Available on: Def Jam
Having watched the evolution of Mariah Carey’s 14th studio album over the course of a painstaking three years – during which the cover art, title, release dates and numerous collaboration rumours have been leaked, confirmed and retracted – it’s difficult to know what the chanteuse’s fans might have expected from the record itself. Finally listening to Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse in its entirety, it’s tough to tell exactly what Carey expected to achieve with it, too.
For a start, there’s that title – just reading though it feels like an evolutionary process itself, and like much of the music on the record, it’s as ridiculously, parodically Mariah as you could possibly imagine. Then there’s the bonus monologue about the title, which explains that the record is a document of the “peaks and valleys” of Carey as a person, and is the single most annoying thing that could ever pop up on shuffle (delete on import). The concept is an obvious attempt to backwards-engineer a central message onto an album that, while it has plenty of peaks as well as valleys musically, is far from a coherent statement, sounding more like the result of one of the world’s greatest popstars messing around with loads of ideas for three years.
The peaks come in the form of radio earworms like the Hit-Boy-produced ‘Thirsty’, and the breezy Miguel collaboration ‘Beautiful’, which, despite having been around since mid-2013, sounds better with every listen. Not to mention, the surprising left turn that comes in the form of ‘Meteorite’, a soft-focus disco groove. All of these tracks are examples of how incredible Mariah can be when she simmers rather than boils, allowing all that vocal power she has to loom threateningly beneath a track rather than blast it to pieces with melisma. But it wouldn’t be a Mariah album without a few eruptions here and there, and there are some classic shivery moments, such as the range acrobatics performed on the glorious ’90s throwback ‘You’re Mine (Eternal)’ and the dramatic showtune opener and ad libs on break-up jam ‘You Don’t Know What To Do’.
Unfortunately, though, “dramatic showtune” comes to define the character of this album. On the overwhelming opening track ‘Cry’, it’s mere moments before Carey is crooning “soooo naaaaakeeeed” for what feels like an impossibly long time. The sampling of her three-year-old twins on ‘Supernatural’ is overdone to the point of physical cringing, and ‘The Art Of Letting Go’ (which was originally going to the album’s title track) has unlistenable lyrics – “letting go ain’t easy /oh, it’s just exceedingly hurtful” being the hook. Meanwhile, gospel features heavily in the form of George Michael cover ‘One More Try’ and the motivational meme in song form, ‘Heavenly (No Ways Tired / Can’t Give Up Now)’, both of which contain huge, virtuosic vocal displays but just feel too showy to deliver any real emotional hit.
The self-reflective and -aggrandising angle of the release can’t help but create an obvious parallel with 2013’s Beyonce – which, as well as being a towering shadow that hangs over all major pop and R&B releases in 2014, was a skilled exercise in hagiography of its star. Carey seems to be attempting the same feat: an album that bares her innermost soul at the same time as telling the story of her monumental fame, while entrenching the whole thing in a diverse sonic journey through a host of on-trend genres. But, despite her Instagram and “turnt-up” references, the bounce brought to the album by of-the-moment hitmakers like MikeWiLLMadeIt and Hit-Boy and her undeniably personal subject matter, the record just doesn’t have the same candid, bold edge that characterised Beyonce’s huge statement. Carey doesn’t take the same risks; instead, she wraps up some new ideas in the verbose and theatrical pop she’s always excelled at, and revels in nostalgia (see: her pally Nas duet ‘Dedication’) with a glossy 2014 twist.
That’s why a closer companion to this album is probably The 20/20 Experience. Like Timberlake’s two-part comeback, Carey’s new opus is the musical equivalent of Bruce Bogtrotter scoffing that entire chocolate cake in Matilda. It seems almost redundant to criticise Mariah Carey for being too Mariah Carey – which, without wanting to get tied up in knots, is kind of exactly what being Mariah Carey is all about – but even the most delicious things can get a little bit too much.