Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Album Review: Mariah Carey - E=MC² (4/5)

Sometime in the late ‘90s, Mariah Carey and I parted ways. Having been a fan since her 1990 debut, “Vision of Love,” I started losing interest as her music became increasingly R&B and decreasingly AC flavored. More about singing through her nose and less about exploring her amazing range. Rainbow was the first Carey album I didn’t buy, as its singles “Heartbreaker”—a “Fantasy” repeat—and “Thank God I Found You”—just dreadful—failed to win me over. It was soon after that she hit bottom with Glitter and Charmbracelet, so from an investor’s perspective, I got out just in time.

But like a reliable blue chip, Carey made a comeback. In 2005 she put out The Emancipation of Mimi, a winning combination of old school and modern R&B sounds that delivered one of her biggest hits, “We Belong Together,” and her third Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.

Now Carey offers E=MC², which doesn’t stray far from Mimi’s winning formula. It provides a mix of more purely modern R&B—there are fewer retro-flavored tunes and no torchy ballads like “Mine Again” or “I Wish You Knew.” Having scored such a major hit in “We Belong Together,” as well as “Don’t Forget About Us” from Mimi’s special edition release, many of the songs on E=MC² are cut from those tracks' template of mid-tempo pop R&B, heavy in bass and skittering hi-hat beats. Frankly, that’s about half the album, with the other half consisting of slightly faster upbeat jams featuring a who’s who roster of guest rappers. Mimi gave us Snoop Dogg, Twista, and Nelly. E=MC² gives us T-Pain and Young Jeezy, both of whom have already had guest turns on #1 hits this year.

Despite its formulaic basis, I actually like E=MC² better than The Emancipation of Mimi, for its her best album since Butterfly. If she’s figured out what works and stuck with it, then I can’t fault her. Sure she’s not taking many risks, but few Mariah Carey albums ever have. And while I was kind of ho-hum listening to this during the week at home in D.C., down in sunny Florida, it sounded a lot better. E=MC² is a soundtrack for driving in the sun and going out with friends, despite some of its surprisingly personal more serious moments.

The album opens strong with three particularly breezy tracks. First there’s upbeat “Migrate” with T-Pain, featuring sharp bass beats and the vocal auto-tuning Cher popularized 10 years ago with “Believe.” Both Carey and T-Pain migrate from the car to the club to the party to the after party to the hotel…etc. The song has nothing else on its mind than going out and having fun, which it does well. Next up is “We Belong Together” clone (the first of several) “Touch My Body,” the album’s current #1 hit. The mid-tempo track features the aforementioned sharp bass and skittering hi-hat, plus some piano twinkles. The schizophrenic lyrics are interesting too, during the chorus she’s uninhibited, asking her lover to “put (her) on the floor” and “throw (her) on the bed,” but during the verses she cautions that if their tryst ends up filmed for YouTube there’ll be trouble. “Cruise Control” adds a Caribbean vibe to the party.

Next comes ballad “I Stay in Love,” which stands out because it has more melody than most of the other “We Belong Together”-style mid-tempo numbers such as “Last Kiss” and new single “Bye Bye,” of which all I can say is that they’re pleasingly bland. “Bye Bye,” however, is somewhat interesting because it mines more personal territory than we’re used to hearing from Carey. In it she reflects on lost loved ones, but on other tracks, namely “Side Effects” and “I Wish You Well” she reflects on her marriage to Tommy Mottola. In the former she enlists the assistance of guest rapper Young Jeezy to tell her rather dark story over a harder hip-hop vibe, confessing that she “kept (her) tears inside because (she) knew that if (she) started (she’d) keep crying for the rest of (her) life.” Yikes. “I Wish You Well” is the soulful closer, in a similar vein to Mimi’s “Fly Like a Bird.”

There are a few other noteworthy highlights. Among the uptempo numbers, I liked “I’m that Chick” quite a bit. It’s probably the album’s fastest song, with a slightly retro ‘80s-sounding groove. “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” is also fairly uptempo and a little old school, employing horns, piano, bass, and keyboards in the production-heavy mix. “O.O.C.” for “out of control” starts out with an interesting beat, but never takes off. There’s a wind instrument (flute?) that could have used a good solo. I also liked “For the Record,” a mid-tempo number with a dark streak and an ‘80s influence.

E=MC² is Einstein’s formula explaining the relationship between energy, mass and velocity. For Carey, it’s an acknowledgement that this album owes a great debt to its predecessor: E (Emancipation of Mimi) = MC (Mariah Carey) 2 (Part 2). I think Carey actually has a simpler formula in mind: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Best: Migrate, Touch My Body, I’m that Chick, I Stay in Love, I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time, Cruise Control, Side Effects, For the Record

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