Here’s the thing about Mariah Carey’s new album, Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse: It’s actually pretty good. You could even say it’s “festive,” to use a word that Carey herself is ever so fond of. But despite its festiveness, my desire to listen to it again is about as strong as my desire to ever type that asinine title again. Which is to say, not strong at all.
No, I’d just as sooner pop in Daydream or Emotions or Music Box, seminal Mariah Carey feats of vocal gymnastics and pop music perfection that Me. I Am Mariah comes so close to reaching but never quite gets to, Carey’s rafter-hitting whistle register be damned. But if the new album, her 14th and long-delayed effort, isn’t the pitch-perfect nostalgic collection we’ve been hoping for ever since the singer teased tracks like “#Beautiful” and “You’re Mine (Eternal),” there is still reason to celebrate—to get festive, even—that it’s so close.
Who knows what the hell Carey meant or was thinking when she gave this album the god-forsaken Elusive Chanteuse title, but the fact is that Mariah Carey the Amazing Singer has been gone for too long. Yes, you might even say she’s been elusive, preferring instead to get in catfights on American Idol, dabble in film, and aggressively carve the public persona of Mariah Carey the Loopy and Nonsensical Diva.
And Me. I Am…The Reliable Chan-douche, who relished both mocking and embracing those versions of Mariah in articles that were as tongue-in-cheek as I feel like that personality of hers has to be. But, with five years and a laughable number of false starts separating this new effort and her last proper album, it’s hard not to feel #blessed that the chanteuse, elusive as she’s been, is back—even if, for all the relentless insistence that She. She Is Mariah, a bit of what “Mariah” used to stand for and we loved is missing.
“Cry.” is the album’s first track (what in the flippin’ hell is with all the weird punctuation?) opens with the same sparse, dramatic piano chords and breathy coos that define a vintage Mariah Carey track—those “Vision of Love,” “Hero,” “Without You” ballads that have yet to feel dated. After a decade or so of Carey’s dabbling in the arena of over-synthed, over-produced urban-pop, those few first piano chords are actually exciting, even exhilarating to hear.
The exhilaration is short-lived, though, because Carey basically blue balls us. The beginning echoes the starts of those sultry Carey torch songs of the old days, but it’s just foreplay that doesn’t go anywhere. Those orgasmic key changes that defined Carey’s classic ballads, the soft belting that builds and builds until there’s nothing left for Carey to do but wail in vocal ecstasy, they’re nowhere to be found. Though “Cry.” has an arousing start, the climax never happens.
Other slow-burning ballads don’t so much burn as they do flicker unceremoniously. “Supernatural”—which groaningly features the googoos and gagas of her twins, dubbed lovingly by Carey as “Dembabies”—is sticky with sap, while “Camouflage” lives up to its name, completely disguising any semblance of the fire and vocal pyrotechnics we crave from Carey.
Weirdly, as much as we were clamoring for old-school Mariah, it’s when she shakes up her retread as a pop classicist and bumps it as an up-tempo R&B songstress in pursuit of your next summer jam that she’s the most enjoyable on this album. Her work with Mike Will Made It on “Faded” is the perfect harmony between new Carey and old Carey, combining modern edge with Carey’s vocal classiness. With its thumping bass bumping under her breathy lilts, it’s the closest thing she has to a “We Belong Together” on the album, but it suffers the same pitfall the entire album suffers: It’s still not quite as good as “We Belong Together.”
The best song on the album is “#Beautiful,” which, to give you a sense of just how long it’s taken for this album to come out, was a contender to be song of the summer last summer. An aural sunsoak featuring Miguel that was as addicting as its title was insufferable, the combination of the singers’ strong vocals over the casually flirty production was the musical equivalent of waves lapping on the shores of a beach oasis, or drinking a piña colada.
So does I Am Mariah have any contenders for song of this summer? “Thirsty” is certainly her feistiest, most club-ready effort, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it sounds like a track that Rihanna discarded. “Meteorite” plays like a modern disco revival, but might be too out of this world—at least out of the one ruled by the likes of Macklemore and Flo Rida—to make impact on the pop charts.
But as today’s biggest pop starlets—some of whom have even been branded “mini Mariahs”—know, the secret to a good summer earworm is to make a new song that sounds like an old song. Take Ariana Grande’s chart-scorcher “Problem,” for example, which Policy Mic’s Brittney McKenna shrewdly points out, sticks because it lifts as heavily from Michael Jackson and En Vogue as it does from Macklemore and the Yin Yang Twins.
By that regard, the album’s two up-tempo standouts actually stick with you because of their retro vibes. “Make It Look Good” is ’80s Stevie Wonder by way of 2014 Elusive Chanteuse, a Motown-tinged romp complete with swinging horns and the most spritely and effervescent vocals Carey delivers on the album. And “Dedicated,” which features Nas, is as deliciously throwback, calling itself out as an ode to 1988 in the intro and relishing every second of its trip back in time.
Lyrically, the album is as delightfully ludicrous as you kind of want in a Mariah Carey joint. When she released the second single from the album, “The Art of Letting Go” (which appears on the deluxe edition of Me. I Am Mariah) back in 2013—can we stress enough how freaking long Mimi’s been teasing this album—much was made about the amusing number of polysyllabic words in the lyrics: “dominion,” “audacity,” “evidently.” And the song’s tedious tagline: “Letting go ain’t easy, it’s just exceedingly hurtful.”
The rest of Me. I Am Mariah isn’t as chock-full of SAT words as “The Art of Letting Go.” But there is a song called “Money” that rhymes “holidays” with “hollandaise.” So God bless Mariah Carey for that.
But if there’s one thing Carey has always been known for, with the barn-burning belted finales of her signature songs, it’s bringing it home. And bring it home she does on I Am Mariah.
First is “One More Try,” Carey’s cover of the George Michael ballad, which is pure schmaltz and the epitome of indulgent. It is more than six minutes long—that is really long, people—and there are more runs in it than in Courtney Love’s stockings after a club night in the ’90s. And we were savoring every single second of it. It’s Mariah the way we love Mariah. You could just see her there in one of those corseted gowns, the ones that fruitlessly try to contain her décolletage, just standing at a microphone and wailing while that right arm flails around like she’s landing an airplane.
But then Carey ends the album with “Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up),” for which she hands a full gospel choir one-way tickets on the Mariah train. Destination: church, because that’s where Carey takes it on the salvation rouser. By the time she finished belting her way to God, I had unconsciously wandered from my office desk to a church pew. It’s that convincing. Carey’s vocals are not playing around on the song; it’s the best she’s sounded in years.
But what is there to make, then, of this new Mariah Carey album, which is the best she’s done in years but nowhere near as good at what she put out in her best years. What do we make of a Mariah Carey album that’s a celebration of her classic talents and also her modern flair; that’s histrionic and understated; that’s awash in self-seriousness and also cheekily silly; that counts Nas as a guest artist but also her toddler twins; that’s exploits her sex appeal but ends on a trip to church?
Those questions are what belie the real problem with effort. She states in the title, “Me. I am Mariah.” But it doesn’t appear that, all these years later, that even she knows who that is anymore.