It startles me now when I remember that I’m still only spottily familiar with her earlier work. It gives me a surreal feeling of having missed out on the 1990s, my own coming of age, as if I’d been trapped in some remote desert outpost while everyone else was cruising the midway.
Meanwhile, Carey’s hits have been getting more infrequent and smaller. Until last summer’s “#Beautiful,” with new-model R&B crooner Miguel, the first single from the new album, it had felt like forever since she’d really had to be reckoned with as a musician rather than as a diverting personality. Then this week the album was finally released. And that’s when I got nervous again.
I felt the need to do some remedial studies, so for the past week I’ve been through an extended YouTube immersion in Carey’s back catalog (and Slate’s own “Where Do I Start With … ?” column). It’s been a many-coursed banquet of Sucralose, Splenda, NutraSweet, Truvia, and cane sugar, with buckwheat honey for dessert, and I don’t feel sick or even sated, so I think I’m prepared for Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse.
The relief is that, much more than with 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel or 2008’s E=MC2, on this album we get the Mariah we expect, and perhaps, in all our own imperfections, the Mariah we deserve. As if to fill in my exact personal deficit, it’s a souped-up 1990s (and 2005) do-over.
The two opening ballads, one sparse and keyboardy and spiritual, the other sidling up to funky, leave no note unornamented, no harmony unadorned, and no doubt who’s at the helm here. Then comes the duet “Dedicated” with Nas, in which Carey promises to “sing that good old-school shit to ya,” ostensibly paying tribute to the hip-hop summer of ’88 but loaded up with Wu-Tang samples to make sure we know it’s ’90s all the way.
With its vintage device of fusing musical and sexual nostalgias, “Dedicated” is a readymade summer jam. But so are “You Don’t Know What to Do” and “Meteorite,” swinging with verve from Pharrell’s disco-revival chandelier. For less soft-core pleasures there are the bumping hooks of “Money ($*/…)” – with Fabolous-assisted lyrics about as garbled as that typographical subtitle, including an already much-mocked “holidays/hollandaise” moment (a failed reach for a “damn croissants” of 2014?).
Album closer “Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up Now),” takes us back to the church where the album began, but now with a marching band, choir, and samples of gospel king Rev. James Cleveland, improbably transcending its own valedictory bromides. Carey often seems like a single-mindedly present-tense artist, so I’m touched when she pays homage to R&B’s deeper roots.
The rest is a smorgasbord of midtempo ballads, including a thin cover of George Michael’s “One More Try,” a couple that suffer from the melodic meandering that’s always been my Mariah bugbear, and the squirm-making “Supernatural,” which is smeared all over with Carey’s toddler twins’ cooing, a class of move that Beyoncé can pull off but Mariah never will (not least because of the existential gulf between being wed to Nick Cannon and marrying Jay Z).
Still, even middling writing on many tunes is elevated by Carey’s Industrial-Light-and-Magic vocal effects, and the sureness with which our girl today delivers that Mariah Carey feeling. The parts that sound not quite ready for radio could always be rescued with a remix. What might have been goofy lurches are rendered fluid by the fact that today’s Carey always seems to be in on her own joke, and takes for granted we listeners are too: She sings herself, she celebrates herself, and, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, what she assumes, we shall assume. Hers is the democratic redistribution of power and charisma through the intercession of the arpeggio, the giggle, and the divine grace note.
You might ask whether the rearview gaze bodes ill for Carey’s future, but I’m not sure that’s so. That crocheted-swimsuit cover shot might aggressively vouchsafe that she doesn’t look like many people’s moms, but she is approaching her late 40s, and the retro leanings of Elusive Chanteuse may be coming along to ease the transition from chart diva to late-career institution.
As for me, I’ll happily follow along to make up for lost time, and toast the persistence of her half-unhinged creativity and her double-hinged voice. The truth is that Mariah was one of the art nerds all along, just the effortlessly attractive one who makes her less-mature classmates defensive. And if she ever gets around to giving us one more really timeless Christmas song, that would be the icing on the cake. Or, who am I kidding, the icing on the icing on the icing. After all, it’s her, she is Mariah … the indefatigable pâtissière.