Stuck Off The Realness?

Getting down with The Lox and Mobb Deep was good business for pop's biggest money-maker. But is there more to Mariah than blaxploitation queen?

Trace Magazine by Nicolas Hidiroglou

Trace (UK) June 1998. Text by Eddie Brannan. Photography by Nicolas Hidiroglou.

"I go round consciously trying to maintain in a world that's a little bit crazy," says Mariah Carey. Nestled deep in the backseat of her limo. "And I really love music. Like I really, seriously do, and I love the fact that now I'm able to do what I want and I just wanna get it exposed to as many people as I can and even if 99.9 percent of people who hear 'The Roof' don't know that it's 'Shook Ones,' it is.

Well that sounds reasonable doesn't it? Girlfriend's got her divorce on and now she's getting open. Hanging with the homeboys, shaking off the shackles of a faded relationship and making the kind of music that she always wanted to make. Way back when she was a teenager. Teenage-dreaming about success like this. But now. Almost for the first time in her life. Certainly for the first time in her professional career, she is being herself. And that should be a cause for an adulatory "Go, girl!" But for some reason folks ain't feelin' it. The skepticism and mistrust are palpable. And her motivation is being questioned. They say she's bandwagon-jumping. They say she ain't really down. They say she's fakin' it.

Making my way through customs at LAX, LA's enormous — and enormously characterless — international airport, I had to explain the nature of my visit to the young African-American officer who was on duty. I told her I was in town to interview a recording artist. "That's great! Who is it?" she asked, genuinely excited at the idea. I told her it was Mariah Carey. "Mariah Carey? Hmm," she said, in a disappointed kind of way. I was curious to know what had prompted that response, so I asked what she would want to know about the "people's pop princess," as one recent article referred to Ms. Carey. "Nothin', really. I don't really want to know anything about her at all!"

That wasn't the first time I'd heard that response over the last couple of weeks. In the run up to my trip to Hollywood for an audience with this one-woman, billion-dollar-plus entertainment industry (no exaggeration: 80 million records sold, around $15 a pop — go figure), I'd asked around my friends what they'd really like to find out about Mariah Carey, what they would have me uncover. In most cases they thought about it for minute, then just shrugged. Nothin' really. Nothin' at all.

Which is kind of strange, when you think about it. Whole industries have sprung up around the fascination we almost invariably have with our celebrities, to the point where even C thru Z-list personalities find themselves constantly on talk shows, in the tabloids and scandal sheets and generally being gossiped about, because folks seems to have an inveterate response to celebrity of any order, which is to get all up in its business.

But not, it seems, where Carey is concerned. She shifts product alright, to a degree virtually unmatched in the entertainment business, so she's popular, but only as in popular artist, popular music — pop. What she never seemed to possess was the electric snap and crackle of the truly stellar. That ineffable quality whereby someone seems to touch and engage with just about every other person on the planet — manages to actually mean something to virtually all of us — has not been a part of Mariah Carey's repertoire. Instead there she's always been, part of the pop firmament, singing well-meaning ballads in a voice of spectacular beauty without a shred of relevance. That is to say, without any direct links with our lives, our realities, our existence. Without significance, without connectedness, she was just... Mariah Carey, cut-out-and-keep pop star.

Then suddenly something a little strange started to happen. The Puff Daddy remix of "Fantasy," drawn from the Daydream album, featured a then-new phenomenon, a guest spot by a well-known rapper to beef up an otherwise fairly anodyne track and accrue to it some street love. Well, as a marketing device, it was nothing if not foreseeable. As the urban market suddenly became the market per se, that hood dap was going to become a valuable commodity, to be got by fair means or foul. And the conjunction of fair and foul was particularly apt in this archetypal example of the device. Yup, you remember — "Me and Mariiiiiiah:" enter stage left Ol' Dirty Bastard from moniker thru facial expression to vocal style the grimiest rapper to ever walk the earth. Alongside Mariah Carey? Why...?!

Back then hardcore devotees would never have thought that it would work. After all hip hop was inviolable, sacrosanct — neither for sale or hire, nor to be allied to any other cause. Hip hop at that time was all shout "Keep It Real," not yet the Benjamins. But the world she was a changin', and typically that consummate auteur of acumen, Sean "Puffy" Combs, was in the vanguard of her transformation.

