I’ve always thought of Mariah Carey as something of a math problem, one that lacks either theorem or proof. To wit, the enjoyment of her music is directly proportional to the gratuitousness of her vocal indulgences (chief among them, her tendency to jump to her upper register without reason or warning), the cheeky self-awareness to her own camp potential, and the unfailing devotion to her own sense of continued legacy as the distilled representation of pop culture. It’s actually that last item that shows up most often in the singer’s curriculum; there’s a reason that, until now, Mariah hasn’t changed the font for her CD-cover nameplate since day one. Some scoffed a few years back when Garth Brooks flatly admitted his excitement over the prospect of toppling the Beatles’ record for most albums sold, but no one seems to bat an eye when Mariah’s PR machine focuses plainly on bookkeeping. Hell, I’m not entirely sure that either “Touch My Body” or, before that, “We Belong Together” didn’t sound just a little bit better because of their statistical potency, as opposed to their musical vitality.
But that’s the bitch of having a winning formula. Eventually, it’s going to boil down to just that: a formula. The irresistibly titled E=MC² stands shoulder, at least according to my TI-85, with The Emancipation of Mimi in that I honestly prefer Mariah in the loopier, more freewheeling territory of Rainbow and Glitter, but I can’t deny the dogged efficiency in action. Even if I wasn’t exactly sure what the “E” was supposed to mean in the album’s title at first (emotion? Ear-splitting melisma? Surely not energy…oh, it stands for “emancipation,” duh), there’s little doubt that “MC” stands for our own master of ceremonies, and she even threw in a little nod to her own public schizophrenia for good measure. But those hoping for reinvention will, in addition to being radically unfamiliar with Mariah’s career trajectory, probably be dismayed that the “2” also stands for “Mimi, Part 2.”
Mariah’s records have always credited a vocal engineer, but the first sound on E=MC² is that trademark throat howl from behind the all-too-familiar digital curtain of Auto-Tune. “Migrate,” a collaboration with T-Pain, kicks off the definitely hip-poppy album, and it sets the tone perfectly. Just as Mariah and Pain bounce from the taxi to the club to the house party to the bar to the hotel, E=MC² doesn’t dawdle long enough for you to ever discern just how overly deliberate it is: It’s an album composed entirely of radio edits. The only song that doesn’t feel just about composed on the spot is “Side Effects,” but that’s because it’s been in the making for a decade. A reasonably salutary tribute to 10 years of leaving Tommy Mottola behind, Mariah sings about how she’s still addressing the emotional wreckage. “I was a girl, you was a man/I was too young to understand/I was naïve, I just believed/Everything that you told me,” she explains while Young Jeezy rattles off the list of symptoms: “Drowsiness, loneliness, how’s this?” Frankly, I fought the same set of maladies getting through the song, but if Mariah has spent a decade not letting people get too close, who are we to deny giving her four minutes to emote it out? On the other hand, I guess I would deny her that, especially when, on “For the Record,” she expresses the desire to “just press rewind.”
There’s a big mathematical difference between pop instincts and pop manufacturing, and most of E=MC² demonstrates the latter. “Touch My Body,” as it turns out, was just about the only choice for a kickoff single, what with its slow-growing guilty-pleasure quotient, its cheesy-easy-breezy disposability (in the packrat world of pop culture, it always turns out to be the hardest to throw away the throwaway), and its frontloaded Mariah-being-Mariah flourishes. References to YouTube, T-shirts, and favorite jeans are turned kinky against the insistent imagery of her voluptuous thighs. And leave it to Mariah to transmute the sex appeal of teddy bears into the same territory inhabited by leather bears: If yiff culture is going to cross over, it will be through the guiding help of Mimi’s plush fantasies. Furthermore, the blatant sexual advances come embedded within a downright rudimentary backing track (I’ve seen it been called glorified karaoke multiple times) that, were it not for the lyrics, would’ve been just as appropriate for the Backyardigans or the Wiggles, confirming that the “G” of Mariah’s g-spot stands for “general audiences.” The disparity between the song’s hyper-polished sterility and its almost prepubescent sexuality (as made literal in the song’s stupid-brilliant promotional clip) epitomize that elusive pop instinct. With “Touch My Body,” Mariah brings sexy back…to the schoolyard.
Elsewhere, there are two and a half uptempo tunes (that’s out of 14 on the non-iTunes version). “O.O.C.” has a nice, unforced looseness about it, both in Mariah’s loopy “s’cusa me” patois and in the flared-out drum pattern, with a surprising emphasis on the open high-hat; maybe not completely “out of control,” as advertised, but certainly a welcome deviation from her more uptight jams and even more uptight ballads. “I’m That Chick” is a retro treatsicle in the best, most Glitter-iest sense. It’s pinker than Pepto Bismol and just as soothing, and for whatever reason, Mariah’s fudged enunciation on the chorus turns “I’m that chick you like” into “I’ll have chicken, lite.” The triumph of the song is that, when all of our dance-floor divas these days seem to throw one disco-descendant banger on their otherwise hip-hop-hybrid LPs almost out of obligation, “I’m That Chick” doesn’t feel even as tokenistic as Janet’s “Feedback” (which I like more, but only out of context).
The aforementioned “half” song is the half-uptempo, half-brained, half-cocked “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time.” Words fail, but what you get for your $10 here is not only everyting you want (everyting!), but also Mariah simultaneously in ridiculous mode and also pathologically free of irony or self-awareness. Recruiting DJ Toomp for this one was a stroke of genius: “Long Time” sounds like a hyperventilating cross between a graduation anthem and an early-’80s family sitcom theme song. Listening to it, I felt face to face with a couple of silver spoons: one heroin, the other grape jelly. Such are the rewards of an album like E=MC², in which one does reach a solution, but not before Mariah bends over backward to show her work.