Babe In The Hood

Out have gone the long dresses and epic ballads, in have come the crop tops and R'n'B cuts. In the space of a few years, Mariah Carey has been seamlessly transformed from a squeaky clean diva into a steamy urban sex symbol. As she gears up for the release of her new album, Touch hooks up with one of music's hottest properties and finds out why these days she's more at home with the street crowd.

Touch (UK) November 1999. Text by Gus Mundawarara.

Friday afternoon and it's hard to muster up the energy to do any work at the best of times. However, Friday afternoons in New York City and you might as well multiply this feeling ten-fold. Smart young office girls (who you just know will be dressing down hip hop style come 9pm) dart in and out of the fashion stores lining the near ten mile stretch of Broadway that cuts straight through the middle of Manhattan, as they seek out that fly new outfit for the weekend. Homeboys swoop en mass into Foot Locker, eyeing that pair of kicks that might make the difference between winning and losing in the honie stakes. And Manhattan's yuppie set, the well-heeled ladies and gentlemen that reside in the expensive tracks of real estate on the island's upper east and west sides, extend their lunch-time drinks well into the late afternoon. More so than London, Birmingham or Manchester or any other city you care to quote, come four o'clock in the Big Apple, there's no doubt that carefree, let's-go-out-to-play Friday feeling is enveloping the air. Me? Well, yeah, I admit it, it's tempting to head downtown to get that pair of Nikes for £30 cheaper than the ones I saw in London, but a meeting with a superstar recording artist with cover-girl looks and pin-up figure is enough to swing the balance back to a work ethic.

That girl is Mariah Carey. With 115 million records sold so far during her career, Ms Carey is, as one native New Yorker I met put it, like, "Coca-Cola" — she is known everywhere. The stats go some way to bearing this out. Her current single 'Heartbreaker' is her fourteenth number one in the US, a figure not that far off the greatest hit-mongers of all time, The Beatles — who currently hold the record for number ones in America with twenty. Elvis was at the pole position seventeen times. And if your maths isn't up to much, that's just three more than Mariah. By anyone's standards, this ain't bad going.

At the Right Track recording studio located in Manhattan, where Mariah recorded a lot of the vocals for her seventh album, 'Rainbow,' a preview of the latest installment of her story is being aired for a small knot of selected journalists. As the roomful of some of music journalism's foremost tastemakers absorb the loud (these press preview sessions are always conducted at ear-drum damaging noise levels) crisp sounds shaking from the speakers, what's immediately apparent is that much of it is dominated by the R'n'B sound. It's a far cry from the early ballady days of her career, the days before she hooked up with the hip hop community and got matey with Puffy and the rest.

Highlights of the LP include 'How Much,' a duet with Usher, which is reminiscent of Usher's own 'You Make Me Wanna.' Producer of the moment Kevin 'Shakespeare' Briggs (of 'No Scrubs' fame) co-produces 'X-Girlfriend,' a sassy tale of female rivalry which musically isn't too far removed from another Briggs-produced club monster, namely Destiny's Child's 'Bills, Bills, Bills.'

It's only later in the afternoon, after the journos have departed, that the lady herself appears. She's squeezed into a pair of denim jeans that hug that 'all-American girl' figure to perfection. A green t-shirt is stretched across her breasts (which seem to get bigger every time she makes a new video). She's big on tight clothes is our Mariah. I don't even need to say it but Mariah is fit by anyone's standards. She also talks a lot. And unlike a lot of musicians who occupy a superstar orbit, Mariah rarely needs prompting during an interview. I ask her how she thinks the record buying public — cynics included — will react to her headstrong change towards a purely R'n'B direction.

"I think people who actually know my albums, as opposed to just the singles I've released, will realise that the R'n'B element has always been there," she asserts. "Take the song I did a few years back, 'Dreamlover.' Some people just think of it as a happy song I did. They don't know the name of the instrumental funk loop that underpins it, or who I worked with on it. A person that just knows me for the ballads, or on the face value of a 'Dreamlover'-type song, wouldn't necessarily realise I was into hip hop whilst growing up."

The hip hop influence is apparent on current single 'Heartbreaker,' which boasts not only a guest appearance by Jay-Z, but co-production by one of New York premier hip hop DJs, DJ Clue. "Clue and I are friends. We were hanging out and another friend of mine knew he had this track that sounded like it would suit my flavour. She was like, 'Play that for Mariah. She would want to write to that'," she recounts.

