A remixed version of the song featuring Ol' Dirty Bastard became more of a club hit and heralds Carey's budding interest in the world of hip-hop. Afanasieff returns to cowrite his strongest tunes yet, the sweet, bouncy "Underneath the Stars" and "One Sweet Day," a yearning R&B ballad on which Carey shares vocal duties with Boyz II Men. Aside from an ill-advised cover of Journey's "Open Arms," Daydream adheres to the classic radio-friendly diva format, alternating between frisky dance tunes and overscaled ballads.

Names like Puffy, Krayzie and Wish Bone, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Q-Tip and David Morales show up in the liner notes of Mariah Carey's Butterfly, and more interestingly, the sounds that made those names recognizable are all over the record as well. Carey doffs her trademark slit-sided miniskirts for denim hot pants and takes her considerable vocal range to the streets. And it works. The pulsing mid-tempo "Honey," cowritten by Sean Combs, doesn't sound much different from previous Carey singles except for asides from Mase and the Lox. Songs like "Butterfly," "Close My Eyes," and "Breakdown" speak indirectly of Carey's pending extraction from the tentacles of her powerful husband, then–Sony president Tommy Mottola.

But Rainbow is an uneasy exercise in hip-hop bombast, pumping up the jams to operatic lengths and complexity and declaring the singer's independence in a handful of braying ballads in which Mariah serenades "the light in me." Worse, she reprises the "Genius of Love" underpinnings for the lead-off single, "Heartbreaker," featuring Jay-Z, and this piece of desperate unoriginality is the best song on the album. Her bloated "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)" is both self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing, and the spiteful "Did I Do That?," a nervy excoriation of her celebrity marriage, blames Mottola for making a fool of her. The harder-edged numbers paint the singer as a sassy, strong-spirited flirt, the slower ones as a wide-eyed little girl with big dreams. Rainbow left Carey at a crossroads, and the album's sales did not yield the expected pot of gold.

With the possible semi-exception of "Loverboy," there's nothing to recommend the infamous Glitter except its novelty status—it's the product of a dramatic public meltdown. Carey's career crashed and burned in a spectacularly center-stage fashion as she struggled to define herself post-Mottola and postColumbia (she signed to Virgin and was notoriously bought out from her contract thanks to Glitter). Her voice is only getting stronger, and if Rainbow was Mariah's vocal peak, Glitter isn't quite a comedown; it's the songs and the production, the horrible sequencing and general lack of conviction among the players that tarnished this bit of miscalculated tinsel.

Carey bounded back with a recording that isn't markedly unlike Glitter. But Charmbracelet did its job: reestablishing the perception that she had reclaimed her career and her sanity. Then came the Emancipation of Mimi, which is exactly what it announces itself to be: the return of the inspired, confident Carey. The 2005 disc boasts one of the most magnificent ballads of her career, the soulful, yearning "We Belong Together," which led the way to three Grammy wins. The uptempos on Mimi once again find Carey mining the world of hip-hop: Kanye West samples the Stylistics on retro jam "Stay the Night," Nelly shouts the hook on "Get Your Number" and Snoop Dogg ambles onto the Neptunes' pumping "Say Somethin." Longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri has his fingerprints on the strongest tracks, though; sassy opener "It's Like That," the syncopated, bouncy "Shake It Off" and "Don't Forget About Us," a gooey ballad from the ultra platinum deluxe edition.

Though glorious high notes and sweeping shifts in register were the focus of her first nine studio albums, Carey indulges the prevailing pop trend of 2008 and squashes her melodies into a narrow vocal range on E=MC2. But she keeps the disc invitingly personal by singing about the loss of her father on lackluster ballad "Bye Bye" and the trauma of her marriage to Mottola on the grindy standout "Side Effects." What could have been a schizophrenic romp through genres and tempos comes off more like a Mariah smorgasbord: a sexy hook on "Touch My Body," a dab of reggae on "Cruise Control," a bumpy club trip on "Migrate," and slick Seventies roller-skate soul on "I'm That Chick" and "I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time."

Perhaps no other contemporary diva is more closely associated with slow, emotional songs than Carey, and 2009's The Ballads collects key tracks from her tenure at Columbia Records, which ended in 1999. The album works as a decade-long recap of some of her most memorable early hits ("Vision of Love," "I'll Be There," "I Still Believe"), alongside two excellent duets ("Endless Love" with Luther Vandross and "When You Believe" with Whitney Houston). But without some of Carey's stellar outings from the 2000s, like "We Belong Together" and "Fly Like a Bird," the disc is far from a definitive collection.

Just one year separates E-MC2 from Memoirs of An Imperfect Angel, but in that time Carey married actor/TV host Nick Cannon and reignited an old feud with Eminem. Angel's first single "Obsessed"—a dark head-nodder written and produced by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart—baited Slim Shady into responding with diss tracks, but the rest of Carey's album is devoted to songs about love: reveling in it, losing it and finding her inner strength from it. The saccharine sweetness of fawning tunes like "Ribbon" and "Standing O" are only partially offset by the horn blasts on finger-wagging "Up Out My Face," and the album's last word isn't even Carey's own: It's a faithful cover of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is."

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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