Yesterday, Island/Def Jam honcho L.A. Reid hosted a few journalists in his office for a special preview of Mariah Carey’s upcoming E=MC² album, tentatively due April 15. While Reid looked on, Mariah’s A&R man and long-rumored beau Mark Sudack played 12 of the album’s cuts from his laptop, often passionately (and adorably!) singing along. On the album, there was drama, there was death, there was disco. What follows is a track-by-track breakdown of our impressions of the album. Note that this isn’t the final track sequence, that L.A. ticked off the producers list to us but it is by no means etched in stone and the tracks that we heard weren’t always mastered.
One final note: so much of this album is sung in Mariah’s chest voice. The vocal gymnastics and whistle notes, while there (’cause, duh, it’s Mariah!), take a backseat to clear, purposeful singing, and Mariah sounds better for it. Oh yeah, Mimi’s back.
1. “Migrate” (co-produced by Danja) – After announcing itself with Mariah’s patented whistle notes, this club track gets to bangin’ and it takes that task really seriously. It’s about as meta as a banger gets, with Mariah explaining during the chorus how her night goes: “From the car to the club / We migrate / From the bar to the V.I.P. / We migrate.” And so it goes, from the party to the after party, from the after party to the hotel. There’s a slight autotune effect on Mariah’s voice on the last “migrate” of each chorus, which I assume is to put her on equal ground with the man she shares the mic with here. T-Pain, mercifully shows up for just a guest verse – this is not a full-blown duet. It’s a feisty track, with tough Storch-esque beats that Mariah’s bravado attempts to match: “If you’re inked up thuggin’, that’s what I like,” she says. See, I always thought she went for the pretty boys. Already we’re learning stuff!
2. “Touch My Body” (co-produced with Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and The-Dream) – There isn’t much to say about this ultra-femme track that wasn’t said when it leaked. Hard to believe that that was only a little more than week ago – in the time since, it’s become so ubiquitous that it’s kind of hard to imagine what radio was like before it. Even L.A. seemed taken aback by how quickly it has caught on – he described the track’s out-of-the-gate success as virtually accidental.
3. “Last Kiss” (co-produced by Jermaine Dupri) – One of the album’s many declarations of eternal love, this one is “We Belong Together, Part 35.” It’s nice but extremely safe. One thing that’s very much in its favor are Mariah’s vocals, which are nimble as they are in “We Belong Together” (she changes up her flow more times than I could count) and maybe more robust than they’ve sounded in over a decade. There’s a nice little duet at the end of this one between Mariah’s full chest voice and her higher register. Of course, if she didn’t show off that stellar natural resource, this wouldn’t be a Mariah Carey album.
4. “Lovin’ You Long Time” (co-produced by DJ Toomp) – Pure and utter joy is this one, which is most reminiscent of the lovely Mimi outtake “When I Feel It.” Except this one’s, like, 10 times better. The chorus of DeBarge’s “Stay With Me” is the foundation of this track (as opposed to the verses, which provided the foundation for the single remix of Biggie’s “One More Chance” and Ashanti’s “Foolish,” among tracks). However, the sample sounds more weathered, and overall, the track comes off as a ‘60s throwback rather than an ‘80s one. One hundred percent feel-good and packing in a killer breakdown and conclusion that’s a wall of Mariah voices, this was the first song that felt like the work of unstoppable pop genius.
5. “Thanx for Nothin’” (co-produced by Jermaine Durpri) – A mid-tempo ballad that sports a beat rougher than anything Jermaine Dupri has laid down for Mariah and a guitar line not unlike Mimi’s “So Lonely” (though this track is more sassy and less dour than that), “Thanx” suggests that Mariah and Jermaine aren’t sentenced to live in the shadow of their former glory and can actually make relatively new sounds together. Lyrically, this break-up track is a cross between the self-deprecating “Mine Again” (“I never knew enough about you, babe / And I guess I only have myself to blame”) and the streetwise posturing of “Get Your Number” (“Seems like all I do is think about your pseudo-romance / While you’re somewhere burnin’ diesel in the streets, havin’ laughs”). Mariah packs in so many lyrics that she barely has time to sing them, and sort of just growls them. It’s not nearly as ridiculous as that description might make it sound.
6. “That Chick” (co-produced by Stargate) – Instant. Classic. An absolutely brilliant disco track that plays on Mariah’s strengths and sexiness without ever crossing the line into indulgence. It’s slick, it’s chic (and Chic, with its slap-you-on-the-ass bass line), it’s silly (“La da da a oooh wee-wee” goes the bit between the chorus and the verses) and it carries a killer middle 8 that’s as exhilarating as the one in Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” (you know, the best part of one of the best songs ever that goes, “Don’t you know nowwwww / Is the perfect time…”?). Mariah makes references to 2Pac and Biggie, compares herself to ice cream and the lottery and maybe even references the long-lost track from the Charmbracelet sessions “Touch the Sky.” Oh, and also she delivers the most her line of her career, complete with a 10-cent word: “I brings that levity.” Maybe one day they’ll bottle the essence of Mariah, but until then, we have “That Chick” and I seriously am counting down the days till I can hear this track again. This needs to be a single, like, now, and Mariah needs to dust off those “Heartbreaker” remix roller skates for the video, pronto.
