Though she's been "emancipated" before (first with Butterfly, then with Charmbracelet, her first album recorded free of Sony's watchful eye), Mariah Carey claims she titled her new album The Emancipation Of Mimi because she finally feels free to be who she really is, no apologies. And who is Mariah Carey exactly? Like her peers (you know, 7th graders), Mariah is someone who wants to be popular. In fact, all she's ever really wanted is to be liked. "I discovered that my desire to make music came from the need to heal myself," she said recently. "My desire to become famous came from the need to feel worthy and accepted." And so, like her last few albums, Mimi can be split into two distinct parts: half of it catering to her misguided yet genuine passion for hip-hop and the other half attempting to recapture her more soul-oriented beginnings. It's unclear which segment nurtures her desire to heal herself and which makes her feel "worthy and accepted": Once determined to be embraced by the hip-hop community, Mariah now seems more interested in sating her dwindling pop contingent, though I'm sure she's torn between both—a position not unfamiliar to her.
Ironically, Mimi is Mariah's least personal album since the milquetoast Music Box, for which Tommy Mottola allegedly ordered her to tone down the vocal acrobatics, as if she weren't already as easy to swallow as vanilla ice cream. It wasn't until recently that the details of their marriage were revealed (Mariah kept her pocketbook by her side at all times, packed with everything she might need if and when the shit hit the fan). Of course, that day finally came—albeit with 40 giant suitcases—and while most were quick to point out that Mariah's conservative wardrobe was the first thing to go, she also curiously shifted from Marilyn Monroe-esque coyness, singing about being rescued by imaginary white knights ("Dreamlover," "Fantasy"), to Mae West-style come-hitherness, cooing "now you can finally have me, boys!" ("Honey," "Loverboy"). But despite her recent willingness to discuss her private life, Mimi is, for the most part, a party record, exemplified by its Jermaine Dupri-produced first single "It's Like That," in which Mimi celebrates her emancipation by arriving at the party already shit-faced: "I came to have a party/Open off that Bacardi…Purple taking me higher/I'm lifted and I like it."
In fact, Mariah's 10th studio album includes some of her raciest lyrics to date (sample: "I'm looking for a man that'll rub me slow/Make me sing real high/When he goes down low"), which is unlikely to bring fans of the more demure Mariah back to the fore—whoever and wherever they are. On the other hand, Mimi reprises and builds on the old school Motown sound that was hinted at on her last album (most notably, the Kanye West-helmed "Stay the Night" and, perhaps Mimi's best track, "Your Girl"), while the second single, "We Belong Together"—which finds the wobbly diva keeping cool until the final full-voiced climax—should do much to revive faith in Mariah the balladeer. She takes it to the pulpit on the gospel-y closing number, "Fly Like A Bird," an inspirational ballad that's equal parts "Butterfly" and "Hero" and features spoken bits by Mariah's family pastor Clarence Keaton. Songs like these certainly make Mariah likeable again.
Tellingly, the songs that don't work are the ones in which Mariah too heavily bites on the styles of her successors: Usher by way of Dupri on "Shake It Off," Twista via The Legendary Traxster on "One And Only," and the Neptunes on "To The Floor." (However, when she channels a predecessor—Prince—on "Mine Again" and "Joy Ride," the results are sublime.) Summer-anthem-in-the-make "Get Your Number," which samples Imagination's 1980 hit "Just An Illusion" and finds JD doing his best impression of Nelly, and the refreshing "Say Somethin'," a track originally slated as the album's first single, are the closest we get to the old uptempo Mariah. The only other track that does so is "Sprung," the kind of one-word "boy, you've got me twisted up" song we've come to expect as a lead single from a Mariah record, but the bizarrely futuristic track was wisely excised from the U.S. version of Mimi.
Despite its 14 tracks, Mimi clocks in at a full 15 minutes less than Charmbracelet, a testament to the unfussiness of the songs—few even contain bridges of any kind. But whatever the songs lack, they make up for in restraint—brevity keeps you wanting more, which is really Mimi's virtue. Just as you start to hear the scratchiness in her voice (no doubt due to all that "purple"), the padded hook kicks in or the song fades. Where once Mariah's trademark high notes used to serve some purpose (structurally, melodically, texturally), they now seem random, existing just to convince us that The Voice is still there—and it is…kind of. More convincing would be a low note (remember those first 60 outrageously versatile seconds of '91's "You're So Cold"?), but mostly what we get here is midrange belting. As gratifying as that is on the surface, there's still the nagging feeling that Mariah has damaged her voice beyond repair. By any other standards, of course, over-sung ballads like "Mine Again" and "I Wish You Knew" would blow the 7th grade talent show competition away. And, if nothing else, that puts her "in" with the popular kids, which is probably all that matters to her anyway.