In 2005, Mariah Carey needed a change: Her professional and personal life had already endured several years of derision—an eternity on pop’s fast-moving time scale. MadTV skits and legacy music publications alike regarded Carey, a titan of the 90s charts—not to mention its radio airwaves and high school dances—as a joke, a fallen pop diva. Every album she released prior to 2001 had gone multi-platinum and contained at least one Billboard Hot 100 number one hit; her two most recent albums, Glitter and Charmbracelet, had sold relatively poorly (just regular platinum) and, combined, only landed one song in the Top 40. Her new album had a lot to prove. And it succeeded. With its revival of critical intrigue and stratospheric commercial success, The Emancipation of Mimi became, in the popular narrative, the flashpoint for Carey’s redemption. But as much as it provided a return for the singer, to call the album a comeback would be missing the point.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t really know how you can bring Mariah Carey back,’” Jermaine Dupri, who has worked with Carey since 1995’s “Always Be My Baby” and who produced Mimi’s biggest tracks, told me over the phone recently, referring to people who attribute Carey’s success to him. He later quipped, “I don’t know another artist who’s had Song of the Decade twice.”
The Emancipation of Mimi, which turned ten this month, marked a definitive shift for Mariah Carey. It’s an album that found Mariah embracing a more light-hearted version of herself, one that was less tied to the need to be a global pop star and more oriented toward her own identity as an R&B diva with a confidently absurd sense of humor. In a profile written around the time she had wrapped work on Mimi, Mariah said, “With Charmbracelet everyone wanted to hear the stories of my trials and tribulations. It was a healing experience—expressing things that had gone on and my father had just passed away. Now I'm like, okay, we've done that, this record is about having some fun.” The “fun” shines through on Mimi, kicking off a new phase of Mariah’s increased comfort with herself as both an artist and a media spectacle.
Mariah Carey has always been an R&B singer, but she wasn’t necessarily seen as one during the 90s, when R&B ballads were also chart-topping pop music. She worked with producers like Dupri and Babyface and talked about her deep connection to R&B, but she operated above all as a pop star, with the largest share of production credits on her albums going to pop producer Walter Afanasieff. Yet as the 90s concluded, so did the era of generous overlap between R&B and pop as genres. Caught in the middle, Carey sacrificed coherence in a bid for continued relevance. She covered Def Leppard. She flipped Cam’ron and Snoop Dogg classics. She returned to goopy ballads. None of these strategies worked, and the tension between the desire for mass appeal and the draw of R&B and hip-hop contributed to the disappointment surrounding both Glitter and Charmbracelet.
In contrast, The Emancipation of Mimi is undeniably an R&B album. It offers a varied view of the 2005 rap and R&B zeitgeist, with production credits from the likes of Kanye West and The Neptunes and features from Nelly and Twista. Jermaine Dupri produced the hits “It’s Like That,” “Shake It Off,” and “We Belong Together.” On songs like “We Belong Together,” Mariah sounds surer of how to bend her voice than she had on recent outings, building from the subdued ache of regret—”I was stupid / I was foolish/I was lying to myself”—into the searing hysteria of loss—“When you left I lost a part of me / It’s still so hard to believe.”
Well-orchestrated performances like these were the result of conversations Dupri had with Carey to help her continue capitalizing on her voice—the voice—in a hip-hop and R&B setting. “I actually told her we had to get back to straight singing,” he said. “‘No, no, no,’ I told her… She needed to really sing as opposed to whispering because she had a style where she was whispering on a lot of records… Her full voice, that’s what people fell in love with, and that’s what I wanted to make sure was different with these songs.” Noting the pair’s collaborative process and his role of drawing out Mariah’s ideas, he added, “I don’t know if I was actually trying to do anything that would go over well with audiences. I just was trying to complete our picture.”
On The Emancipation of Mimi Carey sounds more sure of herself as an R&B singer equipped for the 2000s—someone who can spread her talents between the jaunty VIP room (in a club that is not hosting a disco night) and the candle-lit bath tub. It is this adaptability, which had worked so well for Usher the previous year on Confessions, that likely prompted people, especially youth who had not heard contemporary Mariah on the radio since they were in elementary or middle school, to give Mariah another listen.
The album also allowed Carey to pivot into a new persona. Having been through the hell of public humiliation that accompanied Glitter’s failure and her erratic appearance on TRL in 2001, Carey was ready to let herself go, and Mimi made that clear. On the album’s clubbier bits, Mariah exults in weed smoke and Bacardi while luring dudes with the promise of her penthouse, jacuzzi, and expensive cars. Her phrasing gets more verbose, melodramatic, and confident, as well as sillier. Catch her sing-rapping to blow off a philandering ex on “Shake It Off”: “Hold up / My phone's breakin' up / I'ma hang up and call the machine right back.” Butterfly was overt in its symbolism in the wake of Carey’s divorce from her controlling husband, music executive Tommy Mottola, but it’s in the video for “We Belong Together” that Mariah takes things one step further, becoming a runaway bride in the dress from her early 90s wedding. Even the cover art framed Mariah as a diva Colossus.
These flourishes of personality, from goofy-but-sharp verses to tongue-in-cheek self-aggrandizement, have expanded over the course of Carey’s post-Mimi output. Her album titles have grown ever more endearing and ridiculous, from E=MC2 to the latest example, Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse. She can cram an ultra-specific, absurd lyric like “even the Harvard University graduating class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together” into one breath for comedic and dramatic effect and succeed on both counts. Although her most recent two albums are barely commercial successes in comparison to Mimi, which sold 6 million copies in the US, Carey continues to be critically liked, and, outside of music, she has become beloved for her kookiness. As Rich Juzwiak recently pointed out, “[S]he is in on the joke, she assures us. A pop diva with a bloodhound's nose, she's sniffing out appreciation where she can.”
The Emancipation of Mimi, then, did more than brighten Carey’s star—it shifted her career’s trajectory. Losing mass appeal and, with it, commercial traction in the early 2000s despite her workhorse determination was likely devastating. But this failure opened Mariah up to new possibilities, helping her embrace a sound that music critics have praised in her work from the past decade and a style of self-presentation that has made her a beloved celebrity. Though Mimi performed as well as or better than Mariah's 90s albums, it also transcended the commercial bar Carey’s previous successes has forced her to be judged by. It was a success on its own terms. It was a statement of self, and that’s worth something, too. As Dupri asserted during one tangent of our conversation, “If this business was still the way that business was in the 90s, that fuckin’ Emancipation album would have been a diamond.”
David Lehmann is David... the elusive writer.