Mariah Carey: ‘Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse’ (Album Review)


[dropcap size=small]”I[/dropcap]’ll just sit right here and sing that good old school shit to ya,” Mariah Carey croons off the top of “Dedicated,” one of the key cuts on Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse.

Fourteen records deep into her prolific career, Mariah has never sounded so self-assured — or nostalgic.

After all, plenty has happened since the release of her last album, 2009’s Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel: The birth of her twins, a controversy-riddled stint at American Idol, a smattering of single releases over the past two years, insane festive QVC moments of gypsy whatever — even a shoulder injury, resulting in a deluge of glittery arm slings.

As a result, the long, long delayed studio album — released this week, at last — plays like a hard-earned labor of love, filled with feel-good nods to yesteryear, some heartbreak, motherly odes and spiritual encouragement. And of course, more than just a little bit of that patent Carey playful insanity, dahhhhling.

From the childhood artwork that inspired the album (or perhaps just a doodle she drew one night while bored at the judges’ table on Idol — you decide!), to the is-that-really-the-title album title, to THAT YouTube album announcement, Me. I Am Mariah is certainly one of the most Mariah Carey albums of Mariah Carey’s career.

But without riding on the success of any major Hot 100 chart hits (apart from “#Beautiful,” perhaps) and largely devoid of the hook-heavy pop hits scattered throughout her back catalog, this album is also one of her least immediate records. It’s an intimate journey; a personal body of work — one for the ever-loyal fans (the Lambily!), friends, family and, of course, for Mariah herself. Accordingly, the record will likely either hit home upon first play — or feel something like walking into the middle of a birthday party unannounced.

A stan’s worth of Mimi knowledge isn’t necessary to tackle the record, however — just an appreciation for well-crafted music: The first thing that jumps out about Me. I Am Mariah is the production value: You can hear actual (non-computerized!) instruments. Conversations. Scribbling on notepads. Hearty laughter. Background choirs. Church organs. And of course, that legendary voice which, while understandably a bit weathered after so many years, still puts most singers to shame. The mixing is exquisite — it’s the sound of a particularly picky elusive chanteuse who knows what she’s doing behind the boards.

As with the album, Mimi takes her sweet, sweet time on Me. I Am Mariah, as evidenced by the album’s nearly 5-minute opener: “Cry.”, a slow-burning piano and church organ-led ballad with the gentlest of choruses. “Maybe I should have just held out a little longer…but I was seduced by you!” she suddenly belts out more than halfway through, leading up to a crashing finale. And what would a song be from Mariah without some eccentric verbosity? “Imprudently, I left every cell in me/So naked…somewhere at the core of you, bless our souls!” she cries. It plays like a near hymn.

In some ways, Me. I Am Mariah is a celebration of the diva’s legacy — and her appreciation for a wide range of music. “Dedicated” glides in smoothly on top of an ingenious loop sampled from Wu Tang Clan‘s “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin” — “Carry like Mariah!” — as Mimi croons our cares away for one of the album’s many throwback R&B moments, referencing both Wu Tang and her own “Fantasy” remix while doing so. “36 Chambers high/Feels like we’re there, yeah yeah yeah/Remix of a fantasy, I hear ‘em singing back to me,” she happily reflects.

Elsewhere, she looks back even further, including the Philly throwback soul-sampling “Make It Look Good,” featuring a Motown-like melodies and a memorable harmonica sample. “You make it look good,” Mariah dreamily purrs, flirting and giggling her way through the swoon-filled jam.

If it’s not samples and lyrical nods to yesteryear, it’s Mimi’s own music bringing on the memories: This year’s Valentine’s Day non-single “You’re Mine (Eternal)” and Summer 2013 hashtag-friendly anthem #Beautiful with Miguel blend in seamlessly between all the new tracks, providing some familiarity for fans who’ve been following along for the ride. (Mercifully, “Triumphant (Get ‘Em)” got the axe.)

And even when working with today’s most in-demand producers, Mimi’s mind is on the past. “Faded,” a slow-tripping kiss-off crafted with Bangerz phenom Mike WiLL Made It, knocks with a #SomethingMoreUrban modern sensibility as the songstress sings away her grievances across a hip-hop loop, “Betcha Gon Know” style: “Whisper in my ear but in the morning you’re not here/So intangible, just like an echo,” she sighs, leading up to one of the album’s best moments: “You’re always somewhere but you’re not there for me! Not there for me-ee! Not there for me-ee!”

