Monday, May 26, 2014

album review: 'me, i am mariah... the elusive chanteuse' by mariah carey

What do I say about Mariah Carey? What can I say?

Because at this point, Mariah's career has spanned almost twenty five years, a dozen albums, and more than her fair share of acclaim and influence. She's a performer whose iconic vocal delivery defined a decade of singers in R&B and pop, and whose range could rarely be matched if at all. And over a decade since her critical heyday in the 90s, her fans are still as devoted as ever. And yet for me...

Well, it's complicated. It's pretty much unquestioned that Mariah made four or five great albums in the 90s and then things kind of went awry. I can't say that I've ever really liked any of the material she released in the 2000s, even the hit singles that somehow managed to dominate the charts again and again. And yet even on that note, Mariah has never really evoked a lot of strong feelings in me other than admiration for her incredible voice and technique. What makes Mariah special is that she makes it all look so easy and fun, and it shows off her prodigious talent for emotionally compelling delivery every time. But on the other hand, Mariah Carey is not exactly an R&B act who I can say I really love. I'm not denying there's a place for her vocals, but there's also a fine line between making it look easy and looking like you're not trying, and there are albums where that line blurs more often than not, especially in the early 2000s. And as a fan of strong lyrics, I've never found Mariah to be a stellar lyricist, and I often find her songs underwritten in favour of vocal histrionics. And the fact that she popularized vocal gymnastics for their own sake in songs throughout the 90s was a large reason that that era of R&B never stuck with me.

But even acknowledging that she's an icon, she's not one that's been at her best for over a decade now. The days of Daydream and Butterfly are long gone, and frankly, I'm a little surprised she's continuing to put out music. Given how many records she's sold and the fact that's she's in her forties and has kids, she doesn't need to keep making albums, especially if they aren't going to be anything as ambitious as her earlier material. But since she decided to put out a new album with a monumentally misleading title, I figured it was time I checked in to see if our 'elusive chanteuse' was going to delivery anything close to her old brand of quality. Did that happen?

Well, not really, but then again, I don't know what I could have possibly expected. Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse is a modern Mariah Carey album, and it has all of the standard modern Mariah Carey issues that have cropped up on her albums throughout the past decade. If you can look past them - like most fans will - you'll probably be mostly satisfied with this album, because while it's nowhere near her best, it's not her worst either. Otherwise...

Okay, let's get those 'standard Mariah Carey issues' out of the way first that most critics have held since Charmbracelet, if not longer. Like it or not, her voice isn't quite what it was - I'm not saying it's not great, but it's experienced some wear and stress and the notes come across as a little more strained, especially when she descends into her typical vocal gymnastics. Now if I'm being honest, I'm not entirely bothered by this - a little more raw grit in Mariah's voice adds texture and that's not a bad thing. But at the same time, you can tell there were a few producers who struggled to accommodate her vocals and brought in pitch correction to compensate - and I'll say the same thing I say about artists who bring in unnecessary pitch correction and who aren't trying to make a stylistic point: if you don't need it, don't use it. I don't know who in their right minds wants to hear Mariah Carey with Autotune, because I certainly don't!

Now the next big complaint against modern day Mariah is the hip-hop collaborations, and how their harsher tone tends to be a poor fit for Mariah's vocals and subject matter. Honestly, I've never been as bothered by this in comparison with some, but I will say the collaborations on this album, both R&B and hip-hop, are a mixed bag. The playful and nostalgic back-and-forth of the rough-edged 'Dedication' with Nas was a fair bit of fun, and while I think a bigger presence on the track like Usher might have been better for '#Beautiful' than Miguel, the song is still easily the best original song on this record. But Rich Homie Quan, Fabolous, and Hit Boy really don't offer much to their tracks outside of generic shouts and bragging, and although Wale brings personality, he's not really someone who's a good fit on that song lyrically. And yes, while it was cute for Mariah to bring her twins onto the track 'Supernatural', the song didn't exactly have much appeal beyond that. And I would be remiss to ignore the bonus material, which features solid enough reworkings of 'It's A Wrap' and 'Betcha Gon' Know' from Mariah's last album, now featuring Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly with new verses, with R. Kelly's desperate defensive side of his story featuring a welcome return of his story-telling instincts that were missing from his last album.

But the bigger issue comes through in the production, which is honestly my biggest frustration with this record - because with Mariah's considerable vocal range and presence, she's not a bad fit at all for more opulent, expansive production, and minimalism isn't a bad fit for her. Hell, there are even points where I'm okay with the instrumentation being de-emphasized and stripping back to percussion and multi-tracked vocals filling in for the melody line. But I also can't help but feel that the lack of richer, less organic instrumentation isn't a great fit for her vocals, especially as they've developed texture with age. So while the understated instrumentation on 'Cry', 'You're Mine (Eternal)', and the gospel-inspired 'Camouflage', the George Michael cover 'One More Try', and the extremely solid 'The Art Of Letting Go', songs like the Mike-Will-Made-It-produced 'Faded', the trap-inspired 'Thirsty', the tinkling piano and egregious autotune on 'Supernatural', the Lady Gaga mid-90s dance track 'Meteorite' just sound thin and a little chintzy. And even with that, sometimes the melody tonal choices just feel a little awkward - for example, I really liked the bouncy vibe of 'Make It Look Good', but that harmonica line just felt painfully out-of-place with the classy strings and piano, and that looped horn lead on 'Money' just felt blaring, especially from its more submerged position in the mix.

And now we come back to the lyrics - where, if I am to be embarrassingly honest, I had no expectations. Mariah has gone on record saying she makes her lyrics less specific at points in order to relate to a larger audience, which I've always thought has proven detrimental to their emotional impact. I mean, I get that she wants her songs broad so that anyone can relate to them, but at the same time, by doing that her lyrics feel increasingly undercooked and lacking in detail to really paint a descriptive picture of the situation, and we lose that personal touch that made an album like Butterfly so intimate and powerful. And really, we haven't seen any themes explored on this album that we haven't seen Mariah touch on time and time again for the last thirteen albums. We get break-up ballads, we get love ballads, we get sex jams, and the songwriting behind any of them did not impress me in the slightest outside of a few problems that stand out. Take the Wale collaboration 'You Don't Know What To Do', a funky Beyonce-esque kiss-off anthem which Mariah replicates in a slightly more soulful form with 'The Art Of Letting Go' later on this album, but then Wale tries to counterattack and man, I don't buy it. Or take 'Meteorite', a dance jam that tries to compel people to grab that fifteen minutes of stardom by comparing them to 'meteorites', which is really just a more pyrotechnic misunderstanding of metaphors along the lines of Katy Perry's 'Firework'. Or take 'Money', a song with a chorus and lyrics suggesting that Mariah doesn't need money and just wants that sweet companionship and love - and then there are verses from both Fabolous and Hit-Boy glorifying the hustle and the same opulent wealth Mariah says she doesn't need! And doesn't that kind of completely run against the theme of making your songs as relatable as possible to your audience if you get guest rappers bragging about jets and Rolexes?

Look, in the end, I don't get why Mariah Carey added the subtitle 'The Elusive Chanteuse', because it's a nickname for her that makes no goddamn sense. Yes, Mariah is a chanteuse, a female singer, but she's a pop diva adored by millions and held as one of the most influential music stars of the past two decades - in what way is that elusive? But nitpicking the title aside, this album is decent, I guess, and gets a 6/10 from me. Not anything close to her best, but far from her worst. Fans will love it, non-fans won't have any new reasons to care. But over two decades into Mariah's career, I'd like to think she's capable of more than this. It might be pretty, but that's only a step away from pretty forgettable.

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