Hip-Hop Connection (UK) December 1999. Text by Jacqueline Springer.
From shaggy-haired pop diva to urban beach babe, Mariah Carey's come a long way in the last ten years. HHC get intimate with the honey with the voice.
It's trite to relay it, but it's true. On the freakishly hot September day in Manhattan, New York, with not a cloud in the sky or fresh air to inhale, a butterfly flies drunkenly into view outside the window of the hotel suite reserved for Mariah Carey's press-day. The vividly-coloured (sunset orange, earwax brown) insect jolts discordantly down the block, only to return less than five minutes later. Didn't Carey have an album out called "Butterfly"? Wasn't it that colour and why is it flying near her hotel today? But that's such a Mariah Carey question. Why?
Statistically speaking, Mariah Carey is a phenomenon. She gives great stats. She is officially the biggest-selling female soloist of this, the last decade of this century. She's five foot eight. She has a vocal range that exceeds five octaves. She's got dainty meet diddy feet. She's had a Billboard number one single every single, solitary year since 1990. She straightens her naturally curly hair, which adds to what she describes as her "racial ambiguity." And if that wasn't enough, Carey is still just 29 years old.
Unfortunately for Carey, the voice, the sales, the consistent success remains undigested in the minds of so, so many. Instead, the Carey question, the 'Why?', pops up. Why is she suddenly 'down' with black music after knocking out ballads after ballads? Why does she act so blatantly coquettish? Why has she started wearing so few clothes? Why did she really divorce Tommy Mottola? More to the point, why did she marry him in the first place? Why did she make that God-awful ballad with Whitney and then follow it up with her best street-geared work to date? Why are we feeling you don't like her, but remain interested and opinionated about her?
Today, butterfly notwithstanding, is the day Carey's 'Rainbow' has come into view. 'Rainbow' (which follows on from other singularly-titled albums 'Emotions,' 'Daydream,' and 'Butterfly') will eclipse so many of your Mariah-related musical preconceptions because it's better than anything she's done before. Better in the sense that it's more street, less saccharine, more fun, and, well now. This should come as little surprise since 'Rainbow' is Carey's sixth studio album, her eight overall. 'Rainbow,' from Mariah's angle, is her most unfettered recording it is unrestricted because it's not her debut, it wasn't recorded while she was a newly-wed, married to the boss or freshly-divorced. It's the sound of Mariah as a single woman, living with that, well-adjusted and in charge of her own image and musical vision composition. It's an album every artist deserves, and wants, to make. Their album. The one they've most say in.
'Rainbow' has that youthful TLC/Destiny's Child 'waggle your head, gimmie-some-attitude-work-it-sista-oh-my-gosh-listen-to-the-b-line on-that' street connotation coming from its grooves. It has a slew of teenage urban icon guest stars Snoop, Jay-Z, Da Brat, Missy, DJ Clue. Carey later voices concern that the amount of guests may seem like desperation. But when she shares the stage with Usher on 'How Much' over a loop of 2Pac's 'Me & My Girlfriend' or soars on the double-tempo'd beats of 'Thank God I Found You,' a Jam & Lewis joint that features R&B crooner Joe and US boy band 98 Degrees, she needn't worry. It's hardly a Toni Braxton/Foxy Brown remix. It fits. You will, assuming you currently don't, like Carey again because you'll get closer to getting her. Oh. And those stats? They'll go through the roof.
Mary J. Blige was once accused by singer miss jones of stealing her sound. But miss jones' comeback album bombed last year and she now presents a show on New York's must-listen to black radio station Hot 97. Carey was the guest in today's early morning slot, in to promote 'Heartbreaker' (the first single from 'Rainbow') whose tongue-in-cheek video is on constant loop on MTV and recurrently requested on Total Request Live (the US equivalent to the UK's Select). By the time we meet, Carey's a little deflated, a mood that is compounded by the fact that she's "getting a cold." She sips from one of those ol' skool bottles of Coca-Cola hoping for an imminent lift.
Despite her initially resigned air she looks gorgeous. What's evident from her attire jeans, pixie boots, leather jacket and tousled hair is that she's not really trying to 'work it.' Yet she harbours a compulsive air: you want to look at her, if only to discover why you never noticed the cheekbones that illuminate her face when she smiles wryly. Why eyes with an 'innocent girl with naughty intent' gleam bring her countenance alive. Why you didn't notice the beauty spot near her mouth, a full-lipped one that acts as the gateway to a voice that's sold millions but in speech is rugged and underplayed, gravely and well. Not like you'd imagined.
