“Butterfly” at 25: Celebrating Mariah Carey’s Transformative Masterpiece
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Mariah Carey’s 5th studio album Butterfly. After unprecedented dominance of the Billboard charts over the first 7 years of her career, Mariah made profoundly bold and risky changes in 1997. The result was personal liberation and a game-changing masterpiece of an album.
The Road to Butterfly
There are only two 7-year runs by musical acts that can match how prolific, commercially successful, and chart-dominating Mariah Carey’s run from 1990–1996 was — The Beatles from 1964–1970 and Rihanna from 2006–2012.
During the first 7 years of her career, Mariah Carey released 6 multiplatinum albums — her 1990 self-titled debut, 1991’s Emotions, 1992’s MTV Unplugged EP, 1993’s Music Box, 1994’s Merry Christmas, and 1995’s Daydream. Combined, those albums have been certified an astounding 46-times platinum and produced 12 #1 songs on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100.
Despite this enormous success, Mariah Carey was a woman stifled. Tommy Mottola “discovered” her, signed her, promoted her, eventually married her and — by all accounts — controlled her every move. He forced the biracial Carey to embrace her “white side,” scrubbing her music and public image of any “urban” (read: black) influences. Nowhere was this more evident than her 1993 album Music Box, which deservedly became a worldwide blockbuster but was nevertheless a restrained, wholesome, and traditional collection that clearly was not the full artistic vision of Carey.
For those who remain unaware, Mariah Carey is more than just a vocalist. Whereas legendary artists like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Barbra Streisand for their brilliant interpretations or other people’s songs, Mariah has been writing and producing her own music since the beginning of her career. She is the rare hybrid of big-voiced diva and singer-songwriter that seems to only rocket to superstardom once in a generation. (Adele may be the only vocalist to arrive since her who truly falls into this category).
By the time she released her 1995 blockbuster Daydream, evidence of Mariah Carey’s emancipation was coming into view. All 3 of the album’s iconic #1 songs had major urban influences. The most acclaimed and enduring version of “Fantasy” includes the rap stylings of Ol Dirty Bastard and is credited with the popularization of the now-ubiquitous rapper-singer collaboration. “One Sweet Day” found Mariah teaming up with Boyz II Men, one of the most popular R&B groups of the 1990s. “Always Be My Baby” not only marked her first of many collaborations with R&B writer/producer Jermaine Dupri, but also featured a remix with female rapper Da Brat and all-female R&B group XScape. And, as detailed in her devastating 2020 memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey, by this point she had begun to realize that although she loved Mottola and he was integral in her rise to superstardom, she was in a truly oppressive situation and began to pursue divorce.
1996 marked the first year of her career that she did not release an album. After the success of Daydream, she faded from the public eye for a bit for the first time since she launched with “Vision of Love” in early 1990. The world was eager to see what she was up to, but few envisioned what arrived in September 1997.
The Legacy of Butterfly
Mariah Carey’s 6th studio album Butterfly was released on September 16, 1997. Its release was preceded by the sultry, Puff Daddy-assisted, mid-tempo R&B single “Honey.” The sexy innuendo of the song’s lyrics were amplified by her sexiest and most elaborate music video to date — a big budget homage to the James Bond films. The iconic video began with her escaping tough-talking Italian captors, stripping into a skimpy outfit, and leaping from a mansion into freedom. There was little doubt that it was a new and liberated Mariah that would be arriving when her album arrived.
“Honey” became her 3rd single to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (she was the first artist to achieve this feat) and her 12th #1 overall (which pulled her out of her tie with Whitney Houston for the distinction of most #1s among all solo artists in history). The parent album followed suit, becoming her 4th #1 album on the Billboard 200. It was eventually certified 5x platinum in the U.S. and has sold 10 million copies worldwide.
