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Feeling Emotions: Mariah Carey’s Underrated Sophomore Album Turns 25

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Feeling Emotions: Mariah Carey’s Underrated Sophomore Album Turns 25

The autumn of 1991 saw the release of countless seminal albums of various genres from the period’s most influential acts. We’ve handpicked several notable releases—some widely celebrated, some largely underappreciated—to reevaluate on the eves of their 25th anniversaries.

At the time of its release, Mariah Carey’s sophomore effort, Emotions, was considered a commercial disappointment, failing to reach the top of the charts and selling just half of what the singer’s blockbuster self-titled debut did. In his review of the album, Rolling Stone’s Rob Tannenbaum deemed Mariah’s singing “far more impressive than expressive,” a criticism ostensibly borne out by the album’s titular lead single, on which she proclaims that she’s been “feeling emotions.” Not to put too blunt a point on it, she then tells us, rather than shows us: “I feel good, I feel nice!”

Critics like Tannenbaum routinely griped about Mariah’s reliance on vocal acrobatics, which, they claimed, kept audiences at a remove from her actual songs. Like that of Whitney Houston, to whom she was often compared (and much to both women’s irritation), Mariah’s voice was indeed almost supernatural, a thing to marvel at from a distance. But the assertion that her music lacked expression, even at this early date in her career, is one that the songs themselves simply don’t bear out. The deliriously joyous “Emotions,” however broad its lyrics may seem, all but mandates a performance of the magnitude that Mariah delivers: Her object of desire has her feeling “intoxicated, flying high,” and though hers might be a literal vocal interpretation, it’s certainly an expressive one.

Mariah and her label, however, obviously got the very public memo, as the arguably gratuitous sustained whistle note at the end of “Can’t Let Go,” the album’s second single, was removed from the radio edit of the song, and her upper range was employed sparingly, and often only as background textures, throughout much of the remainder of the decade. Luckily, Emotions still exists as it was conceived, complete with Mariah’s unapologetic deployment of her powerful instrument, and free of the reproach of the same people who would, in just a few years’ time, lament its inevitable deterioration.

Beginning with a rumbling piano tremolo followed by what might be the lowest note Mariah has committed to tape, the bombastic “You’re So Cold” is a lesson in fabulous excess, a showcase for four of Mariah’s infamous five octaves. The first 60 seconds of the song make for a deceptive introduction, with the singer’s portentous, protracted opening invocation (“Lord only knows…why I love you so…”) giving way to a bouncy, horn-filled kiss-off to a cruel devil in disguise. Of course, whistled at a pitch where articulation is rendered secondary, the word “disguise” becomes as unintelligible as Mariah’s euphoric squeals throughout the title track.

There are, believe it or not, moments of subtlety and nuance on Emotions, the fact of which is perhaps key to understanding the frustrations some have regarding Mariah’s myriad vocal tics. “Can’t Let Go” is, in hindsight, one of her most understated hits, her downcast verses floating ephemerally atop the song’s pointillistic percussion, while the album’s penultimate track, “Till the End of Time,” finds Mariah taking her sweet time building from a barely audible whisper to a thundering belt over the span of five minutes.

Mariah’s albums hadn’t yet become venues for her karaoke-style covers of ’80s power ballads, but Emotions was an early indicator of her penchant for musical quotation. Mimi’s fascination with appropriating hits from her youth manifested itself on “Can’t Let Go,” which swipes its opening keyboard riff from Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” (she would go on to more directly sample the 1987 R&B hit on a remix for 1999’s “Thank God I Found You”). More than on any other Mariah Carey album, though, disco is a clear influence here, thanks in part to her collaborations with Robert Clivillés and David Cole of C+C Music Factory. House music, the duo’s genre of choice, was still gloriously and inextricably bound to hip-hop in the early ’90s, as both were built almost entirely on pastiche: “Emotions” is a shameless homage to “Best of My Love” (by none other than the Emotions), while “Make It Happen” makes a less overt nod to Alicia Myers’s 1981 single “I Want to Thank You.”

If Mariah’s struggle to locate her musical identity at this point in her career often resulted in her cribbing from the past, she was already exerting a sense of agency in her lyrics. Songs like the autographical “Make It Happen” and “The Wind,” the latter of which is the story of the death of a friend set to Russ Freeman’s instrumental jazz composition of the same name, hint at the inspirational anthems and confessional manifestos, respectively, that would come to be fixtures on Mariah’s future albums. “No proper shoes upon my feet/Sometimes I couldn’t even eat,” she sing-raps on “Make It Happen,” recounting her struggle from Long Island backup singer to multiplatinum superstar by the age of 20. Though her “struggle” ended before most people’s usually begin (“It just didn’t take that long for the girl with one shoe to acquire many,” Rich Juzwiak quipped in our 2005 retrospective of Mariah’s work), her performance is galvanizing and soulful.

Soul is a quality that’s impossible to quantify; either someone has it or they don’t. Mariah’s critics claimed it was an essential ingredient that her songs lacked. Her mixed racial heritage was widely publicized, and was even treated as a selling point, but her music was carefully calibrated for both pop (read: white) and R&B audiences. Songs like “And You Don’t Remember” draw on gospel and Motown, but render those influences in the most palatable way possible. On the other hand, “If It’s Over,” a collaboration with Carole King, doesn’t water down its R&B bona fides with synthesized strings and bass, instead bolstering Mariah’s vocals with brass, Hammond organ, gospel harmonies—an unbridled throwback to the pop-soul hits of the ’60s and ’70s.

From the clothes she wore to the songs she performed, Mariah and her music were marketed to be nonthreatening, and appeal to the widest possible audience. Though it would be a few more years before she would comment on the subject explicitly in her songs, it’s hard not to see the battles she would go on to fight to earn both her professional and personal freedom telegraphed in the album’s cover art. Her face is overexposed, but her body is bathed in shadow, creating the (likely unintentional, but nonetheless striking) impression that her skin is much darker than it is. Likewise, Mariah’s head is thrown back in ecstasy, her mouth open, while at the same time her hands can be seen demurely clutching her knees together, suggesting a struggle between chastity and sexual liberation, confinement and freedom.

Mariah wouldn’t completely liberate herself from the fetters of everything she believed was holding her back until 1997’s Butterfly, and has since strained to maintain an equilibrium in terms of both her music and image, often slipping into caricature. But on Emotions, at least musically, she managed to strike a balance of soul and pop that’s not just technically impressive, but filled with undeniable, honest-to-god feeling.