Since July, Mariah Carey has released over 200 obscure tracks from her ’90s heyday, a collection of notable unreleased songs that had been speculated about for decades, and a critically adored, best selling memoir that tells her life story while digging deep into complex issues of racism, sexism, and poverty. It has been a profoundly successful bid to cement her legacy and reclaim her narrative.
2020 has been a dumpster fire for virtually everyone.
But not for Mariah Carey.
She started off 2020 remarkably strong, entering the fourth decade of her career with the #1 song in America. Her perennial Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time 25 years after its release in December 2019 and stayed there for three weeks. It broke dozens of records, including slowest ascent to #1 for any song in history and Mariah becoming the first artist in history to score a #1 song on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart in four separate decades.
Click here to read about the historic rise of “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
A few weeks later, Mariah was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honor she particularly cherished. With her earth-shattering voice, sexy image, and early marriage to a powerful record executive, many have long failed to realize that she has written virtually all of the songs she has ever recorded (save her love of covering ‘70s and ‘80s classics.)
Her plans for the rest of 2020 included a number of live shows, as she was set to return to Caesar’s Palace for her ongoing residency “The Butterfly Returns” and was undoubtedly going to continue her long tradition of annual Christmas concerts. She also had big plans to celebrate a year of notable anniversaries — June marked the 30th anniversary of her self-titled debut album and October marked the 25th anniversary of Daydream, one of her most iconic and successful albums.
2020 certainly didn’t go as planned for Mariah (or any of us) and it is unclear how the global pandemic, widespread movements for racial justice, and political instability impacted her plans for 2020. But starting in mid-July, she has delivered a stunning series of releases at a breathtaking pace and shows no signs of slowing down. These releases not only kept her devoted fanbase reeling with excitement, but also served as a stunning reclamation of her own legacy.
Highlights from #MC30
Originally slated to start in early June to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the U.S. release of her debut album, Mariah and her team postponed the so-called #MC30 celebration until mid-July given the unrest in America due to racial injustice and the widespread pandemic. The first release was an EP called “The Live Debut,” which features rare audio from her first live showcase at the Tatou Club in 1990. It contained three live performances of songs from her debut (the #1s “Vision of Love” and “Love Takes Time,” as well as breathtaking fan favorite “Vanishing”) and a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Play That Song For Me” that is truly soulful.
What followed was weekly releases of batches of EPs that featured remixes and live versions of her most notable songs. Over the first few months, she released an astounding 216 tracks from her “vault” totaling over 20 hours in length. Some of these tracks had never been heard by fans before, while the vast majority were available in the past in a very limited way, specifically in relatively obscure physical media (e.g., maxi singles) that was only released in certain countries. For virtually all of the 216 tracks, it marked their debut on streaming platforms, which was likely the primary impetus for Mariah to (re)release them. (For better or worse, streaming is now the dominant medium in the music industry.)
The amount of rarities she released from July to October was hard for even the most fervent and devoted fans (or lambs, as they are called) to keep up with. There is still much I have to discover amidst the expansive releases but highlights include “Make It Happen (Live at Madison Square Garden),” “Anytime You Need a Friend (Soul Convention Remix),” “Never Forget You (Extended),” “One Sweet Day (A Capella),” “Underneath the Stars (Drifting Remix),” “Butterfly (Classic Bossa Nova),” “My All (VH1 Divas Live),” “I Still Believe (Pure Imagination Remix),” “Love Hangover/Heartbreaker (VH1 Divas Live),” and “Heartbreaker/If You Should Ever Be Lonely (Remix).” All are genuinely inspired re-imaginings of some of her most famous songs that include new beats, new vocals, and in several cases complete revamping of the entire structure of the song.
Click here to read my personal ranking of Mariah Carey’s 50 best songs.
As part of the #MC30 campaign, Mariah also delivered a number of other surprises. This includes re-uploading most of her classic videos to YouTube in High Definition, an EP of several Spanish-language remakes of her 90s hits, and a reissuing of virtually her entire catalogue on vinyl.
The #MC30 releases are clearly a massive gift to die-hard fans, but they also appear to serve two other purposes. The first is a commercial one, as she demonstrates a commitment to streaming (of both audio and videos) and the re-emerging vinyl craze. The second is related to her legacy, insofar that the releases have served as a striking reminder of her unparalleled productivity and success during the 1990s. With a handful of exceptions, the 216 obscure tracks she has recently released all stem from recordings in a single decade. In addition to being astonishing in their quantity, they are also notable for their quality and diversity. She covers an impressive number of musical genres, particularly on the remixes where she flexes her creative muscles and appears more fun and carefree than she usually did on her studio recordings during those eras.