Although is appears to be a major hit in hindsight, Carey had been so astronomically successful in the preceding years that the album was perceived by many to be a significant commercial disappointment when it was released. It sold less than half the amount of copies of her preceding 2 non-holiday albums (Music Box and Daydream) and its 2 #1 singles (“Honey and “My All”) did not have the impact or staying power of many of her previous #1s.
Critics also weren’t entirely sure what to make of it. Well, actually they were. They by and large didn’t like it. Although it has been re-evaluated as a classic in later years, most of the contemporary reviews were lukewarm, stating that the songs were indistinguishable and her airy vocals were too indiscernible. The album received few pans, but it also received few raves. When the Grammys rolled around, it only scored 3 nominations — Best R&B Song and Vocal Performance for “Honey” and Best Pop Vocal Performance for “Butterfly.” It was nowhere to be found in the main categories, in which she had been nominated several times before.
The album is comprised of 12 song and runs just under an hour. It features some production from old standbys Walter Afanasieff and David Morales, but also edgier, unexpected collaborations with producers like Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, the TrackMasters, and Stevie J. She also cowrote a song with emerging hip-hop icon Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, covered a slow-burning Prince classic in which she harmonized with hip-hop group Dru Hill, and even sampled Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” on her club reimagining of the soaring title track.
In addition to the significant changes in style and sound, there was a massive shift in her songwriting. This shift was immediately evident to her die-hard fans and collaborators, but took music critics and the general public years (if not decades) to notice. Although she had previously dabbled in autobiographical tunes (e.g., “Make It Happen,” “Looking In”) and touched on deep, complex themes and emotions (e.g., “There’s Got To Be A Way,” “The Wind”), nothing she had done to date compared to the lyrics of this album. “The Roof” and “Breakdown” found her at her most intimate and vulnerable. “Close My Eyes” and “Outside” delved into her inner turmoil and past trauma unflinchingly. And elegant songs like “My All” and “Fourth of July” displayed a remarkably sophisticated ability to command language and unfurl a story.
As frustrated as I have always been that contemporary critics couldn’t appreciate the brilliance of Butterfly at the time of its release, I confess that I am a bit of a hypocrite. It took me years to fully appreciate it, too. The album was the first time this 13-year-old white boy growing up in a very conservative town was exposed to many aspects of her era’s sound and imagery. I didn’t know what to make of it — and I certainly didn’t fully appreciate the depth of the lyrics at that age.
But I certainly appreciate it now. In fact, 6 of the 12 tracks from the album made my list of her 50 best songs and tracks from the album take up 4 of the top 10 slots on my list of her top songwriting achievements that I put together for her induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame earlier this year. Considering that Mariah Carey has recorded over 250 distinct songs (not counting remixes) and never produced a bad album, this says something obvious about the endurance and quality of the album.
But, ultimately, what Butterfly means to critics and lambs like me isn’t nearly as important as what Butterfly means to Mariah herself. She was finally able to make the music she wanted to make and share her true self with the world. The release of the album was a watershed moment that may have cost her some fans and sales but deepened her artistry, tightened her bond with her admirers, and cemented her legacy. And what a legacy it is.
Now, without further ado, here is my track-by-track review of Butterfly, including the just-released 25th anniversary bonus tracks.
Butterfly: Track-by-Track Review
This co-production with Sean Combs (then Puff Daddy) received more attention for announcing Mariah’s transformation from scrupulously managed pop star to sexy and free-spirited R&B songstress than it did for its bold hip-hop, bass-heavy production. It seamlessly incorporates Q-tip’s drums, Stevie J’s keyboard, and samples from Treacherous Three’s “The Body Rock” and The World Supreme Team’s “Hey DJ,” while being driven largely by light, airy vocals from Mariah that were in marked contrast to her previous belt-heavy tracks. It is a tone-setting banger that perfectly began the album — and her new emancipated era.
In stark contrast to the rest of the “lambily,” I was lukewarm on this beloved title track for many years. However, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the song decades later. The profoundly nuanced lyrics evoke her fantasy of benevolent liberation by her oppressive husband, the vocal performance is remarkably tricky and layered, and the stunning gospel-fueled crescendo simply can’t be denied.