The rest is recent history. Mariah Carey parted company with, and then divorced, her husband of four years, Sony boss Tommy Mottola. Their romance had been whirlwind, the marriage itself an extravagant spectacle costing some $500,000 (but how he recouped!); still rumors abounded of her being manipulated, controlled and dominated by a possessive and jealous Mottola. Various accounts tell of a certain Sony employee who would turn up wherever Mariah was of her being virtually imprisoned in the couple's Bedford, NY marital home. The rumour mill didn't end with the split either; in fact the stories got even more wild. Suffice to say they were probably mostly bullshit, but there's no smoke without a little bit of fire, as Carey herself concede, albeit tangentially.

Following the split and the divorce, Mariah Carey parted company with her manager Randy Hoffman and lawyer Sandy Gallin — said to be too close to Mottola — and did what she's done virtually every year since she left high school, every year this decade: she went into the studio and made an album. Butterfly is the latest in a long line of mega-selling albums from the Carey hit factory. It has the power-ballads for which she's globally, incredibly, unimaginably famous, and which emerge from a long-standing collaborative arrangement with producer/arranger/composer/songwriter Walter Afanasieff. His name has appeared on all her albums to date, so it is no surprise to see his credit after quintessentially Mariah songs like "My All," "Fourth of July" and the album's title track. But what does raise eyebrows is the list of other collaborators on Butterfly. Bad Boy, Trackmasters, The Ummah (ATCQ's production crew), Mobb Depp, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. And all of a sudden she's here, in our world, rolling with our peeps, gettin' down with our lives. For most of the last seven years she's been the squeaky clean pop queen, somewhere out there in the territory occupied by Celine Dion and Michael Bolton, (Boyz II Men? Babyface? Not even!) with about as much pertinence, but now she's all up in here. It's the Why...?! factor all over again.

Except, according to Mariah, it isn't, or at least has no business to be. This album, she claims, is absolutely, totally, 100 percent, like, her. Who she wants to be; where she wants that person to be at; what's going on at this point in her life, given all that's gone on at points prior to it. And while she won't admit to being totally happy right now, she says she's "probably the happiest [she's] ever been."

The reason for that happiness? Control. "I don't love being at this pace and not being able to do anything but at this point I'm choosing to do it myself," she states with evident satisfaction. "In the beginning I don't know that I really understood what I was doing." I ask if this is all there is to her life, this kind of stardom-maintenance process, and she says no; that there's another place she goes to, when she's in New York, around her people.

Then she tells a story about being around at the home of one of her girlfriends, staying up late and falling asleep on the couch. But "everybody was freaking out," she says, "calling her every five minutes and going 'Is everything all right, what's she doing, what's going on?' And my friend was like, 'she's fine, she's here.' But I was at peace and at ease so it wasn't a big deal to me. It's just that everybody else makes a bigger deal out of it, like 'why is Mariah sleeping on a couch in Brooklyn?'"

She tells this story, and I'm thinking two things: firstly that I've heard it before — she told it on the Oprah interview she did right after the separation — and also that it genuinely seems to be a big deal to her. That to do something most 27 year-old socially-active women just do from time to time, crash round their girl's crib, genuinely was something new and exciting to her, a kind of adventure. So I'm wondering, is this her stock 'hey, I'm just a regular girl' tale, her of-the-people bona fides? Or has it really been so long since she had the freedom to be something akin to what you and I might consider normal that this episode was still worth apparently months after it happened? It's exactly this kind of paradox that you're faced with the new-look Mariah Carey. On the one hand she seems so genuine, yet there's a whiff of manufacture behind her plausibility. Is she or isn't she?

Whatever, it got me thinking about the way she lives. The events of the day that culminated in this interview had been illuminating. The photographer and I arrived at the studio where we were shooting around lunchtime. Over the next several hours a retinue arrived piecemeal sundry publicists, a stylist, hair and makeup people, security guys, Mariah's manager, Mariah's executive assistant, two drivers, two tour managers, and so on. Everyone had a role to perform, a requirement to fulfill, so by the time Carey arrived around 7pm, the studio had the extra lounging areas that had been requested, the bottle of Cristal was on ice, the food she had ordered was prepared just so, and around 20 people were milling around.

