The octave queen showcases the best of all her worlds on her 14th album
Mariah Carey has openly entertained the idea of hosting a talk show. Last December, she showed us what that might look like, when she effortlessly hijacked Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live and turned it into The Mariah Carey Hour. She came with a portable fan, catchphrases and slick retorts, describing herself as the “girl version” of Will Ferrell’s Elf character (“I’m like a five-year-old”). She slyly waved off Cohen’s softball questions. And she explained her reasoning for joining American Idol: to show us her personality.
Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse (which should count as a self-titled album) finds her owning her multiple personalities, minus the caricature. It’s a successful merger of her opposing images: the forever-young R&B star known to skate at a theme park in daisy dukes and the balladeer who finger-wags behind a mic in a gown.
Messing around with big ballads, summery R&B anthems, hip-hop, choir-backed gospel and cover songs on one album could seem thematically indecisive. (Mariah has struggled with this before and come across as mom wearing young-adult leggings). But I Am Mariah glues all those ideas together, making the focal point her voice, which crescendos, becomes breathy or expresses sass when needed. Her staple whistle-runs—the thing that has made her Mariah Carey, the elusive chanteuse—pop up throughout, sometimes just as a show-off move. Jermaine Dupri, her go-to executive producer, knows the ins and outs.
The ballads are your new inspiration for shower acoustics (expect YouTube renditions of “You're Mine”); though they’re not as compelling as her classic material. The mid-tempo R&B moments are the most special. “Faded” (produced by Mike Will Made It) and “Dedicated (Hit Boy) recall the breeziness of “Breakdown” or “Always Be My Baby.” “You Don’t Know What You Do” (featuring Wale) plays in the skating rink soundtrack in your head. And like almost everything Miguel makes, “#Beautiful” is simple and glistening.
Disciples call Mariah the “shade queen” for a reason. Like a pro, her cutting remarks are delivered with equal pettiness, humor and offense—they’re even better when directed at men:
“I miss you almost half as much as you miss me” —“You Don’t Know What To Do”
“I call your name, baby, subconsciously/Always somewhere, but you’re not there for me” —“Faded"
“You used to be Mr. All About Me/Now you’re just thirsty for celebrity” —“Thirsty”
With The-Dream steering production and songwriting on 2009's underrated Memoirs of An Imperfect Angel, his vengeful snark overshadowed Mariah. With I Am Mariah, there’s an overall easiness to the melodies that show her, for the most part, having the time of her life. When she's floating, we get joyous records like "Meteorite"—a light disco record—and “Make It Look Good,” which is old-school prom material (Stevie Wonder harmonica included) in a good way. There's a tendency to pour on the sugar ("Our love will never end," etc.), but there are fewer of those moments here.
Notably, the album begins with an admission of guilt. A sparkling sermon, “Cry” features a mature Mariah preaching about what she may or may not have done wrong to push an old lover away. “Maybe I didn’t give you your space back then.” And “maybe I shouldn't have told you I love you.” Maybe. Of course, she has to leave room for another person’s error. —Clover Hope (@clovito)