Although my favorite version of “My All” is the “Stay Awhile” remix that flawlessly weaves the song with a cover of 1980s R&B hit “Stay a Little While, Child,” the original is a masterwork in and of itself. The soulful, smoldering, Latin-influenced ballad driven by guitar arpeggios is one of her lushest and most mature compositions. The elegant lyrics and aching vocals perfectly evoke the desperation of a woman trying to hold on to a love that appears to be slipping away.
The sexiest song in Mariah’s catalogue, this stunner may be built around a sample from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part Two)” but it never for a moment feels anything less than fresh. The memorable lyrics recount a rooftop romantic encounter that the protagonist can’t get out of her mind, which she revealed in her memoir to be an autobiographical account of her life-changing romance with New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. This is one of her all-time best songs and it seems utterly remarkable in hindsight that it was never released as a single in the U.S.
“Fourth of July”
The album’s 3rd collaboration with Walter Afanassief (following “Butterfly” and “My All”) is this ethereal ode to young love that evokes “Underneath the Stars,” a similarly arranged and themed album cut from her prior album Daydream. That’s not to say that it is a retread, though. More than perhaps any other song on the album, it creates a distinct universe through its evocative lyrics, jazz-influenced arrangement, and airy vocals.
Arguably the boldest moment on Butterfly comes at the midway point with this slow jam collaboration with hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. It is not only one of her most musically creative endeavors, but also features some of her most soul-crushing lyrics and a new rap- and reggae- influenced vocal styling we have never heard from her. It marked the first time Mariah prominently featured a rapper on an album track (as opposed to a remix) and remains one of the most distinctive and impressive creative feats of her career.
The theme of deep emotional and sexual longing for a lover just out of grasp is certainly a recurrent one on the album, but it gets a fresh spin in this collaboration with legendary hip-hop artist Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Mariah and Missy cowrote the song at Elliott’s Atlanta home, where it was also recorded. It’s a merging of slow-burn R&B, trip hop, and jazz that is driven by Mariah’s soulful vocals and aided immensely by gorgeously layered backing vocals.
“Close My Eyes”
Although this song is made significantly more profound by learning its backstory in her memoir, I suspect this heartbreaking ode to lost innocence and perseverance following childhood trauma would be extraordinarily moving even to someone who knew nothing about her background. It features some of her most sophisticated and introspective lyrics as well as one of her most subtle vocal performances. Additionally, the hypnotic “ladadada” looping background vocals set it apart sonically from some of her other collaborations with Afanassief.
“Whenever You Call”
When the weakest song on an album is a song this elegant and moving, it says less about how weak the song is and more about how strong the overall album is. Although it feels a bit like it belongs on “Music Box” with its more traditional production and lovely but impersonal lyrics, it is soaringly romantic, sparingly arranged, and finds Mariah inducing goosebumps as she belts for the rafters for one of the few times on the album.
“Fly Away (Butterfly Reprise)”
The title track was originally intended as a house anthem, but as the writing progressed she decided it was better off as a ballad. Her friend and collaborator David Morales, one of the most acclaimed and successful house music producers in history, encouraged her to revisit her original concept with this remix. Similarly to the “Daydream” interlude from her prior album, this is another case of a house remix that does not follow a traditional structure and incorporates elements from a song earlier in the album being placed on the main album. It is a thoughtfully conceived and superbly executed track that provides a jolt of energy in the album’s final run of songs. It gets bonus points for its subtle interpolation of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
“The Beautiful Ones”
The only song on Butterfly that Mariah Carey didn’t write, this is a cover of Prince’s ballad from his mega-selling, Oscar- and Grammy-winning soundtrack to Purple Rain. Although she is not new to covers (she already had big hits with her cover of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and Henry Nillson’s “Without You” at this stage of her career), this one feels particularly epic in scale. It also marks only the second time in her discography that she shared lead vocals with another artist (following her collaboration with Boyz II Men on “One Sweet Day”) on one of her album tracks. Here she belts, coos, riffs, and scats with Dru Hill lead singer Sisqo (who would later become best known for his kitschy novelty hit “Thong Song”) across 7 sprawling minutes. Some have called it messy and overwrought, but I think it’s a dramatic powerhouse that once again finds Mariah in fresh and exciting territory.
