Album Shuffle 009: Mariah Carey, THE EMANCIPATION OF MIMI

Island · 2005

Well, I had five paragraphs ready to go, mostly griping about the length of the album and how few reference points I have for modern R&B, but then I decided to listen again on the way home and most of my complaints melted away. This is a great album. Sure it could stand to trim some fat, but even the dully, gloopy ballads have these amazing little runs where she uses the birdlike high end of her register.

But in the interest of full disclosure and laziness, here's what I had written. Meet you at the end for a wrap-up.
The reason I have this album on my iPod is that it was on Entertainment Weekly's list of the Best Hundred Albums of the last 25 years which they put out a few years ago now, and I downloaded it for my now-defunct blog project of listening to all those albums and passing summary judgment. I never got around to it, but it's held on tenaciously, refusing to be disappear into the ether even when I've had catastrophic data loss on various music hard drives over the years.

So it came up on shuffle the other day, and I nodded my head like yeah. I've become a much bigger fan of Mariah Carey than I was two years ago — she's one of the few artists to make an appearance on both my 90s list and my 2000s list, and I have no regrets — but for all that I've never listened to a full album of hers, turned off by both the marathon running times and the likelihood of gloopy ballad after gloopy ballad: after all, it was the one-two-three punch of "Hero," "Without You," and "One Sweet Day" that made me not-a-fan in the first place, way back in the dim recesses of 1995.

Well, I can't do anything about the running time; although the standard pop practice for the past half-decade has been to trim the fat from albums and pump them out more regularly (Britney with back-to-back records in the space of a year is something of a modern miracle), nobody apparently informed Mariah, and this thing is seventeen tracks long not counting the remix of "We Belong Together" (which I don't), which might be a fine double album but is completely indigestible in one sitting. For me, anyway, and I'm clearly not the ideal pop album consumer; I listen mostly during commutes, and after about six songs by the same person I'm bored and want to start listening to somthing else.

So I can only report on the highlights of this set, as I didn't exactly tune out the boring bits but I only really noticed it when it interested me. The album as a whole was apparently something of a comeback for our girl, though as I wasn't paying much attention between 1995 and 2005 you couldn't have proved it by me, after the famous, fabulous bomb of Glitter. I guess the narrative was something like "Hey world Mariah's back and not even one of the most well-publicized breakdowns in modern pop history following one of the most well-publicized failures in modern pop history can keep her down," but as I say I wasn't paying attention, so all that matters to me is how it holds up five years on.

Well, "We Belong Together" was of course the big hit single, and deservedly so, following in the great tradition of rhythmic Mariah ballads ("Emotions," "Fantasy," "Always Be My Baby") with just a touch of a facelift for the '00s. The Neptunes are all over this thing, and while I'm still a little shaky on what made them so great (like I say I wasn't paying attention, and I'm more of a Timbaland guy anyway), I can certainly appreciate the modernization of Mariah's sound, with stronger, more fluid beats and a choppier, hip-hop-derived rhythmic style. She meets the format brilliantly; she's no Aaliyah or Beyoncé, able to ride a chopped-and-screwed beat with fierce aplomb, but she doesn't need to be: she just floats sweetly above it all like she's always done, and unveils a sexy "head" voice (as opposed to her traditional belting-from-the-diaphragm delivery), where she harmonizes with herself on the stuttering verse lines before the choruses splash out in the kind of overwrought brio that only she can really get away with. (Think of all those poor dumb American Idol kids trying to squeeze their throats together at the beginnings and ends of lines in order to emulate Mariah's sobbing delivery; they always sound stupid and affected, whereas she just sounds whatever emotion she's trying to convey, turned up to eleven.)
Okay, first, the Neptunes had nothing to do with "We Belong Togther," that was all Jermaine Dupri; in fact the Neptunes had a hand in exactly one track: "Say Somethin'," with Snoop Dogg. I hate getting these things wrong. Dupri's not exactly a slouch in the writing/production department, though (I think I've been aurally confusing him with Pharrell for a while now), and the front half of the record is loaded with his jams. The back half bogs down some, but it picks up amazingly with the great gospel song "Fly Like A Bird" and "Don't Forget About Us" — funny how all the songs that jumped out at me were pulled for singles. Almost like they know what they're doing.

What I said about her adaptiveness to postmillennial R&B still stands: she's an object lesson in how a modern pop star can remain relevant past 30.

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