Mariah Carey has always had a way with words. Despite unlikely pop-song vocabulary like “alienation” appearing in hits like “Vision of Love,” her lyrics started out relatively simple. Love takes time. You’ve got me feeling emotions. Dreamlover, come rescue me. But right around the time she dived out of Tommy Mottola’s mansion and into the deep end (of the pool) in her music video for “Honey,” Mariah’s increasingly multisyllabic language started to feel like compensation for her progressively regressive image—and undoubtedly sent her young fans running for their dictionaries. The album titles, of course, remained elementary (Butterfly, Rainbow, Charmbracelet), but Mariah shifted gears and embraced titular verbosity with her 2005 comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi and last year’s Energy Equals Mass Times the Velocity of Light Squared. Her new album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, follows suit.
Memoirs is a purported day in the life of Mimi, and it finds the singer “Having a Typical Emotional Upset” (“H.A.T.E.U.”), lashing out at one-time beau Eminem (“Obsessed”), and kicking all kinds of men to the curb (basically the whole album). It’s a breakup record, to be sure—this despite its subject being (reportedly) happily married. No matter, Mariah throws more shade than she ever has before, making it her campiest venture yet. “I’m gon’ la-la-la-la-la-laugh,” she taunts in her best schoolyard sneer on the promising opening track “Betcha Gon’ Know.” Sometimes the ‘tude is sexy (“You a mom and pop, I’m a corporation/I’m the press conference, you’re a conversation,” she quips on “Obsessed”), other times it’s downright cheesy (“See right through you like you’re bathin’ in Windex”). She also achieves a whole new level of lyrical ridiculousness on “Up Out My Face,” with what’s sure to be the most quoted passage from the album, involving Legos, the entire Harvard University graduating class of 2010, and an allusion to Humpty Dumpty. Yeah.
If Energy Equals Mass Times the Velocity of Light Squared was her most commercial album in years, with each song carefully constructed to become a potential radio hit, Memoirs is ostensibly for the longtime fans, her first album in 14 years not to feature any rappers and one that dips into her back catalogue to depths we haven’t heard since 2002’s Charmbracelet. In fact, Mariah even compared the album to lamb favorite Butterfly on her Twitter account, but it’s really more like Rainbow. Having The-Dream and Tricky Stewart on the boards for all 17 tracks makes the album one of her most sonically consistent—but it also makes it one of her most boring. If this is Mariah’s attempt at making a soul album, it’s shockingly soulless: Despite some cool tricks, the production sounds cheap and same-y, lacking the fullness of her best work, and is there really any acceptable explanation for drenching her vocals in Auto-Tune? Not to mention, these “memoirs” don’t really reveal much about the singer other than that she’s capable of harboring a grudge.
Mariah is in fine voice throughout the album, and there are plenty of inspired moments to be found: the hard-edged “Standing O”; “Inseparable,” which is probably her most successful attempt at a redo of “We Belong Together”; and “Up Out My Face (The Reprise),” which features a kick-ass marching-band arrangement that could have been used to optimum effect on the song proper. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the album’s final stretch devolves into a mess of old-school Mariah rehashes that should have been left in the past. “Languishing” is a lazy rewrite of a Mariah song that’s been lazily rewritten at least three or four times already, while a cover a Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” climaxes prematurely with a cacophony of screaming and gratuitous whistle notes—the kind that marred the closing number of her last album too. A gospel choir and half-step key change is not how you spell soul.