Carey has an observational beauty. You feel she's watching you, watching her. Coupled with the fame, the video coquettishness (the eyes to the ceiling, head lolling, and little finger at the corner of the mouth deliberate coyness), you're back at the 'why'?
"I'm glad I did the (radio) show today," she confesses, "but it confirmed just how much nonsense is out there. I wanted to talk about all the rumours flying around, and I was cool with that. But what I couldn't believe was that while we were on air someone sent in a fax. This fax was full of quotes, stating that I rejected an idea of doing collaboration with Lauryn Hill. How I didn't want to do it because it wouldn't benefit me. I mean," she stares full on, her eyes full of exasperation. "It's all lies! There's never been talk of a collaboration. Why would I make a statement to the press about it if there were? And why would someone make up this lie? Why would someone go to the trouble of making up sources, quotes, everything, faxing it in, knowing it's not true and making out that I've got a problem with Lauryn? I have the utmost respect for Lauryn and it bothers me that someonoe would think it's all right to make out that I'm dissing someone so beloved."
She sighs. "That's what I mean. I go on air to talk about all the nonsense who I'm supposed to be dating, my supposed wild parties, my 'in-quotes' new image and while I'm setting the record straight a fax full of lies comes through! You know, you just get out of the studio making music which is what I do and you come up against that. These lies..." she takes a sharp sip of her Cola, recounting her words, sets the bottle down and smiles self-consciously. Cheekbones. "Sorry, I'm, er, rambling."
She's not. Her exhaustion with the tabloidisation of her talent merely shows that Carey's has 'Why?s' of her own. Why media interest in her post-divorce creative and aesthetic blossoming has assisted in so many ignoring her musical accomplishments and relevance. Why disparaging comments proceed the utterance of her name. Why she feels she has to make a racial standpoint as a mixed-race artist. Like most black artists she'll probably have to die before she gets props for her startling success, and like most whlte artists she'll doubtless have to tolerate endless tabloid tittle-tattle until her props are due. The overriding reason for this funk is that Mariah Carey pisses people off. She doesn't play by the rules. She's spent her formative years in the public eye but hasn't crumbled to drink, drugs or multiple relationships. She's gone from a shaggy-haired 19-year-old who overgesticulated as she sang 'Vision of Love' to the beach babe with the 'Look at the tits on that!' beauty in 'Heartbreaker.' In short she's done what few have managed blossomed creatively and visually. She oscillates between the racially, socially and monetarily segregated forms of pop and hip-hop. She's young enough to get hip-hop, wise enough to know the importance of pop appeal, good-looking enough to toy with her looks, talented enough to not rely on them. She hasn't let her voice become regimented by its operatic basis.
She pisses everyone off all right. Royally. Because Carey does what so many would like to do, and sells more than any other woman on the planet. The ugly can't get sexy, the vocally restricted can't flip it, the hip-hop can't come back after they've done pop, and the popsters can't come into hip-hop. But Mariah can.
Mariah's made it easy for a lot of singer to make the leap, to marry urban music and credibility while garnering pop sales. She was one of the first mainstream artists to dip her toe in the hip-hop pool, to test the water in the same way older children fight the parental battle their young siblings win. Because of Carey's self-professed racial ambiguity, she and her voice were readily accepted into the mainstream and when her more urban material was released and succeeded she possessed a dual appeal pop and urban, the sonic antithesis of one another.
In the last few years Janet, Britney, Christina Aguilera, All Saints et al can now sing over hip-hop beats but have a firm basis in the mainstream. And it works the other way too. Because Carey returns to the bosom of the power-ballad from time to time, she's given Mary J. Blige the green light to move away from her street orientation and into more mainstream, grandiose, balladering; to do what a singer really wants to, sing how she wants what, to feel what feels right. It's doubtful that the Spice Girls would have a look-in with producers like Rodney Jerkins or Jam & Lewis were it not for the turnaround in perception that Carey's 'Fantasy' generated.
