Pop diva Mariah Carey is set to return this spring with a dance-heavy R&B album, The Emancipation of Mimi. The record, which Carey calls "the real essence of who I am," was titled after the nickname used by those closest to her.
"'Mimi' is a nickname that my friends and loved ones call me, so I wanted to think about that and make it representative of where I'm at as an artist," explains Carey. "It was like, 'OK, this is the fun side, the real me, and not the image and the baggage that comes with the whole "Mariah Carey" thing.' It's a reflection of this being a celebratory moment in my life."
This optimism is in contrast to the drama the diva has experienced of late. While in the studio in November, Carey posted a note on her Web site, stating that for a period she had felt "imprisoned by my insecurities . . . For the first time in my life, I feel free and unashamed to be who I really am." When asked about these issues, Carey replies, "That's just how I've been since I was a child. I come from a bi-racial family, and I moved thirteen times when I was growing up. I had, you know, not the average childhood. Then certain relationships I was in were not that great for someone who does have insecurities . . . And it intensifies when you become famous and you're under a microscope."
The first, club-ready single off Emancipation, "It's Like That," was produced by longtime friend Jermaine Dupri. "I'm really excited about it -- Jermaine and I have such great chemistry in the studio," Carey says. "This song to me is a fun party record, like 'We're just going out, having a good time and not being stressed about anything.'"
The Neptunes' Pharrell Williams also helped set the upbeat tone. "It became like a party atmosphere: He was working with Snoop on his record in one room, and with Nelly in another, and then we all ended up collaborating together," says Carey. "I'd never worked with the Neptunes before, but I'd wanted to since they worked with Jay[-Z]. Then when other female artists worked with them, I was like, 'Now I won't be the first girl!' [laughs] It was a fun moment for us, to finally get in the studio and feel each others' vibe." Snoop and Carey were reunited for the first time since 1999's "Crybaby" (Rainbow), which the singer calls "one of my favorite songs."
In addition to the dance-friendly tracks, Emancipation brings the searching ballads that Carey is known for. "I love [the single] as a first look," she says, "but there are also songs with a little bit of meaning behind them." She dubs the "inspirational" record "Fly Like a Bird" the album's "most introspective moment, and the most powerful vocally and lyrically." The pastor from Carey's church, Pastor Clarence Keaton, actually speaks on the track. "So it's a really special song for me," she confesses. Carey also describes the process of recording these slower tracks as freer and "much more organic." "I went in with live musicians, and I sang the songs with the band: I would sing different guitar riffs with the guitar players," she explains, "and tell the horn players what I was hearing."
With more than a few young pop stars taking to lip-syncing these days, Carey's powerhouse voice puts all that "acid reflux" talk to shame. Performing regularly live, she claims, actually helped rather than hurt her vocals on the new record. "I went on tour [for 2002's Charmbracelet], and that got me in a great place vocally," Carey says. "I would do an entire show of my songs, which are really demanding, and then I would take two days off and sleep and rest and hang out -- that was excellent for my voice. So when I went back into the studio, I was able to experiment vocally and go back to singing in more of a belting register and a higher register -- and yet still do the breathy, soft things that I like."
A tour in support of Emancipation is in the works for this summer. But Carey worries about how to keep her fans happy. "I always want to make sure the fans are happy when they leave, and they've heard all their favorite songs," she admits. "And it's hard because I've had a lot of records! But I think once the fans get this album, they're going to want to hear the new songs."
Meanwhile, Carey is shooting the video for "It's Like That," directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon), this week in Las Vegas. When asked if the honesty of Emancipation will call for more of a stripped-down look, Carey laughs. "I don't think people really want to watch a video of me looking how I look when I'm recording -- which is, like, boxer shorts, no makeup and a tank top," she says. "To me, videos are like dress-up moments. We all want to look good, you know."