CD Review of E=MC2 by Mariah Carey
Recommended if you like
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Whitney Houston
Label
Island
Mariah Carey: E=MC2

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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Y
ears of silly non-musical antics (and non-musical music) have dulled the memory for most of us, but there was a time – the summer and fall of 1990, to be precise – when Mariah Carey seemed like she was destined for capital-g Greatness. Her debut single, “Vision of Love,” was arguably one of the last truly cross-genre smashes in modern pop; whether you were into metal, rap, or rock & roll, you had to sit up and pay attention to the towering voice spilling out of that young girl in the black bodysuit. If you’re going to make your public debut with a song that sounds for all the world like a second cousin to “At Last,” you’d better have balls or pipes. Carey proved right out of the gate that she had both in spades; as it turned out, it would be a lack of common sense that would chip away at all that early promise.

She’s never really stopped selling records, of course, but Carey’s career has been a long study in trading breadth of appeal for continued relevancy with the same demographic she targeted almost 20 years ago – namely, heartsick teenagers. Like Janet Jackson and Madonna, Carey gives the impression of someone obsessed with sounding current; her days of trendsetting are behind her, so each new album is stacked with tracks from whichever producers have notched the most hits for younger, hipper R&B artists in the months since her last release. It’s a cynical way of making records, but if you’ve got the right material, it’s still an effective one – witness “Touch My Body,” this album’s leadoff single, which shot to Number One just before E=MC2’s release, giving Carey a record-setting 18 chart-toppers.

That kind of commercial success is awfully hard to argue with, but critics have been doing it essentially non-stop since Carey released her second album. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the most important one is probably this: Unlike Janet and Madonna, Mariah Carey can actually flat-out sing, so her constant trendjacking comes across as unusually craven and lazy.

And then there’s the matter of her, for lack of a better term, lyrical focus. For a woman who’s nearing 40, Carey seems unusually susceptible to the kind of all-consuming, hearts-in-the-margins, us-against-the-world love (or is that luv?) affairs that most of us remember from our teenage years. Just as her albums’ production has struggled breathlessly to keep up with whatever the kids are listening to, so have her lyrics remained stubbornly focused on the feelings of not-too-bright college sophomores everywhere. In the context of her other records, E=MC2 is no more or less guilty of this – but still, listening to Carey flutter around “the club,” or whimper to her boyfriend about how the world just doesn’t understand their love, is often unintentionally funny. Odds are, you have an embarrassing aunt (or, God forbid, mother) who talks like this – which raises the uncomfortable question of whether, if Carey wasn’t one of the most successful recording artists in history, she’d be wolfing Cheetos and crying through the latest episode of “Dr. Phil.”

Okay, so given all that, why the three and a half stars?

It comes down to this: Regardless of whether or not Carey’s albums have taken advantage of her natural ability – and they haven’t – it doesn’t matter, because the path she’s chosen is one of craft over passion, and E=MC2 is one solidly crafted album. Sure, it’s got its flaws – it surely didn’t need to be 14 songs long, for one thing; for another, it’s getting a little creepy listening to Carey sing kiss-off songs to Tommy Mottola over a decade after their divorce, and also, hearing her slip into Jamaican patois during “Cruise Control” is a classic bit of hilarious foolishness – but there are a lot of bulletproof pop songs in here. “I Stay in Love” (as in, “I stay in love witchoo”) is just waiting to soundtrack a thousand tearstained YouTube confessionals; “Love Story” is an irresistible midtempo ballad; and “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” will be a hit (it’ll also, God willing, inspire an Eric Cartman remix, but that’s another story).

As she’s proven repeatedly, Carey’s audience doesn’t care whether she’s glomming onto trends, or whether she’s guilty of talent-squandering on par with Michelangelo giving up painting to draw Garfield cartoons; they only care whether she hits that soft sweet spot between pop and R&B – and with E=MC2, she’s done it again. If you’ve been counting the days until Carey is forced to simply strap on an evening gown and let her voice do the work for her, get ready to keep on counting.

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