Sunday, November 18, 2018

Caution | Mariah Carey

With her talent stretched thin across the 1990s in a blatant abuse of a now-defunct commercial pop philosophy, Mariah Carey was never meant to release a completely enjoyable, fully cohesive record. She released seven full-length records between 1990 and 1999, each of them buoyed by a few surefire hits and insulated with a handful of mid-line rhythm and blues tracks. It was how she was taught to make records, and for a long time, it seemed it’s how she would always make records... and for nearly three decades, it worked. She has sold over 60 million albums in the United States, even if the most memorable of which is arguably her 1998 greatest hits compilation.

But then comes Caution, Carey’s first record in four years – and her first record in the rap-dominated, radio-minimized streaming age that doesn't seem to bother her all that much. It’s a shift in music consumption that has spelled disaster for her career-long practice, which already showed fatigue when one moderate radio hit barely propelled her last record, Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse. And as her status as a skinny, extra festive, vocally exhausted meme has begun to undermine her status as a legendary hit-maker, it is more important now than ever before to release a record that can compete with statement pieces from younger rhythm and blues artists. And she did.

Current, casual, and confident, Caution strong-arms full-length favorites from artists 30 years her junior. Gone is any sign of an all-out anthem, and here to take center stage is a composed attitude with an implied side-eye. Though the record's title track talks a big game, Carey is at her most defiant on "GTFO" and "A No No," alleged send-offs to a former bodyguard and an ex-manager, both of whom hold current lawsuits against the singer. Their production is slinky, but Carey is smooth and collected; on the latter track, she doesn’t skip a single Lil Kim-sampled beat as she sings, "Off with your head, now slither out the door. Snakes in the grass – it’s time to cut the lawn."

She has cut the lawn short this year, chopping off staff members and her engagement with an Australian billionaire. Even still, betrayal shares equal importance with romance on Caution. "The Distance" defends a relationship cultivated in a storm of doubt: "Said we couldn’t go to the distance. Look at us: We’re going the distance," she sings smoothly over a simmering Lido and Skrillex beat. "Stay Long Love You" is the sexiest cut by far, with Carey stuttering, "You make me, make me wanna touch you right there. You make me, make me wanna kiss you over there. You make me, make me wanna uh, uh, yeah," opposite a mumble rapper over a fresh track.

With her inability to overshoot vocal performances having become apparent in performances this decade, Carey has conceded to under-performing – and her whispered, understated tone helps mark this record as a striking improvement. Contemporary ballad “With You” and the piano-dominated, stock-build Mariah cut “Portrait” give clear opens for her to break into her typical form, but she largely resists for the tracks’ benefit. ("Portrait" is particularly personal and delicate, even if not as gripping as her biggest ballads.) Her whistle notes are placed in a choke hold: Few in number, and usually pushed to the back of the mix, not needing to be replicated in a live setting. 

Caution is lean when stacked against her bloated releases of the 2000s, but it’s a consistent string of 10 sleek, sensual cuts, despite input from nine different teams of producers. The album is strangely low-key and front-loaded with its best moments, like “A No No” and “The Distance,” but it remains enjoyable throughout. She evolves but doesn't try to innovate, allowing herself to camouflage into the current musical landscape more naturally than she has in a long while. Even better, she reclaims her own narrative, which her Christmas kingdom, bipolar disorder disclosure, and plentiful drama have hijacked as of late. And all it took was a few F-bombs and a focused 21st century vision to get there.

Caution is available now under Epic Records.

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