It’s been a long wait filled with fits and starts for Mariah Carey’s new album, first titled “The Art Of Letting Go,” and now, awkwardly called “Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse.” Yes, I know the background behind the title and she could have gone with “Me,” or “I Am Mariah” or “The Elusive Chanteuse,” but all three is a bit of overkill. And so it is with the album. At 14 tracks on the standard edition, Carey is determined to show us all of her tricks, between her multiple-octave range and her “I’m still really street, R&B” side (not to mention that she can still rock a crocheted bathing suit).
The album succeeds in many levels, but on some songs—“Cry,” “Camouflage,” “It’s A Wrap” (a duet with Mary J. Blige on the Deluxe version), the lyrics read like journal entries that don’t scan well with the melodies and seem crammed in to fit. Carey could have used a good editor.
To her credit, working with lots of producers —there are at least 12 here— doesn’t dilute the album’s cohesiveness, since that unifying factor is Carey’s vocals. The bigger issue here is the consistent need to throw in every bit of studio gimmickry into almost very track. There is precious little space on these tracks. Carey’s voice is such a force of nature, there’s no need to surround it with so many overlapping bells and whistles that often serve to distract rather than enhance.
Carey has crafted an album, her first since 2009’s “Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel,” that doesn’t feel progressive or groundbreaking in any way (despite Carey’s almost seemingly pathological need to remain current with hip-hop trends), but also is so much better than all the delays would have led us to believe. Was it worth the wait? Yes, if you're a Carey fan. And it’s a reminder that Mimi remains a powerful force.
Here's a track-by-track review:
“Cry”: The album opener is an organ-drenched gospel inflected tune that builds nicely as Carey details a heart break that leaves both parties tender and bruised. The lyrics get unwieldy, but for the most part the ballad is a reminder that Carey has a voice that remains unmatched in pop. It’s one of the few tracks that isn’t over saturated by needless production elements. GRADE: B+
“Faded”: Just as their love has faded, so has Carey’s memory as she looks at photos of a lost love in this chugging mid-tempo ballad, co-produced by Mike Will Made-It, with a relatively light touch. Should be a fall single. GRADE: B
“Dedicated,” featuring Nas: The two titans look back at the summer of 1988, which Nas calls “My most nostalgic moment of hip-hop music ever,” in the intro before the two turn back time to 26 (!!!) years ago in a sweet duet that the label should have released for summer. The lilting track rambles along without a particularly catchy hook but feels made to be blaring out of car speakers. Nas, no stranger to controversy, throws it down by rapping: “We don’t wish today’s game was old again, we just wish it wasn’t filled with draconian, babylonian phony-men.” It’s not the album’s strongest track, but it has an effortless charm —and fun Wu-Tang samples— that propel it over some of the other tracks that sound so labored. GRADE: B+
“#Beautiful,” featuring Miguel: This swaying, toe-tapping former single deserved to be a bigger hit than it was (it peaked at No. 15) as Carey and Miguel sexily coo and flirt over a retro-sounding track about how looks matter. She also likes that her bad boy runs red lights when she’s on the back of his bike. And he like her ass. True. It shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, but their talents raise the song. GRADE: B+
“Thirsty”: Rapper Rich Homie Quan comes in at the beginning and in the middle, but the star is Carey’s delivery. Her vocals glide over a very busy synth track, airy as a butterfly, but her words are lethal. The stuttering background track that runs under the whole tune, often like an irritating mosquito buzz, is part of Hit-Boy’s signature production, but this put down of a man who used to be a considerate lover but is now all about celebrity deserves more of the spotlight. GRADE: B
“Make It Look Good”: Carey goes old school on this dreamy mid-tempo track that will charm long time fans. With a doo-wap feel and Stevie Wonder on harmonica, “Make It Look Good” is a throw back to an earlier time and an earlier Carey, Care-free and swaying. Top 40 radio wouldn’t touch it now, which is a shame. This would have been a smash in the mid-90s. GRADE: B+
“You’re Mine (Eternal)”: The mid-tempo tune, co-written and co-produced with Rodney Jerkins, is a breathless, throbbing quiet storm of a song that relies more on its hypnotic charm than Carey's vocal pyrotechnics. GRADE: B-
“You Don’t Know What To Do,” featuring Wale: The song starts off classic Mariah as she sassily wails about dumping her man because he doesn’t know what to do when it comes to romancing his lady. Wale then comes in with the male’s perspective rapping about how he wants another chance. Carey comes back as the song shifts into an uptempo R&B pop track making clear that he is way too late since she used to love him, but she feels brand new now that she’s set loose her man. Playful and fun. GRADE: B+
“Supernatural”: A love letter to her now three-year old twins, who giggle and coo throughout the song, “Supernatural” also works as a romantic love letter as Carey sings, over a tinkling synth, about a love that makes everything else pale in comparison. The track will strike you as indulgent or delightfully sweet depending upon where you fall on the “kids as props” spectrum. GRADE: B-
“Meteorite”: With the insistent disco beat and other flourishes, “Meteorite” sounds like a Donna Summer outtake —and that’s high praise. The mid-tempo disco track features Carey with a straight-ahead, non-stratospheric vocal. All the elements are there for the song to achieve maximum lift-off, but it doesn’t… maybe a high energy remix would help. Tremendous unrealized potential on this track, co-produced by Carey and Q-Tip. GRADE: B-
“Camouflage”: Carey holds nothing back vocally here on this ballad about keeping her pain hidden as a love affair falls apart. From the calling-all-dogs high notes to the sustained notes, it’s all here. And it’s all a bit much when you wade through a choir, layers of singing, and echo-y effects. It starts off lovely and spare, but as each element is added in, it begins to sag. Would have been better if it had stayed simpler. GRADE: B-
“Money ($*/…),” featuring Fabolous: Carey is reduced to guest on her own tune here as Fabolous and a squonking horn steal the show here as he exhorts, “C’mon Mariah, let’s get higher.” Love trumps money, at the end of the day in this repetitive Hit-Boy track (or does it, as Fabolous raps about coming home “to your money.” GRADE: C
“One More Try”: Carey likes to throw in the occasional cover of a power ballad from the past: Journey’s “Open Arms” way back in 1996 or Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” on “Memoirs.” Here she tackles George Michael’s 1988 hit, “One More Try.” She stays pretty faithful to the original, but the track has a cheesy roller-skating back beat and backing vocals that distract from her solid vocal performance and take away from the underlying weight and slight creepiness of Michael’s version. GRADE: C
“Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up Now)”: The standard version of the album wraps with this gospel track that includes a full choir and samples from the late Rev. James Cleveland and addresses fortitude in the face of struggles. Like many of the tracks, it starts out fine, but then it builds to a busy mess (turntable scratching, really? ) that overshadows the positive, uplifting message. GRADE: B-