The album’s most immediate highlights are, unsurprisingly, when Mariah decides to bump up the tempo and have a little fun. “You Don’t Know What To Do,” a throwback disco gem, pulses into the speakers with the kind of glittery strut that fits in nicely with the current disco revival happening on Top 40 radio. Kicking off with a dramatic piano-led intro a la Donna Summer‘s “On The Radio,” the chanteuse goes into full-on disco diva mode. “I miss you almost half as much as you miss me,” she disses. (We all know her shade is second to none, after all.) With its infectious melodies and major earworm of a chorus (“You don’t know what, you don’t know what to do!”), the song screams summer anthem. The only downside? Wale‘s feature is irritating — especially when it comes to his needless mumbling during Mariah’s intro. Cut it out!

As a legendary thrower of shade, the diva is not without her sassy moments. On “Thirsty,” an urban banger crafted by Hit-Boy (of Jay Z & Kanye‘s “Ni**as In Paris”), Mimi calls out the thirsty basics fronting their way to the top (“Uh, you’re thirsty! Uh, you’re thirsty!“), expertly shading her way through the twinkling trap-pop beats: “The Hollywood sign calling you again/So you stuntin’ on your Instagram, but that shhh ain’t everything.” (Like her shout-out to YouTube on E=MC2‘s “Touch My Body,” Mimi’s no stranger to rhyming with e-trends du jour.) It’s the album’s messiest moment, but then, that’s not a criticism, either.

A little later on, there’s “Meteorite,” a throbbing, flamboyant club cut — a sound she’s never really gone for before. (At least, not like this!) Kicking off with a bizarre nod to Andy Warhol‘s infamous “15 Minutes of Fame” quote, Mimi dives headfirst onto the dance floor in a burst of energy dedicated to seizing the moment, burning up the night and lighting up the sky — plus a lip sync-friendly chorus (“Meteorite-ite-ite!”) that any Cher devotee would likely love. “So here we go, listening, what are you saying?/Put on your show, try to make it entertaining,” she commands. It’s frothy fun — and perhaps another low-key critique of fame-seekers, a la “Thirsty.”

“Money ($ * / …)” — which wins the award for most insane title on the album! — is another Hit-Boy standout: Wrapped around a heavy horn loop, Mariah assures us that money just ain’t a thing. “Money, this, that, the other/Don’t mean nothing other than jets on holidays/And chefs with hollandaise/Expensive lingerie, ’cause I come home to you.” It’s a sweet sentiment (and maybe some reassurance for Nick?), and surely the greatest song to reference “hollandaise” this year.

Speaking of the family, the unbelievably weird-yet-strangely-endearing “Supernatural” is maybe the most intimate selection of the bunch. It’s Mariah’s mommy moment! (Every pop star’s got one.) The track co-stars DemBabies — AKA Ms. Monroe & Mr. Moroccan Scott Cannon (together known as Roc’N Roe) — who giggle and coo endlessly their way across their mother’s honey-drenched coos and key changes. The final minute is…well, somethin’ else. The beat drops out, and suddenly, we’re in outer space: “I’m a chanteuse!” Monroe echoes out of nowhere. “I know you are, dahhling!” Mariah warmly chuckles. It’s heartwarming — and maybe a little terrifying, too. (Prepare to hear those kids giggling in your head late at night.) Now where is Miss Monroe’s Grammy nomination for this feature?

When she’s not giggling in front of her kids, Mariah’s putting on a brave face: From “Cry” to “You Don’t Know What To Do” to “One More Try,” Mimi’s bringing on the heartbreak in varying shades of misery. And on the piano-led “Camouflage,” she’s softly humming away the tears: “Didn’t we swear we’d give it our everything? Didn’t I give you all of me?” she begs.

But nothing packs an emotional punch quite like her spot-on cover of George Michael‘s Faith #1 classic “One More Try” to drive it all home, colored by a spiritual-sounding church organ and a slow clanging drum. Be it that it’s the lone pop power ballad of the record, but that chorus cuts extra deep: “So I don’t want to learn to hold you, touch youu-oo-ah-oou…” Full body chills.

Yet throughout all the emotional struggles, there’s a light at the end of Mimi’s tunnel — a rainbow, even! The diva swerves headfirst into gospel on the album’s uplifting closer, “Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up Now)”, raising her hands and sending us straight to church in a tribute to the late Reverend James Cleveland. “I just can’t give up now,” Mariah cries, interpolating Mary Mary‘s “Can’t Give Up Now.” Let Mimi key-change her way up to the heavens. Praise!

Despite the turbulent build up to the album’s release, Me. I Am Mariah is a mature and masterful showcase of classic R&B, soul, gospel and disco, tailored by one of the world’s greatest musical talents. This isn’t a collection of pop tunes for quick consumption: It’s real music. A smooth ride. A #beautiful, full-bodied effort best served on a warm summer evening. It’s the type of album for those who lament that they just don’t make ’em like they used to.

Slip on a pair of headphones and allow Mimi’s sweet, sweet sounds to marinate. After a while, the richness of the record will reveal itself — she is an elusive one, after all.

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‘Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse’ was released on May 27. (iTunes)

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