THE MARIAH NETWORK

Butterflies Are Free

Mariah Carey split with her husband and fired her manager. Now she's ready to fly on her own.

Honey, the grabby first video from Mariah Carey's new album, Butterfly, opens with an arresting image: the singer is held captive in a luxurious oceanfront palazzo by two lugs wearing gold watches and thousand-dollar suits. But in the next scene, Carey slips out of her bonds and leaps from a balcony, swan-diving into a pool below. Emerging from the water in a bikini, she commandeers a small boat, outraces her pursuers and escapes to safety on a palmy island.

Carey's lushly romantic songs, many of which she wrote, including Fantasy and Dreamlover, have always encouraged such extravagant imaginings. But in this case, it's hard to avoid commenting the video — which Carey helped script — to her real life. In May, after four years of marriage and five multiplatinum albums together, Carey, 27, split from her husband, Sony Music president Tommy Mottola, 47, who had personally guided her career.

A few weeks later, Carey fired her longtime manager, Randy Hoffman, and attorney, Alan Grubman, both of whom happen to be close associates of Mottola's. "I've grown up," she explains. "It's been a gradual process of gaining creative control." So who can resist seeing Honey as a metaphor for Carey's personal declaration of independence? Well, actually, Carey herself. "It's just a James Bond spoof," she insists. "The actors weren't meant to be Tommy or anybody else."

Despite Carey's earnest disavowals, inquiring fans will find plenty of sport sifting for clues in Butterfly, which debuts next week. The album practically invites speculation with lines such as these from the song Breakdown: "What do you do/ When somebody you're devoted to/ Suddenly stops loving you?"; and these from Babydoll: "Do you care for me/ Beyond idolization?/ Tell me how you feel."

Fans will also find, Butterfly full of the kind of glossy, richly decorated love tunes that shimmer when illuminated by Carey's bright voice. She seems to have suffered none of the I've-got-to-prove-myself jitters. Even as the ground shifted beneath her, she wisely decided to stick to the musical terrain she knows best — resplendent ballads and sleek, romantic grooves. Butterfly, like Carey's last album, Daydream, has a breezy. unobtrusive style that flows easily from one song to the next. It continues the evolution that Carey began on Daydream — away from pure pop toward a keener-edged R&B and hip-hop-influenced sound. To help with the transition, Carey hired producer Sean ("Puffy") Combs, who brought a loping, hip-hop beat to Breakdown; rapper-producer Q-Tip, who selected the chugging drum tracks on Honey; and R&B singers Dru Hill, who trade soulful solos with Carey on The Beautiful Ones.

The new album represents a shift away from the comparatively innocent adolescent fantasies of Daydream. Underneath its cool sheen runs a thread of insecurity and loneliness that gives Butterfly a richer, more mature outlook. On the cut Outside, Carey sings of the creeping self-doubt of the lovelorn: "In your heart, uncertainty lies forever/ And you'll always be somewhere on the outside." Says Carey: "I feel more free to put more of myself into my music. There's a lot of real emotion in Butterfly. I lived with it. I woke up with it."

Carey intends to se her new independence to move her career beyond music, as Whitney Houston and Brandy have done. She has hired Hollywood manager Sandy Gallin to help her break into film and television and has begun taking acting classes.

She is discovering that being on her own has downsides she didn't have to worry about when she was the wife of a record mogul. Carey became a tabloid target earlier this year when she accompanied Q-Tip to a New York City nightclub. One columnist wrote that they were dating and that Carey was spending her time partying with gangsta rappers. Neither item was true. A few weeks later, however, the board of a luxury co-op building turned down her application to buy an apartment. "It was ridiculous," Carey says. "There were rumors and lies about me being the next queen of gangsta rap, which did not help."

Still, she could not have chosen a better time to go out on her own. She may be separated from the boss, but right now Sony needs Carey more than she needs Sony. Although the company has the new Oasis record and a new Celine Dion album coming this fall, it ranks fifth in market share among the top six record companies. Which means that as long as Carey keep turning out hits, she will be free as a Butterfly.