For a singer with such an impressive vocal range, Mariah Carey used to display a narrow understanding of her musical milieu — no amount of piercing coloratura could breathe life into singles that were nothing more than hit-radio vehicles. But with the hip-hop-lite makeover she initiated on the Ol’ Dirty Bastard remix of “Fantasy” and continued on 1997’s Butterfly, Carey traded a diva’s timelessness for youthful relevance. She expands on that lesson with Rainbow. Her emotional stiffness is still evident, but the gamut of modern urban sounds and moods brought to these fourteen tracks by various guest vocalists and producers (including Jam and Lewis, Jermaine Dupri, Master P and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs) makes Rainbow a sterling chronicle of the state of accessible hip-hop balladeering at the close of 1999.
On the first single, “Heartbreaker,” which (like 1995’s “Fantasy”) owes its musical grounding to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” the singer is at her most insinuating: nasal, silken, declarative, riding the percolating beat. Her wronged- but-strong persona remains so consistent that on the midalbum reprise, guest stars Missy Elliott and Da Brat get all angry that good-girl Carey won’t. She has good taste in fictional boyfriends — Jay-Z runs down a funny litany of her bad behavior on “Heartbreaker,” and Snoop Dogg sounds fittingly careless on “Crybaby.” On “How Much,” Usher counterpoints and underscores the complicated rhythm, a menacing Timbaland-style stuttered beat. “X-Girlfriend” has the same stop-start bottom, frothed with synthesized retro sass. Rainbow‘s ballads are predictably banal; some of the originals, with their references to pride and dreams, are co-written by banal-ballad cash cow Diane Warren, while the one cover is the drippy Eighties power-pop hit “Against All Odds.” But Jam and Lewis give gospel soar to “Thank God I Found You,” while 98 Degrees help sweeten its vocal mix. Rainbow is at its best — and Carey at her most comfortable — when urbane hip-hop stylings and faux R&B coexist in smooth middle-of-the-road harmony.