Later on I comment upon this to her, about how whenever she goes in the world there's this advance guard travelling ahead, getting everything straight for her. Doesn't she find at all bizarre? And she does something that she is to do several more times over the course of the interview: start out seeming almost like she had to excuse the lifestyle her success has granted her. "But half of those people I don't know, for the most part," she says. "Not that I don't know them, and that's not a dis to the record company people or whatever, but half the people that are setting up half the things don't have a personal relationship with them. I don't order them 'go and make sure everything's set up.'"

This is disingenuous: not instructing your staff personally doesn't mean they aren't working for you. But it's as though she feels somewhat ashamed of the consequences of her popularity, feels compelled to distance herself from events to some degree, to see them as part of a preordained, natural process that just happens, rather than an inevitable adjunct to her chosen career.

It is only after this disclaimer that she gets to the nitty gritty: "At this point I feel I should have approval over certain things," she states, and I ask if she means because of her commercial position.

"Sure," she replies. "And because of being burned and having certain issues and problems and whatever." I ask if she'd had a lot of difficulties thus far, somewhat surprised, saying that I thought her career had been something like a fairytale. "Yes it has, and I'm very grateful for everything, and I feel very proud of a lot of the things that I've done..." Again this initial disclaimer — not wanting to appear ungrateful, almost apologizing before speaking her mind, "... but I don't feel like I lived a lot of those things that were going on; I don't feel like I really experienced them the same way that I'm experiencing things that go on now."

I enquire whether that were something to so with her marriage, and all of a sudden the long, free-associating answers dry up. Instead there are only short, ambiguous allusions, the real information communicated via facial expressions. It's something that I actually only noticed after the interview, while transcribing the tape. Certain difficult or problematic questions Carey handles by going into inscrutable mode, responding by grunt and grimace, so that any inferences I draw are just that — my contentions and no more, nothing concrete and attributable; or she does what seasoned politicos do — answers a slightly different question fulsomely, leading you away from dangerous territory. Both of which tactics reveal considerable savvy via a vis her public image and its handling. Unsurprising in a person of her position, but it does make you think a little when she infers (anything but unequivocally) that the squeaky clean, racially non-specific image was one imposed on her by the record company people, rather than something she acceded to because it was better for business. That paradox again.

But even if the latter were totally the case — and incidentally I don't believe it to be so, for reasons I'll go into later — it gradually became clear to Carey that the cost was too high. "I started meeting people who were also young and successful in the music business, and having relationships with them," she explains. "Forming friendships with Boyz II Men, Jermaine Dupri and Da Brat, and people that I related to on a creative level, and they would come visit me and we would work together at my house, but that was kinda like the extent of it. Or we would go places but it was all very surreal. Then they would go and they would live their lives and they would do normal things — even though they're still famous and they get noticed and things like that, it just seemed like they were freer in a lot of ways." She pauses for a second, rueful, and then continues in a measured, deliberate tone: "And that was kinda like the beginning of me looking around and saying, 'something's a little weird here.'"

What does she mean, I ask. That there were too many things she was missing out on? Implying was she kept from them by Mottola? She doesn't directly answer that one, but instead starts talking about her unconventional childhood, about life choices ("there were pivotal moments where I made choices not to do something or to de something, and had I chosen the other path I definitely would not be here right now."); which leads to another revelation concerning her period as the high-school hellcat ("believe it or not — and this is funny because my image is always goody two-shoes — but when I was in seventh or eighth grade girls used to be scared of me, that I was gonna like beat them up in the bathroom. I mean I was really a bad kid! I used to smoke cigarettes in the bathroom, slam kids against the lockers, I was bad!) which she says arose out of confusion relating to her race ("it was because of my insecurities; of being mixed, of being different, just not feeling comfortable within myself, so I was taking out my aggression of not being the norm, not really fitting into a specific category.")

A very revealing period of conversation this, because in it Mariah Carey confronts two of the popular (mis?)conceptious that abound about her: firstly that she is this squeaky-clean Malibu Stacey character; and secondly that she is in denial of her racially-mixed heritage. I respond by saying that all through her career she has seemed to embrace that very same racial ambiguity that troubled her so as a teenager, even though, as I mention, she did that "Fantasy" remix with ODB. Right away she starts talking about that record, about how she "got away with that by the skin of my teeth," that "had the record company known... I don't think they really realized how raw he was. They never listened to his album; if they heard the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers it would've been over!" rather than answering the question, which was about the "beigeness" she had hitherto personified.

