Mariah Carey’s latest is surprisingly solid

Mariah Carey’s albums have never been great. While obviously a talent, Carey indulges in some of her worst artistic impulses on her studio efforts – namely, big, soapy ballads crafted solely to have Carey squeeze in as many notes as she can. Her LPs are little more than just vessels for her radio-ready singles, but her latest Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse is a shockingly solid collection of urban pop, that makes the case that the diva, while past her salad days, is still relevant.

Throwing aside the ridiculous title (her album titles were always shit: Butterfly, Rainbow, Glitter, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel), and the awful publicity blitz she mounted to promote the record (the album art includes a mawkish addition of a self-portrait the singer drew when she was a toddler), Me. I Am Mariah is gratefully devoid of Carey’s goofy eccentricities. The album is front loaded by some great, classic Mariah Carey ballads and closes with some fine dance numbers.

The best moments on the album show that Carey still possesses one of the most remarkable voices in pop music. It’s easy to forget with all the diva excesses, that Mariah Carey is a fantastic singer. When she’s not intent on impressing us with her reported five-octave range, she’s able to do some wonderful work with her massive lung power – she has a lovely falsetto, and when she’s being understated, there’s a great, appealing nasal quality to her toned-down singing.

The album opens up with the somber “Cry” that sounds a tiny bit like Elton John’s “Your Song.” It’s vaguely inspired by gospel music (Carey should consider putting out a gospel record), but is restraint and controlled. It’s one of Carey’s best moments on vinyl.

Following “Cry” is something a little more typical for Carey, “Faded” – a somewhat bland, serviceable R&B ballad with skittering beats and shuffling synths. It’s the kind of song she’s recorded ad nauseam, and it pales in comparison to her classic “We Belong Together” which sounds a lot like inspiration for the okay “Faded.”

“Dedicated” and “#beautiful” are two duets Carey performs with Nas and Miguel, respectively. The former like “Faded” is well-performed, but suffers from blandness, but the later is excellent – one of Carey’s best single moments (though most of the credit should go to Miguel, who is obviously a good influence on his duet partner). It’s the sort of soul-pop ballad that skates on mutual good will and enthusiasm from its singers, and will remind folks of the classic soul duets like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell or Ashford & Simpson.  “Make It Look Good” is a great old-fashioned, almost doo-wop number that has a haunting melody.

And thankfully, just when the album suffers to sag from too many ballads, Carey throws in a frisky dance number “You Don’t Know What to Do” which features Wale. The song is a great throwback to 70s disco. But the album’s best moment is “Meteorite” which is a dance anthem, similar to Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” and it boasts some insightful (for a Mariah Carey album, anyways) lyrics. Another highlight is “Money ($*/…) which features a great soulful sound with pulsing programmed beats, and an ingratiating cameo by Fabolous.

The album doesn’t maintain the brilliance of the aforementioned three songs, and it drifts into a somewhat treacly sameness – the worst offender of the collection is “Supernatural,” an awful ballad that is made all the more gooey and sappy with the inclusion of Carey’s young children and syrupy harps – Carey’s obvious affection for her children is charming, but it harks back to the seemingly unaware moments in her career when she comes off as hopelessly tone-deaf as to how indulgent she looks.

When awaiting a new album by Mariah Carey, expectations are usually pretty low. Me. I Am Mariah won’t convert any naysayers, but for fans and those of us pulling for the lady, it merely confirms that she’s a singular talent that deserves to be heard on the radio.

Click here to buy Mariah Carey’s Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse on amazon.com.

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