Don’t get it twisted: there is not a single artist who can match Mariah Carey’s nearly three decades of consistency and resilience. Even when it seems like she’s at a career low (the underrated commercial calamity Glitter)), she comes back swinging for the next round.
Caution comes four years after Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, a solid album that lacked the vocal consistency and musical cohesion of her best work, despite re-teaming Carey with frequent collaborator Jermaine Dupri. In the four years since that album, Carey embarked the heaviest touring of her career, focused on her Christmas empire, went to Vegas and solidified an iconic Instagram presence. Some time away proved smart: Caution is pure hip-hop-leaning pop bliss, on par with post-Glitter and Charmbracelet comeback tour-de-force Emancipation of Mimi in how it both sublimely nods to current trends while reaffirming the singer-songwriter as a formidable pop presence. Caution is thrillingly current without swallowing Carey’s charm (even though that seems increasingly more and more impossible for a star like her).
Launching with the aptly-titled, soothingly sassy “GTFO,” it’s clear Carey has set her mode to “savage” for this project. Sure there are love songs and moments of inward reflection, but the majority of the tracks are kiss-offs aimed at those who have doubted her or left her scorned. Take the No ID-assisted title track: “Proceed with caution/Don’t be dishonest/I need you closer/To love me harder,” she requests. On the “Crush on You”-sampling “A No No” — a highlight for both this album and R&B this year — she delivers sly diss after diss, all accented with a sweet but stern “no.” In true Elusive Chanteuse form, she takes it to another level by the song’s end: “Parlez-vous francais? I said no/Lemme translate it: I said no/ I can say it en espanol/No.” On the Timbaland collab “8th Grade,” she suggests to an uncertain, negligent lover that “Maybe the lyrics were too heavy in my song.”
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When she’s not on a strategic lyrical warpath, Carey delivers sexy, midtempo love songs like the Blood Orange-produced “Giving Me Life,” which has her turning fan twitter language into cooing, personal sweet nothings. Skrillex and Poo Bear produced “The Distance,” somehow simultaneously both a diss and a love song, celebrates the success of her love story while throwing a perfectly-manicured middle-finger at the non-believers.
Vocally, Carey draws back from the octave rollercoaster she’s been taking people on for decades. She nestles into the strong warmth of a softer delivery, appropriate for the slow-burning R&B sound of the album. Now and again, a hint of her famous whistle register and signature, city-filling belting sneak up for emphasis, like on the shchmaltzy slow jam “With You,” where that whistle sneaks up in the background as the song progresses.
While big, emotional ballads were the groundwork of Carey’s early years, there is only one truly heavy moment on the album: final song “Portrait.” Following the lyrical curves, R&B coos and stellar production, it’s a starkly heavy moment that feels like a throwback to a bygone era of power ballads for vocalists of her caliber. On the song, Carey reveals the inner emotional tension of having her own crosses to bear but wanting to keep them hidden from the world. “And for the finale she can float around effortlessly/And dream away the hours in her mind,” she sings on the dreamy, twinkling bridge. It’s an honest end to an honest album, full of truths and delivered as only she can.