A rookie success as spectacular as Mariah Carey’s tends to spark a backlash, and Carey was derided by skeptics who saw that Columbia Records had spared no expense in accessorizing her with the most dependable collaborators money could buy. Emotions addresses the perception of Carey as a fabricated star, as well as the comparisons to Whitney Houston, by giving the twenty-one-year-old singer greater control: She wrote all the lyrics and coproduced all ten tracks. While it sustains her stature as a pop goddess, Emotions demonstrates the hazards of such calculations.
Like many young performers, Carey doesn’t understand the value of understatement. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” was the best track on Carey’s debut because her downcast whispers animated the song’s luxurious sorrow; at full speed her range is so superhuman that each excessive note erodes the believability of the lyric she is singing. On Emotions her eagerness to deploy her immense vocal range results in the overheated growling of “Make It Happen,” a teary tale of how she kept her religious faith despite hard times.
Carey coproduced four songs with David Cole and Robert Clivillés, this year’s pop-dance maestros, but the partnership doesn’t fly: Their beats aren’t as unrestrained and joyous as they are on their work with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam or C + C Music Factory. Instead, they back Carey with pumping house keyboards and shamelessly recycle the chords of Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” and the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” to construct the bubbly new-disco “Emotions.”
On the other six songs, all ballads, Carey works with Walter Afanasieff, who produced “Love Takes Time” on her debut and also helped create Michael Bolton’s bombastic soul. When the pace slows down, Carey does too, and Afanasieff can be an effective one-man orchestra: The moody grandeur of “And You Don’t Remember” and “Can’t Let Go” will sound great on the radio.
There’s a conflict between Carey’s thirst for musical challenges, like gospel choruses and the light jazz ballad “The Wind” which ends Emotions, and her dependence on commercial dance pop. Her goal is to elevate the Top Forty tricks of Janet Jackson and Karyn White with vocal greatness. On “If It’s Over,” Carey even invokes the style of Aretha Franklin’s classic Atlantic sessions. Carey has spoken of Franklin as a hero, but there’s an essential difference between their styles — the daughter of a preacher, Aretha imbues even her dullest work with the spirit of the church, whereas Mariah’s mother was an opera singer, a background that translates into such excesses as the falsetto whoops that punctuate so many of Mariah’s songs. Carey has a remarkable vocal gift, but to date, unfortunately, her singing has been far more impressive than expressive.