With Trill-a-Minute 'Imperfect,' the Very Title Says It All

With Trill-a-Minute 'Imperfect,' the Very Title Says It All

Carey sounds younger than ever.
Carey sounds younger than ever. (By Peter Kramer -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mariah Carey is facing 40, but her mesmerizing falsetto still rivals the chirp of basketball sneakers on parquet. It's as if her voice is somehow growing younger. It sounds higher. Lighter, too. And her fluttery brand of R&B seems to be following suit.

"I was, like, why are you so obsessed with me?" Carey asks before strutting into "Obsessed," a deliciously sly hit single that raises the question: "Like, why is a 39-year-old woman singing in the parlance of a high school sophomore?"

It's one of the stranger moments on her passable new album, "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel," a mixed bag of club bangers and slow jams where the singer's youthful exuberance begins to feel puerile.

Playfulness has defined Carey's best work since 1997, when she morphed from prodigious ballad-belter to resurgent hip-pop princess. After a romantic break with mentor Tommy Mottola, the singer underwent one of the most mythic transformations in pop history, delivering a spate of bubbly albums with titles that most young girls would reserve for pet unicorns: "Butterfly," "Rainbow," "Charmbracelet."

But before Carey got around to "Sugar," "Spice" and "Everything Nice," she began releasing zestier tunes on discs with quirkier titles, including 2005's fantastic "The Emancipation of Mimi" and 2008's spotty "E=MC{+2}."

Eccentricity, however, does not equal maturity. And on "Memoirs," Carey sings like a teenager scorned. "Got you all fired up with your Napoleon complex/Seein' right through you like you're bathing in Windex," she tut-tuts on "Obsessed," her voice locked tight over the track's brawny thump. She's developed a fresh penchant for aggressive, speaker-bumping fare: a development foreshadowed by "Migrate," her shoulda-been-ginormous collaboration with T-Pain from last year.

"Up Out My Face" follows that trajectory into the club's gloomier corners with Carey bemoaning an irreparable romance. "When I break, I break," she grouses, before darting off into a ranting finale. "If we were two Lego blocks, even the entire Harvard graduating class of two-thousand-and-ten couldn't put us back together again!"

Spite sure sounds fun when it comes trilling from Carey's million-dollar pipes, but the rest of "Memoirs" feels darker -- and duller. Despite the beaming trifecta of Mariahs adorning the CD cover, this is a breakup disc overrun with plodding kiss-offs and treacly tear-jerkers. Even Carey's finest Minnie Riperton imitation can't redeem the one-two slog of "Angel (The Prelude)" and "Angels Cry."

The album boasts one particularly transgressive throwaway: a cover of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." The original version billowed to the top of the charts in 1984, and Carey is surely hoping this bloated remake will rise up to become her 19th No. 1 single on Billboard's Hot 100. The feat would put her just one chart-topping tune away from tying the record held by four shaggy video-game characters from Liverpool.

The Beatles' generation-defining songbook often feels eons away from Carey's effete R&B -- but it shouldn't.

Through thick, through thin and through "Glitter," we've been able to rely on Carey for her vivacity -- that magical musical chromosome she shares with the Fab Four. Despite her inconsistencies, she's shown a marathoner's endurance, delivering bubble-gum revelations that never seem to lose their flavor.

"Obsessed" and "Up Out My Face" probably won't eclipse the Beatles' benchmark, but they still argue for Carey's imminent spot in the record books. As snarky and silly as it is, consider "Memoirs" a text message from a pop star who refuses to grow up: all u need is <3.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Obsessed," "Up Out My Face"

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