I wrote this review of Mariah Carey’s latest album in mid-May, and it was never published, so now I am publishing it here because I am awesome and correct. Its non-publishment (not a word) is even more of a bummer when you consider that I would have scooped my friend and colleague Sasha Frere-Jones on this essential concept by two months, but I guess that’s what kill fees are for. Holler at me.
It takes a drag queen’s sense of chutzpah to title one’s album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse. But with that one marquee flourish, on her fourteenth album in as many years, Mariah Carey reiterates her standing as one of pop music’s last, true-blue R&B divas—and a diva need only satisfy her own desires. The album, out May 27, is an airbrushed, champagne-soaked tour of Carey’s familiar octave-vaulting range, dotted with trademark club singles like her latest, “Thirsty,” and midtempo love songs like the underappreciated “Beautiful,” featuring Miguel. It is also her godliest album, on which several songs feature Mariah flipping cascading gospel harmonies upon heavenly choirs—even covering George Michael’s churchiest ballad, “One More Try,” in a faithful retelling, both underscoring Michael’s influence on black pop music while honoring the tradition of gospel influences on rhythm & blues. One song, “Heavenly,” is a tribute to the late Reverend James Cleveland, godfather of modern gospel, who is credited with uniting the genre with pop and jazz. Accordingly, Mariah puts gospel harmonies atop clamoring, trunk-thumping Jermaine Dupri kick drums, thus positioning herself as a successor to Cleveland, like a boss.
Beyoncé aside (because Bey subsumes all genres), vocalists of Mariah’s ilk, vibrato, range, and fame have been slowly trickling away, casualties of a fractured chart universe and fickle internet hype machines. Sure, there are R&B stars, Rihanna being the most obvious, and there are many ’90s-heyday divas with diminished pop stature—Toni Braxton, for one, whose recent (great) album with iconic singer/songwriter Babyface received considerably less press than her latest “abortion shame.” Several tracks on Me make throwback gestures, whether by sampling ’70s funk and disco classics or enlisting Nas for nostalgic word-wizardry—but it’s telling that the most retro-seeming song is “He’s a Wrap,” a “dump him, girl,” duet with Mary J. Blige. Their collaboration underscores that the pop landscape is virtually barren of divatude, and we are far worse for their absence.
At issue is the changing nature of R&B and, accordingly, its audiences. Since Carey’s last release in 2010—a Christmas album, no less—niche, internet-informed interpretations of the genre have become de rigueur, loosely beginning with Drake’s Xanax-hazed protege The Weeknd, whose submerged, lethargic melodies have set the tone for an ensuing slew of vocalists whose seeming motivation is ennui. The larger, indie-and-electronic music trend of goth-referencing, skeletal production has set up many of these artists for popularity with fanbases that, traditionally, have had little interest in R&B. For example, emerging singers such as Los Angeles’ Jhené Aiko and London’s FKA Twigs have little in common on the surface, the latter a burgeoning mainstream starlet and the former content to flex her outré artistry, but both hew to melodies that tend to flatline. It’s not for lack of talent, but current underground trends equate torpor and minor keys with drama. Singers from The Weeknd to SZA to Grimes owe their respects to Mariah Carey’s gossamer ambiance, the high-sheen chrome with which her songs gleam. But as Me's perfect roller-skating jam “Money” shows, Carey's secret is indefatigable harmonies, something several newer artists seem to miss. Vocal tone counts, breathlessness too, but you don't reach transcendence resting your laurels on glossy yet gaunt production. Even Enya knew that.
Mariah, well, she does get by just being Mariah, but even though she can ride that eighth octave like a fucking unicorn, she’s maintained her relevance by keeping up with the times. At this stage in the game, there might be some temptation to adhere to trends, and to be fair, her disco jams catch glimpses of late-era Pharrell, while “You’re Mine (Eternal)” is subtly engineered for the ease of future EDM remixes. But ever since she freed herself from ex-husband Tommy Mottola and befriended Wu-Tang Clan in the mid-’90s, she’s been spry enough to drop at least one undeniable street hit. This time around, that is “Thirsty,” with a Southern trap sub-bass and verse from Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan, which lets a trifling dude know who’s running things: “Boy, you try to be a boss now, thinking you’re a chief now. Boy, you’re just fucking thirsty,” she sings. And, while you’re at it, please address her as Your Grace.
What we’re missing most in the current dearth of divas is humor, a characteristic nearly as important as aptitude and attitude. In the past, some have made Carey a punchline, after her flop 2001 flick Glitter and a confusing, pantsless incident with Carson Daly and an ice cream cart. Even a decade later, it’s still remarkable how she’s wrested control of her image back, transforming her signature kookiness into an asset that keeps fans fiercely protective. On “Supernatural,” Carey lets them in with her most cherished vocal guests to date: “Dem Babies,” aka her fraternal twin three-year-olds Ms. Monroe [sic] and Moroccan Scott Cannon, aka “Roc N’ Roe.” Apart from the startling revelation that Mariah’s toddler progeny already have perfect pitch (because who on earth would autotune a baby?), Carey juxtaposes her fierce love for Dem Babies with high camp, their laughing and cooing adorable, but also a secret, meta-reference to her album title. In the liner notes of the physical copy, underneath the CD tray, she has hidden a message explaining it. “On the back cover of the album is a personal treasure,” she writes. “This is my first and only self-portrait. I drew it when I was 3 ½ and entitled it ‘Me. I Am Mariah.’ (Please don’t judge me for such a simplistic title… C’mon!! I was only 3 ½ haha.)… Along the way, there have been a couple of nicknames and I’ve inadvertently embodied many personas, :) haha! Lately, they’ve been calling me The Elusive Chanteuse.” Or, at this rate, the last diva standing. -Julianne Escobedo Shepherd