THE MARIAH NETWORK

Setting Mimi Free

Mariah 'Digs Deep' On Upcoming Album.

On this severely cold March night, Mariah Carey is inside a studio at MTV's New York headquarters taping an interview for an upcoming broadcast. Walking out of the studio, she is heard muttering to no one in particular, "The abuse I endure is never-ending."

Minutes later, ensconced in one of the cable network's many conference rooms, Carey smiles and laughs. "I'm a little dramatic at times," she says, referring to the "abuse" comment. "I know, I know, it's tough to believe. But it's true."

Sure, the multimillion-selling, two-time Grammy Award winner has experienced great highs and lows in the course of her 15-year career. But on the eve of the April 12 U.S. release of her eighth studio album, "The Emancipation of Mimi," Carey is confident, upbeat and spirited.

"The Emancipation of Mimi" — the title comes from the singer's nickname — arrives March 30 in Japan and April 4 in the rest of the world outside the United States. In all territories, the set will sell as a standard CD and as a limited-edition Digipak (including a pull-out poster) with different cover art.

The album is decidedly pop and R&B, with flourishes of hip-hop. Carey co-wrote the set's 14 tracks and co-produced the bulk of them. She executive-produced the collection with Island Def Jam Music Group chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid.

The album features collaborations with several heavy hitters, including Jermaine Dupri, the Neptunes, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Twista and James "Big Jim" Wright.

The collection of songs rightfully places her voice front and center. It is as if Carey is returning to the place that put her on the map. Which helps explain the sniping campaign in major markets like New York and Los Angeles that proclaims "The return of the voice."

Giggling (again), Carey says, "Oh, so you've seen the posters? That's good."

On a more serious note, she says, "The voice has been here all along. Even if you listen to the oh-so-dissed 'Glitter' [soundtrack], there is a song called 'Lead the Way,' which is one of my best vocal performances ever."

She continues, "People who only heard certain singles would be like, 'Why is she singing so breathy?' Some people are of the opinion that if you have a big voice you should use it all the time."

Feeling The Voice

Though Carey admits she is a fan of big-voiced singers, "I don't want to hear someone scream at me all the time."

When Carey sings, she says, it's not about "showing off so everybody can hear me singing at the top of my lungs. But truth be told, I feel that my voice is in a better place than it has been in years."

She credits this to her Charmbracelet tour in 2003: "It was my longest tour ever, and it got me in great shape vocally."

This strength is not lost on Island Def Jam Music Group chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid. "We are feeling her voice again," he says. "She has an incredible voice — and she is using that voice on this album."

Island president Steve Bartels agrees. "There is a level of comfort with Mariah and these songs. She is digging deep into her soul."

Because of this, Reid believes Carey will touch people again.

This is already happening. The album's lead single, "It's Like That," is a top 20 hit on The Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart. And the David Morales uptempo remix was recently sent to club DJs. Indeed, the infectious track is resonating with many.

In fact, stations like rhythmic top 40 WBBM Chicago are playing the original version and the Scott Storch remix (featuring Fat Joe). "It's Like That" clearly got radio's attention, WBBM music director Erik Bradley notes. "Most programmers were excited to play Mariah Carey again on their station," he explains.

Bradley adds that that was certainly an accomplishment, especially since her last studio album, "Charmbracelet," "was not the airplay monster" that previous albums were. That album has sold 1.1 million in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

In addition to championing "It's Like That," WBBM spiked funky album track "Say Somethin'" for a couple of weeks prior to pioneering a second single, the anthemic power ballad "We Belong Together."

Bradley says the song should be another Carey slow-jam classic. "Great songs win, and there is zero doubt that We Belong Together is a great song," he adds.

Island has plans to send the album's closing track, the inspirational and spiritual "Fly Like a Bird," to gospel radio.

While radio appears to be wholly embracing Carey this time around, the label is not taking any chances. Simply put, Island VP of marketing Eric Wong says, "we are reactivating her fan base."

That process began months ago with the "Return of the voice" campaign and was followed by a promotion spotlighting the alluring album cover art.

Big-Time Promotion

The Brett Ratner-lensed video for "It's Like That" has been a staple on MTV and BET; it was also the focus of MTV's "Making the Video." Ratner also directed the video for "We Belong Together," which concludes the storyline that began with "It's Like That."

Along with shutting down Times Square for a performance on ABC's "Good Morning America," Carey will make several release week appearances in New York on MTV's "TRL," BET's "106 & Park" and VH1's "Save the Music" concert special. Also being discussed is an upcoming tour.

At the center of all the activity is Carey and that voice.

"Over the past several years, the [music] industry has produced many stars — not all of which can sing," Reid says. "Mariah can sing. Hers is an extraordinary gift."