“The Meaning of Mariah Carey”: Book Review
For the past few years, Mariah has occasionally alluded to a plan to write a memoir in which she would share the story of her childhood, the truth behind the endless and outrageous tabloid rumors, and the inspiration for many of her most beloved songs. Earlier this year, she delighted fans with the announcement that this plan had become a reality and that the book would be released on September 29th.
Co-written with author and activist Michaela Angela Davis, the memoir was released to some of the best reviews of Mariah’s career and great commercial success (it topped the prestigious New York Times Bestseller list the week it debuted). And it deserves all of the critical and commercial success it received — and then some.
It is no surprise to me that The Meaning of Mariah Carey is a great read. Mariah Carey’s life story is a fascinating and entertaining one. The Cinderella-esque origin story is the stuff of legend and the tremendous ups and downs that followed have been fodder for the tabloids for the last three decades. It is almost impossible to tell this story in a manner that is not engaging. Also, I figured that if she is even half as good at writing prose as she is at lyrics, the memoir would be a thing of beauty.
What did surprise me is the depth and timeliness of the book. She goes far beyond the typical trappings of the celebrity memoir and digs deep into painful, complicated discussions of issues related to racism, poverty, child abuse, misogyny, mental health, police brutality, dysfunctional family dynamics, and spirituality. This is no puff piece.
The memoir is told in four parts. The first is “Wayward Child,” a searing look at her upbringing on Long Island with her Irish opera singer mother Patricia and her Black engineer father Alfred Roy, who divorced when she was a toddler. Her relationships with both of them, as well as her ill-fated older siblings named Morgan and Allison, are described with remarkable complexity. She describes their notable strengths and gives compassionate, empathic context to their failings, making it very clear that the boundaries she has famously drawn with them were out of self-preservation not a lack of love or respect. This section of the memoir helps fans truly understand how feeling so out of place as a biracial child and the truly traumatic events she endured were formative in Mariah’s personal and artistic development, facts that have only been alluded to for most of her career.
In the cleverly titled second section “Sing Sing,” Mariah recounts the early 1990s, a period when she had unprecedented, record-breaking commercial success but was trapped in a suffocating at best and abusive at worst relationship with the man who “discovered” her and controlled her career. Mariah is much more interested in telling us about the personal journey she went through during these years then recounting the writing and recording of the iconic songs and albums released during this time, although she certainly weaves in some delicious anecdotes (like the revelation that while recording Daydream she wrote and recorded a grunge album as a way of blowing off steam.) Tommy Mottola’s denial of her blackness and misogynistic subjugation of her is sadly not surprising nor is it an uncommon experience, but I can’t recall the last time it was captured so vividly on paper.
After taking us through her divorce from Tommy, the liberation she experienced recording Butterfly, and her bold bid to get herself out of her oppressive record deal, Mariah takes a look at the low point of her career in the third section, entitled “All That Glitters.” She gives context to how her disastrous film debut Glitter went so far off-course from its initial conception and the infamous breakdown she had during the time of its release. The chapters paint the portrait of a woman who, although admittedly struggling with her mental health, was driven to the breaking point by unrealistic demands by her record label and betrayal by loved ones. It is a painful, haunting segment that gives the necessary background to understand the breakdown of her personal and professional life.
The fourth and final section, entitled “Emancipation,” whisks through the nearly two decades that followed Glitter. Here the memoir becomes a bit less focused, but no less riveting and impactful, as it touches on a number of different areas, including how super producer LA Reid helped her achieve her astonishing comeback with 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, her return to acting with the Oscar-winning film Precious, her whirlwind romance with Nick Cannon, the birth of her twins, and her interactions with countless legends (including Prince, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali). The memoir ends with her basking in the joy of her sold-out Christmas concert in Madison Square Garden and the historic 19th #1 she obtained when “All I Want for Christmas Is You” achieved the top spot.
The memoir is also fascinating for what is not in it. There is no mention of either of her ill-fated forays into reality television (as a judge on American Idol and as the subject of the docu-series Mariah’s World), her alleged fling with Eminem that generated a musical showdown, her engagement to Australian billionaire James Packer, her supposed rivalry with other divas (although she indirectly references those she supposedly has with Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez), criticisms that her voice is significantly degrading, and the diagnosis of bipolar disorder that she boldly embraced on a People cover in 2018. I suppose its possible that she’s embarrassed about these things and omitted them to save face or that she’s saving some stories for a follow-up memoir, but I believe that the real reason she omitted them is the one she gave in numerous interviews that asked about them — they were blips in the timeline of her life that were beloved by tabloids but simply weren’t integral to the meaning of Mariah Carey.
