Free At Last

Mariah Carey chats about her new album, the dark days of "Glitter" and a girl nicknamed Mimi.

HX (US) April 8, 2005. Text by Lawrence Ferber.

What does it take for a hit album to cross over into pop, dance, R&B and hip-hop? A one-of-a-kind artist, phenomenal vocals, excellent production, talented guest contributors and that sparkly quality the hip-hop kids (and now the Oxford English Dictionary!) call bling-bling. "There definitely is bling in the album," admits Mariah Carey, amused. She's discussing her latest and possibly greatest labum, The Emancipation of Mimi (Island Def Jam). Jermaine Dupri, The Neptunes, Kanye West, Twista, Snoop Dogg and Nelly all contribute, and Carey's unmistakable seven-octave voice is arranged and textured in fresh new ways for the 21st century. And yeah, it's just bursting with jewelry-like bling-bling. "I like bling," Carey laughs. "It's got a certain quality that when you put it on, it lights up the moment."

Carey, whose closest friends and family call her Mimi, has plenty of work to do today, yet the earthy and forthcoming diva happily made time for a "gay" interview. ("There was a time when all I was allowed to do was go to gay clubs," she recalls, "because my quote-unquote husband was so afraid of me being around straight people.") The album's catchy, Jermaine Dupri-produced first single, "It's Like That" is already burning up the charts and dance floors. David Morales has worked his club magic on the track and an upcoming nine-minute remix of "Say Somethin'." Other upbeat album standouts include "Shake It Off," the playfully '80s-ish pickup ditty "Get Your Number" and smooth super-blingy "To The Floor."

"This is very much like a party record," Carey says. "Since the time I was in junior high, the process of putting on makeup and getting ready to go out... those are the moments you want to put on a record and get excited [about] whatever it is you're gonna do. I wanted to make a record that was reflective of that."

Yet Emancipation is balanced out by a handful of ballads and downtempo numbers. "The songs flow together really well," Carey insists. "Like you're going out, you're coming from going out, and then another song picks you back up."

As on all of her previous albums, Carey co-wrote every song on Emancipation. So where did all those breakup songs come from? "Past experiences, darling," she laughs. "You try to take those moments and channel them into something, because if not you just become bitter!"

"Shake It Off" takes a playful approach to bitterness — and, more specifically, a cheatin' bad apple — with lyrics like "I gotta shake you off/just like a Calgon commercial." "That's probably one of my favorite songs on the album," she admits. "Shake It Off" can apply to anything. Whatever personal dramas we go through, put that song on and you lose the anxiety or intensity of the moment. I'll listen to that song when I've just come out of an annoying meeting. I gotta shake this off."

Emancipation isn't a concept album per se, but it definitely sees Carey shaking off what audiences have come to expect. "Everyone expects [an album title] like Rainbow or Butterfly," she explains. "So I thought The Emancipation of Mimi was cool — that Mimi side of me coming out as opposed to 'Mariah Carey' celebrity or stigma or whatever preconceived notions people have of me as the person. This time I really experimented and played with how [my vocals] sounded as a whole."

That said, longtime fans will find plenty of her vocal/lyrical signatures and "drama" on tracks like "Mine Again," "Joy Ride" and "I Wish You Knew."

A Long Island native, Carey's life in music started the moment she was born: Her mother named her after the song "They Call The Wind Mariah." Mom also helped instill a sense of open-mindedness and acceptance in Carey. "I've always tried not to judge people," she explains. "My mom being an opera diva, artsy, love-everybody kind of rebellious girl from the Midwest who married a black man and who had predominantly gay friends. Nothing ever seemed like it was wrong or strange to me. It was a loving type of vibe I got. I basically was raised by two gay men, Ernie and Mort, who were best friends. When we didn't have a place to stay we stayed with them. So I feel like God recognizes us all as human beings and loves us as we are."

Carey began singing by age four, wrote songs by middle school and moved to New York City after high school to pursue a musical career. She admits that love — and sex — took a backseat during much of her youth. "I'm kind of prude, especially with straight guys because they can be dogs," she admits. "My sister had a baby when she was 15 — I'm thankful she did because her son is an amazing person, but I looked at what was going on with that and I made a conscious effort to focus on my career. And people would make fun of me because I was this virginal girl who walked around in tight dresses. They were like, What is this dichotomy going on here? So [in terms of sexual experimentation] I haven't really been the most exploratory gal in the land. I know that's boring for the readers!"

Her self-titled 1990 debut launched Carey into the pop (and drag queen lip synch repertory) stratosphere where she remained until 2001's critically mauled film Glitter and a series of personal/public breakdowns (not to mention the death of her father and breakup with boyfriend Luis Miguel).

Carey looks back at that quintessentially Behind the Music-worthy period "as something that had to happen in my life. That time period was so blown out of proportion. That movie and that soundtrack — which had some really good songs that hopefully one day I'll get to redo — the fact it came out on September 11, people need to remember. How can we expect anything from that? I was a scapegoat in a lot of ways for talk show hosts who wanted to get away from the real stuff going on in the world. We all have to go through our tests to see how strong we are and come out on the other side."

She's definitely on that other side now, and Carey says she owed this fact to God and spirituality. The final song on Emancipation, "Fly Like a Bird" boasts dashes of gospel and soul in addition to plenty of thanks to a higher power. Her pastor even makes an appearance on the track. "To me the most important thing is the message he says in the beginning of the song," she notes. " 'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.' I felt like a lot of people may not hear that message and a lot of people need to. It wasn't to be preachy. A lot of times people will hear songs that I write that are not the typical 'Mariah Carey songs.' 'Outside' is about being biracial. A lot of people relate to it because they felt like outsiders their lives."

Marriage is one thing Carey doesn't plan to go through again just yet. When asked about her feelings regarding the hot topic of gay marriage, Carey first responds by stating, "I think it's a huge political thing and I'm notoriously not political. If you asked me about any candidate I'm pretty much clueless. But I feel like everything in life is a personal choice" Then, after a few minutes, she adds that "after going through the experience I went through, my whole view on marriage is tainted no matter what kind of marriage we're talking about. I've been traumatized."

Happily, Mariah does have quite an exciting series of projects ahead. She's considered another foray into film acting (her performance in the underrated Wisegirls garnered attention from many movie producers), a possible remix EP, producing a track for 12-year-old Paul Robbins (they recently appeared on Oprah), and "there's possibly a Broadway Christmas show happening, based around my Christmas songs. Bling it on, Mariah!