1996's 'Fantasy' was audaciously clever tool that David Morales mixed for the dance clubs and Puffy mixed for the street. The Wu Tang's ODB the grimiest rapper this side of Goodie Mob's Gripp was the Ying to Carey's Yang. It mattered not that we didn't believe his guest rap "Me and Mariah/Go back like babies on pacifiers..." 'cos the tune rocked. Still does. 'Fantasy' was not a marketing vehicle as far as Carey was concerned. It wasn't her express ticket to the ghetto.
She gives short thrift to those still under the assumption that she's used hip-hop to 'blacken' herself, once her mainstream success has been assured. And she has every right to since every one of her albums features urban material that should have been released, but didn't.
"A lot of the time they [the media] form the idea in listeners' minds. Calling me a 'pop' diva without listening to my work, so when I come out with an, 'in- quotes' [Mariah is particularly fond of this phrase], urban song it's like, 'Pop diva goes black'. I mean, pur-lease."
In order to redress the balance, long before the release of 'Fantasy,' Carey asked for her more R&B-adherent material to be released.
"I remember having so many meetings with my record company about releasing more of an illustration of my work in order to show fans who maybe only bought singles what I'm about, especially with the ballads doing so well. But their thoughts were that stylistically different singles would 'confuse' the core audience. I know how rounded I am musically but it was everyone else that was banging on about the pop diva."
That must have been dispiriting being unable to assert and reflect exactly who you are.
"It's more than dispiriting," she says with sombre weight, "to leave your home to go to the record company to have the meetings with the same person you come home with."
This is one of only two references Carey makes to Tommy Mottola, her ex-husband and head of her record label, Sony Music. A former actor, he was thanked profusely at the MTV Music Awards just two weeks ago by award-winners from his label (Will Smith, Lauryn Hill, Ricky Martin) and who, like Carey, are excruciatingly successful. It's on these occasions that Carey, oddly for an interview subject, says more by saying nothing at all.
Do you feel that the street community have love for you? "I was out with Jay-Z recently," she reveals of her collab partner on one of the two mixes of 'Heartbreaker.' "We were talking about a feature in Vibe about Tupac. There's a quote in there from one of the guys in Digital Underground who said he used to tell Tupac to turn off his tape of 'Vision of Love' and Sade songs and Tupac would say, 'You don't understand.' Jay-Z said to me," she stops suddenly, looking at the Dictaphone with enhanced caution. "I don't know if I should be saying this," her voice drops to a whisper. "I'm sure it'll be okay, but I don't know." She falls silent in contemplation, then looks up, her decision made. "Yeah. Jay-Z told me that it's all relative. That just because you don't make the music yourself doesn't mean it doesn't mean something to people who don't appear to dig it. He told me he was doing a bid and used to listen to 'Vision of Love' all the time, that others in there would say, 'That's the jam, that's special'."
She looks up, aware of the gravity of what she's said about Jay-Z, who's never openly revealed having been in jail. "He's made a huge journey, he used to listen to me, and my song meant something when he was enduring that..." she falls silent again. "So yeah, I feel love."
Guys are feeling Mariah. Always have. But a new breed of guy is down with the honey with the voice. Biggie, in his "Dreams Of Fucking An R&B Bitch' litany, declared "Mariah Carey/Kinda scary," in the same way that guys look at Spice Girl Mel G as the 'scary fit one', Part intimidation, part sexy goddess. Out of your fucking league.
In one of her innumerable interviews, Carey said, again, by saying nothing at all, that she's not a voracious dater. She didn't date at all in her school years in New York. After she left education and recorded her demos she went to a party with singer Brenda K. Starr in 1988. Starr introduced her to Mottola and gave him her tape. Carey left the party before he did, so by the time he popped it into his car stereo and returned he couldn't find her when he tracked her down he signed her to a deal that's made her the most successful female soloist of the decade. When they married in 1993, few could believe it. Now, when Carey says she's only been involved with two men Mottola and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter few believe. She knows noone believes her. What's healthy is that she doesn't care. But given the history does it now follow that you are more likely to date someone neither in the industry or famous?
"It's funny...when you mention dating fans, even they can be successful individuals in their own fields who started out as fans and you date them and you think about them and care about them, for them. But they're still looking at 'the artist'... Because I don't walk around thinking of myself that way, I don't understand it.
