In 2005, Mariah Carey released the biggest hit of that decade, an indelible piano ballad titled “We Belong Together.” At the time, a young Ray Romulus was serving as personal assistant to the writer-producer Jermaine Dupri, who had a hand in four songs on Carey’s best-seller The Emancipation of Mimi, including “We Belong Together.” “I would be around Mariah all the time,” Romulus remembers. “We would fly to Mexico to her house and kick it.”
So “it was definitely full circle” when he met Carey again recently, this time as a member of the Grammy-winning production crew the the Stereotypes. “When we got back into the studio, she was like, ‘Oh my god — you’re a producer now?'” Romulus recalls.
While working on The Emancipation of Mimi, Carey was hoping to bounce back from Glitter and Charmbracelet, both of which failed to meet her towering commercial expectations (though the former has developed a fervent following in the years since). She found herself in a similar position as she prepared to release Caution last week. Her last major hit, the “#Beautiful” duet with Miguel, came out five and a half years ago, marking the longest absence from the Top 20 of her entire career. On top of that, her new album was also her first release on Epic Records after a decade-plus relationship with the Island Def Jam Music Group (which split up in 2014) and then Def Jam on its own.
The ease and polish of Caution, though, belies the stakes. Carey doesn’t try to juice her streaming numbers by packing the album with a zillion songs, and there are no ill-fitting team-ups with impetuous SoundCloud rappers or awkwardly cobbled-together international collaborations. Instead, the album stays resolutely unrattled. More importantly, a few of these songs are the strongest Carey has released in a decade.
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“It doesn’t sound contrived, or that she tried to do anything out of character,” says Ezekiel Lewis, EVP of A&R for Carey’s new home, Epic Records. “Sylvia [Rhone, who runs the label] and I just wanted to facilitate a blank canvas for Mariah, to give her the creative space to realize her vision. She’s a legend and knows exactly what she wants.”
In practice, this meant a rearrangement of personnel. In place of Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, who helped with much of the star’s last album, Carey brought in a host of new names. This group included Bibi Bourelly (Rihanna, Usher), Lido (Ariana Grande, Halsey) and Luca Polizzi (Roy Woods, Yo Gotti), younger musicians who don’t know a pre-Mariah pop universe. Carey also called in Skrillex, best known for his role in pushing frenetic, buffeting electronic music into the mainstream, and the Stereotypes, whose love for bouncy, sumptuous production on Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” won them a Song of the Year Grammy in January.
Importantly, no producer worked on more than two Caution songs. That’s unusual in the context of recent Carey albums, which involved heavy contributions from Dupri and Cox, Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Tricky Stewart. This time, no one other than Carey has a quorum on the tracks, a subtle shift in authority back to the singer.
The skeletons of several Caution songs were assembled from scratch in the studio, often during late-night sessions, with Carey and her collaborators riffing off of each other. “You can’t start writing before Mariah gets into the room; she wants to be involved,” says Priscilla Renea, who’s written for acts like Mary J. Blige and Rihanna. Romulus expresses a similar sentiment. “I was watching Wendy Williams a couple weeks ago, and she made a comment about how Mariah just walks into a studio and songs are made for her and she just sings them,” he says. “I want to let her know: No. Mariah writes all her records. She’s very involved in every step of the way. She knows her stuff.”
During one of Carey and Renea’s sessions, talk turned to the #MeToo movement. “She’s very animated; she has all these one-liners she’ll always say,” Renea remembers. “We were talking about the different things that are a no-no that have been happening. I don’t even need to say it, but our president is a no-no.” This conversation led directly to “A No No,” which transforms the beat from Lil Kim’s lusty “Crush on You” into a vehicle for a curt rebuke of a “snake in the grass.”
Carey’s gift for pithy, punchy phrases also led to “GTFO,” another gleaming song about banishing a callous ex. “I just walked in and tried to see where I could fit into her process,” recalls Bourelly, one of the track’s co-writers. “She had her wine there, her notebook there. Usually I write on the mic, just freestyling; with her I was writing my words down, pen and paper. Then we went back and forth on two mics. That was iconic. When she sang, ‘how bout you get the fuck out,’ it was crazy to hear Mariah so fabulous but so ratchet at the same time.”
The Stereotypes’ Jonathan Yip started “Stay Long Love You” in the same manner. “Charm and Ray were working on the track [in Michael Jackson’s favorite room in Westlake Studios], she gave me the mic, I’m holding it in the middle of the room, and we just start to sing some melodies,” he remembers. “It’s just me and her coming up with concepts. I’m thinking, ‘am I really looking up at Mariah Carey and singing right now?'”
The Japanese-edition bonus track “Runway” was another spontaneous studio creation. During a session with Carey, the producers Lido and Skrillex “left the room for a second like, we should make something brand new and just see what happens,” Lido says. “I literally recorded the chords on my phone: I’ve been doing that a lot, recording chords on a phone, flipping it, sampling it. Things sound very punchy; I like the compressor that’s in the iPhone. We brought it back into the room and immediately realized that was a super-vibe. We were playing chords and throwing them to Mariah, creating from scratch.”
Not everything that ended up on Caution was quite so off-the-cuff. “The Distance,” a wildly deep R&B ballad, started when Lido and Skrillex were in the studio in Las Vegas — Lido focused on “melodies and harmonies,” he says, while Skrillex handled “sound design and fusing it all together.”
Caution‘s title track got started in the home studio of Luca Polizzi in Canada. “I wanted to do something a little different [than the rap tracks I usually make], so I aimed for something Latin with flamenco guitars,” he says. “It felt like it had the palette to be a pop song — the chords would allow someone to sing on it — or it could have had someone rapping. SLMN [a co-producer] happened to come by the house; I said, ‘Hey man, I got this loop, are you interested in messing with it?'” SLMN added percussion and brought the song to No I.D., a veteran producer for Jay-Z, Nas and many more, who helped pass the track to Carey. “From my understanding it was the final cut [added] at the 11th hour,” Polizzi adds. “The album was originally going to be called Proceed With Caution.”
Though Skrillex has been working with more pop acts lately (Fifth Harmony, Justin Bieber), he’s still an unexpected presence on Carey’s album; she usually works with artists from hip-hop and R&B. “He seemed to want to bring himself into her world, and vice versa — it was a great musical marriage, so to speak,” says Lewis, the A&R. “And the result was some of the most progressive R&B you’re going to hear right now.”
Like Skrillex, many collaborators showed a willingness to morph on Caution. Take Carey’s duet partner on “The Distance,” Ty Dolla $ign — he’s known for his blunt, enthusiastic reporting from the front lines of single-dom — who turns in possibly the chastest verse of his career. The same goes for Bourelly writing her lyrics with pen and paper. They’re playing in Mariah-land, rather than the other way around.
After wresting back control, the results were a return to form for Carey. “It was very classic Mariah,” Romulus says happily. “It felt like Part 2 of Emancipation of Mimi.”