Later on she gets a little more specific. "I don't know how much [racial identity] was downplayed from day one. And it wasn't me," she states. "The thing is, it still happens to me, and I can't tell you how many times I say in everything I do, my father is black and Venezuelan. That doesn't mean he's black from Venezuela. That means his mother was African-American from down south, a real hardcore black grandmother that'll set you straight in a minute, and his father is from Venezuela. His real last name was Nunes, Alfredo Nunes. My father's father changed his name when they moved here; they gave him another name which is what they did to a lot of people in those days if they couldn't pronounce it. And my mother, she's American but her parents came from Ireland. They always make it like, my mom's an Irish immigrant and my father's a Venezuelan guy who's black, and that's not how it is. My mother's from the Midwest, my father's from Harlem.

All of which makes me think about growing up. About how your teens and early 20s are the time when you arrive at a lot of decisions about yourself, about who you are, who you want to be, and come to terms with everything you are not. How that's an often painful, sometimes accident-prone period of growing up. How it's a time when decisions are made, later to be rued. Who among us can say they regret nothing, that they made no mistakes during adolescence? Who can honestly say that given the choices Mariah Carey had, they would not have done exactly as she did? Who then can condemn her if she decided that it would be easier at the time not to confront the issues she had with being of mixed descent, but rather let others define her as they preferred? If she made some mainstream records because millions of people loved her for them when she wasn't even sure she loved herself? If she let someone else make her career decisions for her? Even if later they were to regret some of those decisions, who can honestly say that to them it might not have seemed the best option at the time?

Which is what I meant when I wrote earlier on that I don't believe Mariah Carey is just some overexposed pop diva trying to restore herself a little cachet in a changing market by fakin' the funk. While Janet Jackson tries desperately to be Lauryn Hill on "Got 'Til It's Gone" and Aaliyah on "I Get Lonely," and Madonna aspires to Bjorkness all through Ray Of Light, Mariah Carey is still, essentially, herself. Butterfly is an archetypally accessible Mariah Carey album, tougher beats or no, so much so that Carey is more irritated by the flak she caught from within the Columbia operation than without.

"I'm still known for songs like 'Hero'," she says. "And I don't think that I've shunned that on this album at all. I think that in a sense people were trying to project this image on me, that 'she's gone left-of-centre, she's made a hip hop record,' but it's not a hip hop record. I collaborated with people I wanted to collaborate with, I worked with producers I wanted to work with, but it's basically the direction I was going in on 'Fantasy.' on the 'Always Be My Baby' remix, it's the 1997/98 version of where I wanted to be on Daydream." But the singles that I always love, like 'Underneath The Stars' and 'Melt Away' — singles that Brat will call me up and be like, 'Yo, you gotta make them release 'Underneath The Stars,' that's my shit!' — and no-one wanted to because they're like 'it's a passive R&B record, it doesn't mean anything,' and it just seemed like I was very mouldable. So they'd choose to put out like, another ballad, and the thing about me is that they know that I can write those other kinds of ballads."

A little later on she returns to this topic: "It's a problem because some people said this record is a little harder to market because it's a hip hop record." Why...?! Which record? I ask, staggered? "Butterfly!" she replies, equally dumbfounded. "The album! I'm like, 'are you crazy?' Yes there are tracks that are definitely influenced by hip hop but 'Fantasy' couldn't have been more that way.

But that version wasn't on the album so they kind of had an excuse, and it's like look, I still have the ballads on there, I have 'My All,' I have 'Butterfly,' whatever. I'm not stupid enough to just throw that side of myself away."

And again her answer is intriguing. The impression is almost of her having had to plead to be allowed to do this. Plead with whom though? The label, presumably, but rather than the logistics, it is her manner which fascinates me. I can't imagine Madonna, for example, saying of her record company that they had an "excuse" to discourage her creative vision.

I ask if there was then a conflict between expressing herself and fulfilling the commercial requirements of being Mariah Carey, and she ducks the question, replying instead with something about gauging Jermaine Dupri or The Brat's reaction to her songs to determine their crossover potential. Crossover from the mainstream into the urban market, that is, not vice versa.