Click here to read about Mariah going public about her mental health.
The memoir does a remarkable job of sticking with what is important about the personal and professional journey of Mariah Carey, with limited tangents. It beautifully integrates lyrics and artwork. (The audiobook version, which I have yet to experience, also weaves in musical interludes.) It also paints a remarkable portrait of the lingering psychological impacts and complex interactions of racism, sexism, and poverty in modern America. And through it all, Mariah’s voice comes through. Her unshakable optimism, her under-appreciated wit, and her trademark mix of sophisticated vocabulary and playful slang make even the bleakest moments impossible to look away from.
Rating for “The Meaning of Mariah Carey”: 5/5 stars
“The Rarities”: Track-by-Track Review
Another tremendous gifts that Mariah Carey gave fans in 2020 is The Rarities, a 32-track collection that was made available for physical purchase (CD and Vinyl), digital download, and streaming on October 2nd (just four days after the memoir was released). The collection contains 15 previously unreleased or otherwise obscure tracks along with the never-released 17-track audio from one of her most legendary live performances — her stop at the Tokyo Dome in 1996 as part of the Daydream World Tour. The latter is a vocal powerhouse that features unforgettable renditions of many of the best songs from the first five years of her career, as well as a cover of “Just Be Good To Me,” a minor hit for The SOS Band in 1983. But as good as those tracks are, the main attraction for me (and most lambs) was the 15 unreleased or obscure songs that she compiled. I review them each below.
- “Here We Go Around Again” (1990). Brimming with ‘90s beats and confident belts, this upbeat pop ditty from her demo should have easily made the cut for her debut album.
- “Can You Hear Me” (1991). An earnest ballad that Mariah claims to have written with the hopes that Barbra Streisand would record it, this one may be a bit lacking in terms of a hook and feel a bit dated, but it features an utterly astonishing vocal performance that matches the best of her early work.
- “Do You Think of Me” (1993). Familiar to long-time fans as a B-side to “Dreamlover,” this beautifully orchestrated and emotionally performed ballad is better than many of the tracks that did end up making the cut of Music Box.
- “Everything Fades Away” (1993). Similar to the prior track, this one was cut from Music Box but found some exposure as a B-side on the “Hero” single. This is a soulful ode to the dying embers of a once-great love that features complexly layered background vocals and striking production.
- “All I Live For” (1993). Another excellent song that curiously didn’t make the cut for Music Box (couldn’t the album have just been 13 songs instead of 10?), this one may feature fairly generic lyrics and a less polished vocal performance than other songs from that era, but it has an infectious beat and is remarkably catchy early ’90s pop.
- “One Night” (1995). The transition from the previous five songs to “One Night” is truly a striking one. Apparently an outtake from her sessions with Jermaine Dupri (the ones that gave us “Always Be My Baby”), this loose and funky song features sassy lyrics, varying tempo, and a fairly chaotic arrangement that marks a fascinating departure from virtually everything she had done before.
- “Slipping Away” (1996). One of Mariah Carey’s best songs, this B-side to “Always Be My Baby” was apparently cut from Daydream because her then-husband and label head Tommy Mottola didn’t like it (listening to the R&B-infused beat and lyrical content about a love that isn’t going to survive, it’s not hard to see why he wasn’t a fan.) It’s always been a favorite of mine and it is wonderful that this masterpiece is finally going to get a broader audience.
- “Out Here On My Own” (2000). For Glitter, Mariah Carey decided to cover this ‘80s power ballad that was written by famed songwriting duo Lesley and Michael Gore and was recorded for the film Fame by Oscar- and Grammy-winner Irene Cara. It is unclear why it didn’t make the cut for the film’s soundtrack, but one thing is clear — this is one of the most powerful and emotional vocal performances Mariah ever gave.
- “Loverboy (Firecracker — Original Version)” (2001). The memoir delves deep into the controversy over this song, which had to be recorded after the sample using Yellow Magical Orchestra’s “Firecracker” was given to Jennifer Lopez by Tommy Mottola for her remix of “I’m Real,” forcing Mariah to re-record the song shortly before its release with a completely new arrangement. The original version may not be a slam dunk, but it’s a bold and funky sound, unlike anything Mariah has released before or since. And the background vocals (particularly on the chorus) slap much harder on this version than the album versions.