I have long had mixed feelings about this song, because in my opinion the production and vocal arrangement are a bit overdone and obscure the profundity of the lyrics. Nevertheless, I appreciate it more with each passing year both as a song itself and as a critical element of Mariah’s biography. In what has deservedly become an anthem for so many fans, Mariah delves into the pain of navigating the world as a biracial woman. The song ends with a powerful, gospel-influenced crescendo.
The 25th Anniversary Bonus Tracks
With little advanced warning, Mariah announced the release of an expanded edition of Butterfly in honor of its 25th anniversary. It was part of a campaign called #Butterfly25 that also included new merchandise, upgraded music videos, and exciting new interviews that revealed the increasingly cagey singers plans for new music. Below I briefly review the 8 bonus tracks included on the expanded edition.
- “Whenever You Call (Duet with Brian McKnight)” This song was originally included on 1998’s #1s, the compilation album released the year after Butterfly to celebrate her then-record 13 #1s. It is a re-recording of the original song with R&B crooner Brian McKnight’s vocals seamlessly integrated. This collaboration actually makes the song much richer and is by far my preferred version of the song.
- “The Roof (When I Feel the Need) (featuring Brandy)” Another reimagining of one of the album’s tracks with a great R&B artist, this one was actually released just a few months ago as part of Mariah Carey’s Master Class series. It rearranges several aspects of the song’s production, particularly its background vocals, which somewhat paradoxically take center stage here. It shows that Mariah’s voice, although maturing, remains in exquisite form and left me aching for a more traditional collaboration from Mariah and Brandy.
- “Butterfly (Live from The Late Show with David Letterman)” As part of the Butterfly promotional blitz, Mariah performed tracks from the album on numerous talk shows. Far and away the best is this rendition of the title track. She exquisitely delivers the remarkably complex vocals with one of her most impressive televised performances ever.
- “My All (Live from VH1 Divas Live)” The first VH1 Divas Live concert brought Mariah together with Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, and Shania Twain for a night of big hair, big vocals, and big drama. One of the night’s highlights was undoubtedly Mariah’s solo rendition of “My All,” which emphasizes its Latin influences and features a remarkably soulful vocal performance from Mariah that shows her in command of her lower register. And that’s all before it unexpectedly explodes into the club remix of the song for a euphoric, frenzied climax that sustains for nearly 2 minutes.
- “Fourth of July (A Capella)” Stripped of sound effects and instrumentation, it is possible to more fully appreciate what Mariah did lyrically, vocally, and melodically with this ode to young love. This track is one of the best examples of Mariah’s skills at vocal layering.
- “Outside (A Capella)” Although it is interesting to see “Fourth of July” stripped to its bare elements, there is something truly revelatory about the a capella rendition of “Outside.” The lyrics are clearer and more discernible and the vocals are more impactful, resulting in a deeply moving experience that has me finally ready to declare the song a masterpiece.
- “Butterfly (Amorphous Anniversary Club Mix)” The expanded edition of the album caps with remixes of the song’s opening tracks. This superbly crafted take on “Butterfly” by up-and-coming DJ Amorphous is perfectly calibrated with a modern sound that accentuates the best elements of the song over 6 epic minutes.
- “Honey (Another Taste of Honey David Morales Remix)” Coming in at nearly 8 minutes, this remix is a tad bit too long and repetitive but its updated arrangement is infectious and the re-recorded lead and background vocals are put to exquisite use.
Click here to follow me on Medium or Twitter
Read Other Articles about Mariah Carey By this Author: