Mariah Sticks to a Known Equation

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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mariah Carey is famous for her big voice, not her big ideas -- and yet she's titled her new release "E=MC²."

Not that it's a concept album about physics: The title is a reference to her 2005 comeback album, "The Emancipation of Mimi," a career-saving smash that reestablished Carey as a bona fide hitmaker after a series of artistic misfires and a very public meltdown.

Having found that winning formula of coquettish club bangers, emotional ballads and frisky, mid-tempo coos -- most of them set to hip-hop beats and suffused with sharp pop hooks -- the diva with the golden tone has eschewed radical experimentalism here for stasis.

"E=MC²" is mostly more of the same, then, with the "2" representing something sequential rather than exponential. Meet the new Mariah, almost exactly the same as the old . . . "Mimi"!

Of course, that's exactly what The People want: "E=MC²'s" lead single, "Touch My Body," recently landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Mariah -- and her alter ego, Mimi -- 18 career No. 1's. Carey now has more chart-toppers than any solo artist in pop history (Elvis Presley had 17) and is just two behind the all-time record-holders, the Beatles. How's that for a theory of relativity?

"Touch My Body" is a hooky come-on built around a circular keyboard line and a stuttering mid-tempo beat that's accented by finger snaps. If that sounds somewhat familiar, it should: "The Emancipation of Mimi's" biggest hit, "We Belong Together," was a hooky lament built around a circular keyboard line and a stuttering mid-tempo beat that was accented by hand claps.

"E=MC²'s" second single, "Bye Bye," also recalls a 2005 hit, "Don't Forget About Us," as the two singles feature similar melodies. But whereas Carey played a brokenhearted lover in "Don't Forget About Us," she's proffering a different kind of remembrance in "Bye Bye," an inspirational song that comes with its own set of suggested demographics and instructions: "This is for my people who just lost somebody," Carey declares. "Your best friend, your baby, your man or your lady/Put your hand up high/We will never say bye."

The new album even opens with a flirty club banger, "Migrate," and closes with a gospel song, "I Wish You Well" -- a la "Emancipation," whose bookends were club banger "It's Like That" and the gospel song "Fly Like a Bird." As with that album, "E=MC²" also features plenty of emotive ballads ("Last Kiss," "I Stay in Love," "For the Record"), guest rappers (T-Pain, Young Jeezy) and collaborations with of-the-moment producers and songwriters ("Umbrella" co-creator Terius "The-Dream" Nash, Timbaland protege Nate "Danjahandz" Hills).

If not for the lyrical references to YouTube and last year's Hurricane Chris hit, "A Bay Bay," along with Carey's use of T-Pain's auto-tuner on "Migrate" -- a newly popular studio trick that needlessly distorts her greatest gift -- one might mistakenly assume that "E=MC²" is filled with leftovers from the "Mimi" sessions.

But Carey isn't exactly the same artist now. For one thing, she doesn't sing quite like she used to: Although she still has seemingly perfect pitch and enviable range, she's no longer a vocal acrobat with a penchant for firing off piercing, whistle-register notes. Instead, she's spending more time in the lower end of her range, singing in a breathy style even more here than on "Emancipation." It's almost as if, at age 38, she's turned off the stove that for so long has heated her vocal teakettles.

Her phrasing is also shifting, turning almost choppy as she crams more and more words into her couplets; at certain points on "E=MC²" she even flirts with tongue-twisting triplets. She's singing with less melisma now, too.

Strangely enough, Carey is also singing more about emancipation here than on "Emancipation" itself, with two standout songs that appear to be directed at her ex-husband and onetime boss, the former Sony chief Tommy Mottola.

On "Side Effects," over Scott Storch's buzzing synths and taut beats, Carey unloads on Mottola -- never actually naming him, but not really needing to as she sings about "the private hell we built," about "sleeping with the enemy, aware that he was smothering every last part of me." She finally walked away, she sings, "but I still live with the side effects." Using Rihanna's self-echoing trick from "Umbrella," Carey repeats the phrase "side effects" to fine effect.

"I Wish You Well's" message to Mottola is similarly striking. Accompanied by a piano and some multi-tracked backing vocals, Carey sings: "Still bruised, still walk on eggshells/Same frightened child, hide to protect myself/But you can't manipulate me like before." She then prescribes Bible study and says, "I wish you well."

Call it Mariah's quantum theory of a monatomic gas face.

Download These:"Touch My Body," "I Wish You Well," "Side Effects"

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