- “I Pray” (2005). Originally written by Mariah for another artist, her take on the gospel-infused ballad is a thing of real beauty. She expresses her sincere hope that God will intervene and purge bigotry and violence from our world. She delivers gorgeous vocals over a complex arrangement marked by layered background vocals and a varying tempo.
- “Cool On You” (2007). Presumably recorded during the E=MC2 sessions, this song fits in perfectly with the fun, light tone of that album (as well as other terrific songs from that era that sadly didn’t make the cut and remain officially unreleased, including “I Feel It” and “Heat”). The lyric’s clever and playful “I couldn’t be more over you” lyrics are matched by a laid back beat that gives off “Shake it Off” vibes.
- “Mesmerized” (2012). The opening segment preps the listener for a live performance of a freestyle jazz song but it quickly becomes a ebullient, disco-infused ode to being in the throes of a passionate love. It is a bit messy in places, but in a way that feels fresh, raw, and intentional. It is singular and spectacular.
- “Lullaby of Birdland” (Live; 2014). Any doubt that Mariah is still a force to be reckoned with as a live performer should be eradicated with this fairly recent live rendition of the 1950s jazz standard which features an energetic, raspy, and remarkably powerful vocal performance full of scatting. Ever since I heard “Vanishing” and “The Wind” from her first two albums, I have always wanted Mariah to record a jazz album. After hearing this, I now demand it.
- “Save the Day” (with Ms. Lauryn Hill; 2020). The lead single from The Rarities, this is a track she originally recorded in 2012 but revisited and revamped in 2020 due to the timely relevance of the lyrical content. The song is about how it is up to each and every one of us to come together and rebuild all of the institutions (figurative and literal) that have “basically crumbled” in our current world. It features a slow, soulful intro and then the beat drops leading to a fast paced, dynamic, and catchy arrangement that heavily utilizes a sample of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s vocals from The Fugees’ cover of Roberta Flack’s classic “Killing Me Softly.” I have listened to this spectacular song dozens of times since its release and it has yet to wear out for me.
- “Close Me Eyes” (Acoustic; 2020). Mariah chose to close out the collection with a re-recording of this classic album track from her 1997 album Butterfly, which features some of her most personal and sophisticated lyrics. The production is minimalist and the vocals are raw. It isn’t necessarily an improvement on the original, but it is a worthy revisiting.
The Rarities is more than a lovingly crafted collection for die-hard fans, although it certainly is that. It is also a stunning testament to the longevity and songwriting, producing, and vocal abilities of Mariah Carey. Over the course of 15 songs recorded over 30 years, a mind-blowing number of musical genres are covered ranging from laid back hip-hop/pop hybrids (“Slipping Away” and “Cool On You”), full-blown jazz (“Mesmerized” and “Lullaby of Birdland”), power ballads (“Can You Hear Me” and “Out Here On My Own”), gospel (“I Pray”), and funky R&B (“One Night” and “Save the Day’), among others. It shows that she can literally do anything musically and that one of her many skills is keeping up with the times. The evolution that occurs over the course of the 15 songs is truly impressive and in many ways tells you most of what you need to know about the evolution of popular music over the past 30 years.
Rating for “The Rarities”: 4.5/5 stars
What’s Next for Mariah?
One of the things largely missing from the memoir and the related press tours is a clear direction for where Mariah is headed next. Other than a Christmas special slated for AppleTV to be released soon, she has no officially confirmed projects. Will she work with Precious director Lee Daniels on a film adaptation of her memoir as speculated? Will she release a 16th studio album to follow-up her most critically acclaimed album to date, 2018’s Caution? Will she return to her busy touring schedule as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic allows? Or will she take a nice long break, secure in the knowledge that she conquered a new artistic endeavor with her memoir and gave her most ardent fans unprecedented gifts that they will be forever grateful for? It’s anyone’s guess.
But regardless of what comes next, what Mariah Carey has done in the second half of 2020 is embrace her legacy with a bold mix of playing to nostalgia while embracing modern mediums and trends and reclaimed ownership of her life story from the tabloids, online trolls, and personal adversaries that have been trying to steal it for decades. It is especially poignant that she has done this at a relatively young age, inspired by her publicly expressed heartbreak that contemporaries like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, George Michael, and Prince died young before they had the chance.
I call this period “The Reclamation of Mimi” and believe it has done more to cement her legacy than another #1, a slew of Grammys, or induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever could. (Although, of course, it wouldn’t hurt for those long overdue things to happen.)
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