The more Mariah Carey promises to serve the truth straight up, the more crazy she reveals. And the more crazy she promises, the more unnervingly straightforward she becomes. Both phenomena were illustrated in her two most recent albums, Merry Christmas II You and Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel. Her holiday set aimed to slot comfortably alongside its MOR Christmas predecessor, but in doing so exposed Carey’s intrepidly regressive nature. (You could practically envision her doing each and every Peanuts character’s dance from A Charlie Brown Christmas right there in the studio.) Conversely, the cover art for Memoirs showed poor Mimi splitting herself into the three faces (and six boobs) of Eve right there in full view. And yet the album itself was probably her most focused and confessional effort since Butterfly. Not an easy feat for an album that more than once “reprises” songs immediately after their first appearances, and sticks a prelude only a few songs from the end.
Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse is, in this context, the most overt moment of Mariah having her Strawberry Cheesequake and eating it too. Personal, crazy. Crazy personal. I yield to the effusive/verbose: “On the back cover of this album is a personal treasure. This is my first and only self-portrait. I drew it when I was three-and-a-half, and entitled it: ’Me. I Am Mariah’...I’ve decided to share it with those of you who actually care and have been here for me through it all.” Mariah has been her own muse before, but this might be the first time she ceded creative control to someone who was still having accidents in bed, and not the kind requiring a morning-after pill. Mariah’s breakthrough here arrives from deliberately confusing innocence with insight, obliviousness with bliss, which explains for starters why she, in her cover of George Michael’s “One More Try,” emphatically insists, “I am the student.” And why “Supernatural,” which lyrically exercises the “Greatest Love of All” clause, ultimately serves as the debut for backup vocalists Dembabies (i.e. Carey’s twin children Monroe and Moroccan, who coo and giggle throughout the track). And why her album opens the same way every single human life begins, with a long drawn-out “Cry.” There are stretches of this album where Mariah’s camp-aligned camp will find themselves laughing until they cry. Self-actualization is a process, but it can also be an ugly mess. Small wonder the album’s most intimate moment is an ode to camouflage.
But there are still very few who can “Make It Look Good” as Mrs. Nick Cannon does, even if Stevie Wonder’s sappy harmonica riffs seem to be howling, “That’s what prescriptions are for.” It’s not only predictable, but downright appropriate that Mariah’s updated preschool portrait (her “I Sing the Body Electric”) should be as discombobulated as it is, irresistible though an entire album’s worth of disciplined old-school R&B homages like last year’s underrated, electric-amp-feedback-drenched Miguel duet “#Beautiful” would have been. Undisciplined R&B pastiches, however, the album has in spades, especially ones that hearken back to her own career. Her collaboration with Nas, “Dedicated,” is lyrically obsessed with 1988, but paradoxically sounds exactly like all the Terius beats that anchored Memoirs. “Cry” is exactly what would happen if “Vision of Love” and “I Still Believe” made love atop a bed of freshly peeled onions. And “You’re Mine (Eternal)” proves Mimi’s emancipation has about as many chapters in it as R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” (Or as many lives as Kelly himself, as he dutifully turns in a performance on the deluxe edition’s replay of Memoirs’s “Betcha Gon’ Know.”)
With surprising internal logic, the album’s two unabashedly uptempo ditties are also the forums for Mariah’s most serious-minded performances, galaxies away from “loving you long time.” “You Don’t Know What to Do” is a stunning tribute to the soul-shouting piano gospel of Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy,” with swirling disco swings turning Mariah herself into the calm, confident eye of a disco hurricane. And the chugging midnight soul train to gorgeous “Meteorite” burns bright on the still-potent embers of Eddie Kendricks’s urgent masterpiece “Goin’ Up in Smoke.” At this point, is it too much to ask that Mariah bury Mimi and resurrect, for once and for all, Miss Billie Frank?