7. “Cruise Control” (co-produced by Jermaine Dupri) – Another J.D. track that deviates from what could have been a detrimental pattern, this is a reggae-lite extended car metaphor (“I need a caddy wit some cruise control,” belts Mariah). The chorus consists of her spelling out, “C-R-U-I-S-E control” and the second verse finds Mariah adopting a Jamaican affect for kicks: “When da door open I de gals pon de block / They be hop-on, to rob the clock / Me say no mam / Step up step up / Bottle broken / Tink I’m jokin’.” Seriously, she says that. Damien Marley gets a guest verse, and I have to say, his shtick is a little more convincing.
8. “Side Effects” (co-produced by Scott Storch) – You know how sometimes Southern rap almost has a heavy metal feel? Mariah and Storch exploit that by turning out a Southern-fried power ballad that’s a thinly veiled portrait of her time under Tommy Mottola’s reign (“Hell we built, and I dealt with it…Kept my tears inside ‘cause I knew if I started, I’d keep cryin’ for the rest of my life with you / I finally built up the strength to walk away / Don’t regret it…”). For someone as guarded as Mariah is publicly, it’s shockingly frank (she alludes to “violent times”) and really naked (the titular side effects refer to the toll the relationship has taken on her: she’s “still a little depressed inside” and “still a little defensive thinkin’ folks be tryin’ to run my life”). This is another highlight, and having a rapper so associated with drugs (Jeezy) on a track called “Side Effects” that isn’t about drugs at all, only makes things cleverer.
9. “Love Story” (co-produced by Jermaine Dupri) – Anther ode to endless love (“This ain’t no fairy tale or fiction / This is truly ours for eternity”), this ballad is more of the baby-making ilk. It’s like Prince-lite with a synthesized beat a la “The Beautiful Ones,” but not as effects-laden (i.e. the beat doesn’t have the backwards sound). The melody is reminiscent of Mimi’s “Joyride,” and that should give you an indication of how sweet this track is.
10. “OOC” (co-produced by Swizz Beatz) – This one has a pummeling thump so pronounced, it’s somewhat surprising that it’s not the work of Stargate or Tricky. “OOC” stands for “out of control,” and while the track isn’t exactly wild, it’s a fun mix of The-Dream’s “Ditch That N…” with a melody like Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” Besides the hypnotic refrain of “Forever and ever,” the track is most notable for including the word motherf***er. As in, “I know y’all motherf***ers feel like we / When you’re messin’ with the one true lova / That makes you OOC.” Hardcore!
11. “Bye Bye” (co-produced by Stargate) – When Mariah first started promoting Mimi, she described “We Belong Together” as a cross between “Breakdown” and “One Sweet Day.” That description is infinitely more appropriate for “Bye Bye,” a song about death that’s “for my people who just lost somebody,” “for my people who lost their grandmothers” and seemingly for Mariah’s departed father, Alfred Roy (“You never got to see me back at No. 1”). It’s nice that Mariah’s on a confessional kick, although a track with the “We Belong Together” sonic template and lyrics tailored appeal to everyone on such a basic level seems like too easy of a combination for someone as established as Mimi. This one’s like insurance – in case nothing else is a hit, here’s a sure-shot. But ultimately, it turns out that the album is too good for that.
12. “I Wish You Well” (co-produced by James Poyser) – We were told that this was hot off the presses and a very rough version of the song, but even in its unpolished state, it was a stunner. A piano ballad that features Mariah, some gospel-tinged backing vocals, a piano and that’s it, this track is a throwback to the fan-favorite “Vanishing” from her 1990 debut. Part feisty (“You can’t manipulate me like before”) and totally spiritual (Mariah name-checks a bible verse in the chorus, although I couldn’t catch exactly what it was, and she ends the song repeating, “The Lord is my salvation / I will trust in him”), “I Wish You Well” will have fans wetting themselves. It’s gorgeous and in its simplistic way, the type of risk that Mariah should take more often.
The risky moments on the album (“Lovin’ You Long Time,” “That Chick,” “Side Effects” and “I Wish You Well”) bode well for the future. Though E=MC² feels extremely safe, there’s enough variation to signify some artistic growth. She’s cranking out hits and that’s fine because that’s what she’s always done (hitmaking is her medium), but when she goes out of the Top 40 comfort zone, the album truly soars. Over 10 years after she first sang about it, it’s only now that Mariah has worked up the courage to really spread her wings. The next question is: how high can they take her?