The Guide to Getting into Mariah Carey, the Originator of All This Pop Shit
Mariah Carey brought hip-hop to a pop audience not out of necessity, but because it was a part of her identity.
Photo by Ke.Mazur/Getty Images
Mariah Carey has one of the most iconic episodes of MTV Cribs. Name another episode that flaunted a three-story Tribeca penthouse apartment as someone’s “first apartment ever.” That’s a slight flex. The episode gave her fans a glimpse of her luxurious life which, in 2002, wasn’t as easy as pressing “follow” on Instagram. Inside were over-the-top items like a closet dedicated solely to lingerie, and a piano that belonged to Marilyn Monroe. In the half-hour episode, there were five outfit changes—yes, five—and she even did a few reps on a vertical climber in four-inch stilettos.
To see the 1,100 square feet Carey lived in was to understand the leaps and bounds she took as an artist. Nothing about her living quarters suggested she was ordinary and her voice conjured the same feeling. Twenty-eight years ago, Carey didn’t hold back on “Vision of Love,” the opening track of her self-titled debut. This was her introduction to the world and with a five-octave range, she was anything but average.
When she entered the music world, Carey was a marketing dream. Her voice was transformative. She could bend it, stretch it, and pinch it to her liking, channeling the rolling soul of Aretha Franklin to the feathered falsettos of Minnie Riperton. After catching the eye of executive Tommy Mottola, Columbia Records launched one of the most expensive campaigns for a new artist to make Carey a priority for pop stardom. Poised to be the machine behind Columbia Records meant the black women of pop like Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were now her peers. For much of Houston’s career, she was made to feel like she wasn’t black enough. But for Carey, who is racially ambiguous, this meant she had greater cross-appeal than her contemporaries. The company didn’t need to peg her solely to an urban market. No matter how Columbia tried to dress up her ballads, elements of gospel, soul, and eventually her trademark blend of hip-hop would seep through.
Carey’s legacy, however, will extend far beyond her overdone aesthetic and being heralded as one of the greatest shade queens of our time. Today, pop music remains, well, popular, and rap has found a space to coexist as more than a subgenre. The collaborations are truly mutually beneficial. It’s why Maroon 5 has a song with nearly every rapper and footage of Oprah dancing to “Havana” without Young Thug exists.
Like many of the black women before her, Carey fought for creative control of her career which came at the end of a divorce with her former boss, Tommy Mottola. The result was 1998’s Butterfly, an album that gave Bone Thugz-N-Harmony’s Wishbone and Krayzie Bone space on an album alongside Dru Hill. In an interview with V Magazine earlier this year, the singer reflected on the days where no one understood her vision. “Now everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it’s so innovative, a pop artist working with rappers!’ I’m like, are you serious? Do you know how much shit I had to go through just to work with anyone in hip-hop?” Carey brought hip-hop to a pop audience not out of necessity, but because it was a part of her identity.
So you want to get into: Mariah Carey, the Pop Princess
Most of Mariah Carey’s traditional pop music exists on her albums that predate 1998’s Butterfly. There is the grandeur of “Emotions,” which Ariana Grande covered in 2012 before Grande nestled into a career that would eventually cause Billboard to name her Woman of the Year. Carey’s voice is often the barometer for talent and though many could not surpass her, whether you fell on the right or wrong side of history was completely up to your vocal prowess. Grande’s choice to cover “Emotions” was a blatant way to step into pop, proving Carey is still the standard two decades later. Built with a strong disco foundation, the pianos dance under her booming vocals and even give her whistled falsetto room to breathe. “You’ve got me feeling emotions / higher than the heavens above,” she sang, moments before she pierced the breakdown with high notes exactly how you’d expect the daughter of an Opera singer to deliver. It’s a hell of a way to open her sophomore album, but Carey was careful she didn’t give up her best work on only her openers.
The pop production of the early 90s felt like it took a one-size-fits-all approach. The drums and synths varied little and the foundation of a song for Madonna could also work for Janet Jackson, who used her whispery tone to find a distinct tone, while Whitney Houston’s booming voice suggested the opposite. Mariah straddled between the two. She gave sultry whispers, sweeping growls and her signature high note to put the Mariah stamp on pop. Songs like Music Box’s “Now That I Know” was proof she didn’t falter when it came to keeping up with the times. C&C Music Factor’s David Cole and Robert Clivilles—the duo who created “Emotions”—used elements of house and dance to amplify Carey’s already dynamic voice. Carey took the song up a notch but added a choir behind her vocals, which layered her gospel influence into something more mainstream.
Playlist: "Emotions" / "Someday" / "Dreamlover" / "Flay Away (Butterfly Reprise)" / "Thank God I Found You" / "Sent from Up Above" / "To Be Around You" / "You're So Cold" / "Prisoner" / "Now That I Know" / "Fantasy" / "Daydream Interlude - Fantasy Sweet Dub Mix" / "The One" / "I'm That Chick" / "I'll Be Lovin U Long Time" / "For the Record" / "Up Out My Face" / "#Beautiful" / You Don't Know What to Do"
So you want to get into: Mariah Carey, Santa’s Biggest Helper?
