Mariah Carey Throws Caution to the Wind
The average young person knows exactly three things about Mariah Carey:
(1) She constituted half of the most perplexingly turbulent inter-judge relationship ever to grace American Idol, spending most of its twelfth season picking fights with fellow panelist Nicki Minaj. (This is often cited as foreshadowing for the current Nicki Minaj vs. Cardi B feud.)
(2) She once got caught lip-syncing a New Year’s Eve performance, provoking incensed defamations of her character from citizens across the land. This is remembered, on the whole, as a great time for the American people.
(3) She’s responsible for what can authoritatively be called the biggest Christmas bop ever put to wax: “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” This, we are all thankful for.
I’m being unfair, of course. Carey has a remarkable vocal instrument (if you’re familiar with high-octave ranges, you know it would be inadequate to simply call hers a “voice”), as well as a lengthy and prolific musical career she can comfortably rest her laurels on. But it would be difficult to say with a straight face that, in the year 2018, her star shines as bright as it once did. That botched 2016/17 New Year’s concert especially did her status in. Hell, John Oliver called her a “human nightmare” on the Tonight Show this year. Simply put, it’s been a long time since 1995, when Carey’s “Fantasy” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks straight. In 2018’s cultural dictionary, you could probably find Mariah Carey’s name under “over the hill.”
Enter Caution, Carey’s first full-length album since 2014. Receiving wildly positive critical acclaim, Caution represents a new direction for Carey. Eschewing her belt-it-out diva persona, Carey instead adopts a chilled-out vibe that manages to be modern without abandoning her iconic early-20000s R&B sound.
It’s a somewhat astonishing shift for her: some of that classic Mariah Carey haughtiness comes through on tracks like “GTFO” and “A No No” (loaded with post-relationship rebukes and blue fire), but most of the album is best suited to an anaerobic smoke chamber—hazy, relaxed, understated and full of back-channeled interpolations from Carey herself. There are also moments of strikingly beautiful clarity woven into this carefully-honed aesthetic backdrop. “The Distance,” for example, begins as though a mesh veil has been lifted off the speakers before lapsing back into a smoky, bass-driven vibe. Carey’s Caution is not the product of a washed-up pop star attempting to re-enter the scene (a la “Bitch I’m Madonna” or Britney Spears’ inexplicable British patois on “Scream and Shout”). It’s a far cry from Carey’s previous album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse in both musical quality and titular restraint. This is something different—a cogent, impressive work from an artist whose craft is clearly still vital.
Of course, Mariah Carey isn’t the first artist in recent memory to provide critics with useful poptimist fodder. Plenty of Top-100 artists have produced albums that have received as much critical acclaim as commercial attention. Taylor Swift’s 1989 was a much more mature product than her early pop-country forays or her preliminary crossover attempt, Red. Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION followed up the ubiquitously-memed “Call Me Maybe” to become a summer fixation of indie kids and radio listeners alike.
Still, this kind of renaissance seemed improbable for Carey. Swift was already the commercial darling of Billboard radio by the time 1989 got pressed: she was bound to drop a magnum opus at some point. Jepsen’s career had just begun when she released her hit single, and a retrospective look at “Call Me Maybe” reveals that the sparklers-in-July sound captured on E-MO-TION was already a large part of her sound when she broke into the scene in 2012. Carey, now in her late 40s and far removed from her era of pop dominance, was far less poised to achieve continued relevance than her contemporaries (and with “All I Want for Christmas is You” reliably topping the charts each Christmas season, it seemed unlikely she’d ever bother). That Caution has received so much attention while retaining the less modern feel of her mid-2000s work speaks to Carey’s continued acuity and songwriting ability. Most of the album’s songs, despite conforming to a pop mold that could be considered passé, sound as catchy and texturally interesting as anything on the radio today. “Giving Me Life,” especially, has potential to be remembered as a classic tune, with Carey’s sterling-if-understated vocal performance backed by collaborators Slick Rick and Blood Orange.
Caution is no mere imitation of Mariah at her zenith. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s restrained—and above all, it’s intelligent. Carey expertly bridges the intersection between the R&B of her heyday and its present-day successors, proving she belongs as much in the latter as the former, thanks to her remarkable vocal ability and her savvy musical mind. Assuming she doesn’t try to lip-sync on tour, Carey’s Caution is poised to stand as one of the most impressive examples of an artist’s return to form in recent memory… and even without that context, it’s damn good.