"See I was in a situation where I was vulnerable...I mean, I don't know if you get that impression from me, but I meet a lot of famous people and a lot of them are like, so into their own world. I try to be real, so it's hard when you're a vulnerable person and people don't necessarily see that; they may be blinded by what you do, who you are...it depends," she smiles naughtily, "It could be a fan."
Lust is a good remedy to vulnerability. Are you allowed to fall in lust? Do you feel liberated enough to act like that? "I can if I wanna get my picture in the paper the next day..."
Are you aware that there are lazy thinkers out there who don't see that journey who merely see the titty top, the shorts and, well, disappear into the bathroom for an hour?
"I guess I look at stuff from a more innocent point of view...I went for so long with being out of touch with my sexuality in a lot ways. I have pictures of myself as a six-year-old posing in a bikini on the beach. I don't know who the hell I thought I was then but I'd sign the picture so my natural tendency has been to ham it up and wear little outfits and stuff like that ever since I was a little kid...it's just that that was toned down. But I don't think, 'Oh, perverts are gonna look at this and have a ...whatever...but now that you're telling me this, I feel even worse. Thanks!"
It's getting late. Despite Carey being a scream dry-witted, acutely aware individual she has a long day ahead and all the Coca-Cola she can digest. But she also has something to get off her chest.
"I did a feature for Interview magazine, a 20 most important entertainers or whatever. My friend and I looked at it when it was published. I was happy with it, but I looked at the credit next to it. It said 'Mariah Carey: singer'. On the next page it had Mary J. Blige: singer/songwriter. On the page after that it had Puffy: rapper, enterpreneur, pop star. Jewel: poet, singer, da-da-duh-duh...I'm like, 'You know what? How many albums do I have to write every single frigging song on to get some credit?' And I don't know if it's because people perceive me as this vocalist with a big range and most of those people tend to not write their songs and they don't want to acknowledge that..."
There are few singers of Carey's range, success and youth who write as many songs as she has. Much has been made of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu's propensity to write as well as they sing. Take a look at the sleevenotes for other female singers, however, the most are not that broadly capable. But Carey's accredited. It makes sense since she writes 95 per cent of her material. But few know Carey is a prolific recording artist who releases albums instinctively, rather than with the delay, say, of Whitney Houston (eight years) or Janet Jackson (three). Still caught up on those 'Why?s'.
Carey's mother is Irish and estranged father Venezuelan, but once she succeeded in the mainstream, rather than get props for her lyrical eloquence, she found herself under pressure to declare herself black. She rightly stated that to do so would be to erase her mother's viability in her life. Now, with the latest media seduction with America's vast racial pot-pourri, namely the 'Latin' explosion, attention has shifted. But Carey still picks at the wounds.
"I think being mixed is a little more accepted in Europe, I don't know, I could be wrong. But I know that if you're half-Chinese, half-Italian, you're allowed to be half-Chinese and half-Italian, but if you're half-black and white or half-Spanish and white in America you're not allowed to be what you are: both. That's actually the most racist of all thoughts and that dates back to the slave days when they came up with the One Drop Theory [that one drop Afrocentric blood deemed a person black and consequently a slave Ed]. That's what I feel good about my contribution. If I've done nothing else as a performer I feel like at least people know I've gone through it. They have someone they can look at and say, 'You know I can do it too. I'm okay.' But I didn't have that. A lot of mixed-race kids write to me and say, 'You've made me feel like it's okay for somebody mixed to succeed in life'... Maybe that was my mission.
"Fortunately I think, I hope, that people understand that this is the music that I love and I love all types of music and I've tried to integrate a lot of different things on this album. I've a lot of collaborations on it, but that's not me trying to become hip to the scene...I co-produce all my own work. I work with a producer in the studio when I'm singing, but that's it. Prince is saying to me that he can teach me how to operate the studio entirely. I know how to punch-in vocals if I was producing for someone else, but I don't know how to do if for myself. Anyway, co-producing is the only way I could incorporate all the styles I wanted to work with on this LP.
"Let's say there's another singer who's not a writer or a producer and sang with all the people I've worked with on the album, and worked with all the styles I have on the album it would sound like it didn't fit. I know how to merge the sounds because the sounds are in me. That's the whole rainbow the different colours of music, the music that I like, the colours of my voice; it has racial connotations for me. A blend."