It’s no secret Mariah Carey invented Christmas—and technically she did. In 1994, before holiday albums were a mainstay for a pop star’s career Mariah did it first and she did it when it was frowned upon. In the early 90s, a Christmas song didn’t have a long shelf life but that didn’t stop Walter Afanasieff, co-writer for “Hero,” and Carey from crafting the only album that matters during the holiday season. The singer decorated the studio with Christmas lights to ignore the fact that they were recording in June. When Carey does Christmas, she doesn’t only stick to the cheer of “All I Want for Christmas,” but she gets a chance to flex her muscles on gospel-tinged songs like “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child,” and “The First Noel/Born Is the King.” Merry Christmas is the best-selling Christmas album of all time. Not bad for an album no one thought would sell.
Playlist: "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" / "Oh Santa!" / "The First Noel/Born Is The King Interlude" / "Joy to the World" / "Silent Night" / "All I Want for Christmas Is You" / "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home" / "Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child" / "Charlie Brown Christmas" / "Jesus Born on This Day" / "When Christmas Comes" / "All I Want for Christmas Is You"
So you want to get into: Mariah Carey, the Ballad Butterfly
There are few pop stars with a voice powerful enough to will you to tears—that spot is usually reserved for gospel or soul singers. Taking cues from Gladys Knight and the Clark Sisters, it wasn’t long before Carey earned her spot among the ranks. The first time we heard from the singer, she was 20-years-old and making the melismas Houston adopted from the black church her own. Beyoncé even cites Carey’s runs on “Vision of Love” as the template she followed for experimenting with the range of her own voice.
As Carey’s career grew, she became omnipresent. “Hero” was the soundtrack for almost every school recital, and “Always Be My Baby” was absolutely on the breakup mixtape you gave a jilted lover. Beyond her unnatural ability to sing, the voice she possessed in her songwriting was equally as strong. “Even from the beginning, I said, ‘If you want to put me with people to write with and collaborate, that’s fine, but don’t try to force me to record someone else’s song,” she told Rolling Stone in 2006. Writing was a part of establishing her autonomy. In the thick of her marriage to Mottola, who was 21 years older she was, she created Daydream like “I Am Free,” a foreshadowing of the freedom she’d gain after her divorce and “Looking In,” one of her most introspective songs. “She smiles through a thousand tears and harbors adolescent fears / She dreams of all that she can never be,” she sang. Being molded into the label’s definition of who she should be wouldn’t do, and although she’d test the waters on “Fantasy,” it was the remix that would provide the blueprint for her legacy.
Playlist: "Vision of Love" / "One Sweet Day" / "Love Takes Time" / "We Belong Together" / "Hero" / "If It's Over" / "Always Be My Baby" / "Petals" / "After Tonight" / "Till the End of Time" / "Vanishing" / "The Wind" / "Never Forget You" / "Without You" / "Underneath the Stars" / "Open Arms" / "I Am Free" / "Bliss" / "Melt Away" / "Rainbow (Interlude)" / "Looking In" / "Close My Eyes"/ "Vulnerability (Interlude)" / "Butterfly" / "Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can't Give Up Now)" / "I Want to Know What Love Is"
So you want to get into: Mariah Carey, the Crossover Sensation?
When Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard appeared on the Bad Boy remix of “Fantasy” it was a brash declaration that Carey knew integrating hip-hop in her music would work. “They laughed at me at the label when I played them my ‘Fantasy’ remix...” she reflected in Rolling Stone. “But you can’t explain to someone who didn’t grow up on hip-hop and who’s wanting to listen to the GoodFellas soundtrack exclusively that this is hot and it will be a classic.”
It worked so well, the single became the first song by a female artist to sit atop Billboard’s Hot 100. When ODB interpolated Marie and Donny Osmond’s “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock N Roll,” convulsing through his verse, it poked fun at what the American standard had been. Mariah was there, with the help of her friends, to dismantle decades of the cookie cutter image.
Aside from “Fantasy,” which spent eight weeks at No. 1, Butterfly was scattered with moments that became her trademark. She sang over Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” on “The Roof,” and emulated the swift flow of Bone Thugs on “Breakdown.” Heartbreaker followed this format, not only with a collaboration from Jay-Z, but an appearance from DJ Clue. The album opened like a mixtape with sporadic DJ drops, a vast departure from the light twinkle that began 1993’s Music Box. Carey reemerged in 2005 with The Emancipation of MiMi, an album that showed she was still a contender of the new millennium. She adopted the writing style of a rapper. Instead of the lyrics that read like journal entries, she was sharp and witty. Under Tommy Mottola’s rule she’d never be able to say “Them chickens is ash and I’m lotioned.” She even released a pretty impressive Mean Girls-inspired diss track aimed at Eminem. Her breath control was even different. She managed to cram words in by the second and it showed in her ballads, too. How long did it take you to be able to successfully sing: “I’m feeling all out of my element / Throwing things, crying, trying to figure out where I went wrong / The pain reflected in this song ain’t even half of what I’m feeling inside.” Mariah manages to fit an entire pre-chorus in under ten seconds. Whether it was collaborations with Cam’Ron, duets with Usher, or Jermaine Dupri, Mariah Carey established a market for both sides of her world.
Playlist: "Fantasy" / "The Roof" / "Heartbreaker (Remix)" / "Boy (I Need You)" / "Long Ago" / "How Much" / "Fourth of July" / "Side Effects" / "I Know What You Want" / "Shake It Off" / "My All/Stay Awhile" / "Honey" / "It's Like That" / "Breakdown" / "The Beautiful Ones" / "You Had Your Chance"/ "Heartbreaker" / "Honey (Remix)" / "X-Girlfriend" / "Always Be My Baby (Remix)" / "You Got Me"/ "Thirsty" / "Babydoll" / "Cruise Control" / "Say Somethin'"
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.