So is her record label, Crave, then, perhaps an outlet for the type of material she feels unable to release for herself? She's quite happy to acknowledge the truth in that: "At this point it is. In the beginning I was doing so much other stuff that I wasn't really focused on a lot of the details, and now I really am. It's hard, because there's a lot, and the artists really at me for support." She talks about the groups on her label, of which Allure are the best known and for whom she co-wrote and co-produced three tracks. She also tells me about a new group she has called Seven Miles, who are "really talented, a guy group from Detroit, like a young Boyz II Men aged 17 to 20." She also mentions a rap group called The League, who she says are all that. She speaks with great enthusiasm about these groups and the label; it's clearly something she feels — not just a vanity project but definitely something of a creative outlet for her.

We talk for a while after that about who an artist she writes for, be it an idealized audience or for themselves. Mariah explains how this was perhaps the first album since her debut that she had really written for herself, with her situation in mind — with honesty. "This album, because of all the personal stuff that went into the lyrics, it's still very moving when I listen to certain things. I think like, wow! This last year was a very bizarre experience. But I got through it." This last said with defiant pride in her resilience, her self-sufficiency, like 'I did it.' In that moment I catch a sense of the bizarreness of her life. Moving from the most unconventional and unstable of childhoods (she hints at something dark, abusive perhaps; certainly something that happened in her house at night that kept her from sleeping, the cause of her lifelong insomnia), to the cosseting and coddling of a career and marriage that were intrinsically locked together and tended to exclude just about everything of real life (including sleeping on friends' couches in Brooklyn). Everything except, perhaps, unhappiness.

I ask if it has taken a long time to feel like herself again. "It's taken 'til now," she says, "but I've done things in the past that I felt really good about that weren't necessarily released, so now people are like, 'oh, she's jumping on the hip hop bandwagon.'" So how does she react to that? "I think it's ridiculous," she says, clearly annoyed. "For example, me and Puffy worked together in '95 on the 'Fantasy' remix. That's before Puffy was Puff Daddy, The Artist, and because I live in New York and I listen to hip hop and I have friends who go out to clubs every night I obviously knew that he was the hottest person to work with." I suggest that's her point of view, but that others don't necessarily see it like that. She nods and agrees, saying, "They see him, and then they see me." And they wonder how you got there, I respond. "Then they appear ignorant," she replies, vehemently. "They don't even realize I worked with this guy two years ago before he even had a solo record out. When he was very concerned about doing anything remotely commercial, and we almost didn't work together — it was like 'I don't know about messing with that pop stuff,' — but then he heard the track and he knew, because I already had the song written and I had the sample, and I said I wanted to work with ODB, and he said, 'what?!' It became huge, and at this point it's like, the masses [which, interestingly, is how she refers to her perceived audience] don't even know who Mobb Deep is." She pauses for breath — all this has come out in a heated rush — and then finishes her thought more calmly. "People that know me know that I'm a real person. That I'm not caught up in the hype, which 99.9 percent of the people in this business are."

The limo moves through the LA night, and the only illumination in the rear comes from the little fairy lights around the vanity mirrors above us, which cast their small pool of light onto our faces and very little else. Mariah Carey sits deep in the seat corner, seems relaxed — tired but calm, comfortable with it. She does come across very real — startlingly so, given that she is one of the biggest stars in the world.

Which takes me back to where I started. The relationship superstars have with their public is a strangely Faustian one. They are there to vicariously live their fans' lives for them, to suffer their losses, to feel their pain, understand the things they cannot. You can only do this by being there, for if you're not down, you can't understand, and if you don't understand then you can't be down. Being real with your private people is not enough in this game as, I believe, Mariah Carey understands. You have to real to everyone.

So that's why she's busting out of the shell, making music with Mobb Deep and Bone Thugs, partying, hanging out and sleeping on those Brooklyn couches. It's kinda a rebirth thing, from the darkness to the light: "There was a point that it was so bizarre,” she recalls. "I was running around on my own in a cab thinking where do I go, how do I get there? Early last year, like, what the hell am doing, and that was the start of the resurrection of the true person that I am."

You can be cynical about her motivation but you could also see the change in Mariah Carey as tacit acknowledgement of past errors; and recognize that in a world that's been more than a little bit crazy, you maintain any way you can.