Where Do I Start With Mariah Carey?

Slate's Culture Blog
May 5 2014 4:58 PM

Where Do I Start With Mariah Carey?

172023105-recording-artist-mariah-carey-performs-onstage-during
You should give Mariah a chance, silliness and all.

Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for BET

Musically, Mariah Carey’s had a tough run of late. Her long-delayed upcoming album, now titled Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, was slated to come out last spring before being pushed back several times. With one exception, its would-be lead singles failed to make a significant dent on the charts. Just a few weeks ago it sounded like Carey might pull a “Beyoncé,” and spring the album on us unawares, judging from a confusing interview she gave to Billboard.

Then last week, the album’s release date, May 27, was finally confirmed by a teaser that is as strange and rambling as the album’s title:

The above announcement has been called “weird,” “insane,” “bizarre,” and “ridiculous,” descriptors that are rarely far away when Carey comes up these days. If you’re not a long-time fan, or are only familiar with Carey’s current public persona, it’s easy to see how such an awkward promotional move would elicit little more than an eye roll.

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And we should chuckle at her weirdness, to be sure. But Carey deserves to be taken seriously as an artist as well, and, unfortunately, she hasn’t always gotten her due in that regard. Carey’s popular accomplishments—she has the second-most No. 1 songs of any pop artist, for instance, behind only the Beatles (and possibly tied with Elvis, depending whom you ask)—are often downplayed by critics who don’t take her influence on the music world seriously, as Jody Rosen pointed out in Slate several years ago. She’s long been credited—or blamed—for spawning a breed of “over singers.” (Rosen called her “the most influential vocal stylist of the last two decades.”) Her vocal acrobatics are frequently dismissed as “passionless,” her songs scorned as fluff.

But don’t blame Mimi for the diminishing returns represented by her impersonators. She’s better than all of them. Not only has she co-written the overwhelming majority of her hits since her career began almost 25 years ago, she’s also proven capable of switching up musical styles effortlessly. After taking creative control of her career, she went from a pop singer with a big voice to sultry diva who sang with Ol’ Dirty Bastard (on the excellent, Puff Daddy-produced “Fantasy (Remix)”), Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony (the slow-jam deep cut “Breakdown”), and Jermaine Dupri (her smash hit “We Belong Together,” among several others). Her label assumed this would be career suicide. But she was a pioneer for the hip hop-pop hybrid that is now inescapable, paving the way for Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and others to embrace a more hip-hop sound.

But back, for a minute, to her weirdness. One of the things that makes Carey so endearing to fans is that she wholeheartedly embraces her idiosyncracies. She’s not afraid to get goofy with her lyrics (“If we were two Lego blocks even the Harvard University graduating class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together again”) or her music videos, signaling to everyone that while she may take her work seriously, she’s not afraid to poke fun of herself.

There’s much more to Carey than her feuds with rap stars and her heavily Instagrammed marriage to Nick Cannon. In fact, a remarkable number of her songs hold up beautifully. So whether you haven’t listened to her music in a while or simply haven’t heard much beyond her ubiquitous hits of the ’90s and early ’00s, here are 10 songs to help dip you into her odd and varied world.

Dreamlover” (Music Box, 1993)

Melt Away” (Daydream, 1995)

Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix)” feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard (#1’s, 1998; released as a single in 1995)

Breakdown” feat. Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony (Butterfly, 1997)

Bliss” (Rainbow, 1999)

Heartbreaker (Remix)” feat. Missy Elliott and Da Brat (Rainbow, 1999)

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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