Mariah's also acutely aware of hip hop's influence on the American pop market and that unlike a few years ago, the song may have not been welcomed so much had it been another big ballad. Still, the new album does contain a few ballads in the vein of her previous hit singles such as 'Hero' and 'My All,' not to mention a cover of Phil Collins's 'Against All Odds.' And Mariah accepts that she's still associated with the big-voiced, big production numbers. "Yeah, I am on a certain level but I would be bored out of my mind if that's all I did. When I listen to this album I listen mostly to 'Crybaby' with Snoop and the remix of 'Heartbreaker' with Da Brat and Missy. 'Vision of Love' was number one on the R'n'B charts before the pop charts. Even though it was a ballad, it was an across-the-board-thing. To me that's something that I'm proud of, being able to appeal to both markets. You wouldn't believe it but there's still some resistance to me on pop radio. They look at me and say I'm too urban."

Along with putting more emphasis on an urban sound, it can't have escaped the attention of many that Mariah has cut the bottoms off those long dresses. The clothes have become tighter and more revealing. And her appearances in videos for tracks such as 'Honey' and 'Heartbreaker' have stirred the groins of the MTV/The Box viewers that want to admire Mariah for more than just her singing talents. "Now I can just be what I want," she says of her image transformation. "Before everybody was being so paranoid, saying things like, 'wear a long dreaa and sing a song and be a diva because that sells.' And it did sell, does sell and will always sell. If someone is a singer, has mass appeal and is non-threatening, that's great. That is a part of who I am. But I'm also a person who likes to go out to clubs and have a good time. Back when I was doing those other records, I wasn't really going out. I wasn't allowed to do a lot of things. I couldn't dress how I wanted to dress. That was when I first started out and was first in that whole relationship thing."

The 'whole relationship thing' that she refers to, I presume, is her marriage to Tommy Mottola, President of her label, Sonny. The two married when Carey was 23 years old and Mottola was twenty years her senior. According to the music industry rumours, Mottola was not so much a marriage partner as a father figure. And a very controlling one at that. Mariah, while not wanting to dwell on the subject too long, does say that despite the success her career enjoyed during the time she and Tommy were married, the period wasn't exactly a non-stop carnival of laughs. "When I started doing collaborations with Da Brat, Jermaine Dupri and Boyz II Men, I always had friends who were singers. They would come over to my house but we wouldn't really go out. I saw my contemporaries having fun, freely living their lives and being true to who they are. I, however, was in a different place. I was in a relationship with someone older, it was a different thing. I was miserable constantly. It's healthy to be able to go out, especially as a young adult. You know why I think I'm so grounded and not a freak? I didn't experience that fame thing when it first happened to me. I didn't go on tour really; I wasn't in touch with people. So now when I got out, people are like, 'Why is she going out? She's at a club?' People are used to it now but at first it confused everyone because they had never seen me out before. But really it's in my nature to be a fun-loving person."

After the demise of her marriage, many assumed that Carey's career would be on shaky ground. After all, divorcing your boss isn't exactly Rule Number One In The Book Of Career Advancement. But in the immediate period after the split, Mariah managed to have another successful album in 'Butterfly' and also won a Best Song Oscar for 'When You Believe,' a duet with Whitney Houston taken from the Prince of Egypt soundtrack. For the record, Mariah maintains she and Whitney are friends and not the warring divas suggested on some publications. For many reasons (not least because she also has a sexy image and is romantically linked to Tommy Mottola), Jennifer Lopez's name cannot fail to crop up in the conversation. The normally very opinionated and talkative Mariah goes very quiet when asked what she thinks of Jennifer Lopez's new found music career. She's diplomatic alright, but her diplomacy is easy enough to read into. When asked if she thinks Jennifer's image is following a blueprint successfully used by herself, Mariah offers, "I think I'd rather not comment on other artists and particularly not single out any individuals. However if we're talking about artists in general, usually you work with what you have. For instance, if you're the sexy dancer type of girl, you make the most of it. While the ballad singer will just stand there and sing and be plain. I can't speak on anybody else's image, though."

Mariah has forged a career which has seen her go from being an 18 year old wannabe to one of the most successful female artists of the decade. Many of today's young starlets, your Britneys and Billys, will probably be grately to still be around this time next year. "When my record company first put me out, there was a conscious decision to not market me as a teen act, because that only lasts so long," says Mariah. "I mean, either you really have to grow into your artistry or you're part of a fad, and fads end. They wanted to make me very plain and not about any kind of clothing or whatever. They wanted me simply sitting on a stage singing so people would notice the voice. So it didn't matter if I was 18 or 30. No one really would have known either way. It was about getting people to notice me as a vocalist. I think that worked in my favour. Now I can have fun and do what I want."