Mariah Carey called on God to help her ”Fly Like A Bird” above the fray of a hostile world on the closing track to her last album, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. As successful as it was — the 38-year-old’s biggest since 1995’s Daydream — it obviously didn’t quite do the trick.
Three years later, Carey is still grounded, and still trying to take flight. This time around, she makes her point a bit more literal. On the cover of her new album E=MC2, Carey wears what appears to be an oversized feather boa. Maybe she thinks donning an extravagant plumage will help her soar?
And take a look at that cover image again: notice anything? Like the title itself, Carey’s pose on the cover of her second album since her self-labeled emancipation — the silver lining to her very public meltdown seven years ago — is derivative of the one from 2005, or her first emancipation proclamation. You can always aim higher, but why mess with a winning formula? If the wing ain’t broken….
So any way you calculate it, E=MC2 is every bit a sequel to The Emancipation of Mimi, in true Hollywood-blockbuster fashion. It features most of the same characters and themes and plot points, shaking things up as little as possible — just enough to keep the story fresh, but not enough to make it better or even as good as the original.
Carey has altered the formula somewhat with E=MC2, her 11th studio album in an 18-year career. For one, she’s dropped her pseudonym, Mimi, and become a more explicitly religious Mariah Carey, or ”MC.” She acknowledges God and references the Bible at several lyrical turns, and she quotes Isaiah 12:5 in the liner notes, making plain her mission: ”Sing to the lord for he has done glorious things.” She also opens up a bit more publicly about her past relationships, most notably revealing that she’s still smarting from her first marriage, the one to her former label executive Tommy Mottola that ended 11 years ago. She calls that marriage a ”private hell” on ”Side Effects.” ”I finally built up the strength to walk away,” she sings. She doesn’t ”regret it, but I still live with the side effects,” which she goes on to explain include nightmares and being a bit emotionally unavailable and insecure. As uncharacteristically revealing as the lyrics are from a songwriter who generally offers less-specific observations, the song itself is a bit too edgy and stark to inspire playback.
Carey is on more solid ground when she sticks to the original script. On the album’s opening track, Carey works with Timbaland production protÃ©gÃ© Nate ”Danja” Hills to try to coin another new expression, this time a new way to express the signature activity at a club, to move. ”Migrate” is the term they offer on the same-named track, though they also mean it in nearly the same sense as last go-round’s ”Shake It Off”: moving on from someone. If you don’t have ”that swag I like,” Carey sings to a wannabe suitor, ”migrate…bye.” The song itself is actually creepy in sound — not quite as menacing as many of today’s typical hip-hop club bangers, but definitely enough to make you pick up the pace, or even consider making a move to leave.
Carey’s lyrics on ”Migrate” stray into shallow, even shameless, territory, especially when Carey brags about her VIP status and the envy it generates. This lyrical technique is one of several moves Carey has made in recent years to incorporate hip hop and hip-hop attitude into her brand of R&B. Another is her penchant to stuff stanzas with twice as many words, or even more, as before. She sometimes sings her lyrics in rapid-fire fashion, or even mixes up the vocal tempo in unpredictable ways, showing off her dexterity, as good as many of the best rappers. On the appealingly angry ”Thanx 4 Nothin’,” Carey casually tosses off some lyrics, then bitterly stresses others. ”I didn’t want to face the truth, that I was only being used, and you were just frontin’, ah boy, thanks 4 nothin’,” she sings.
But it’s not just hip hop that Carey stirs into her R&B stock to add some fresh spice. There’s also up-tempo urban music, especially that from two and three decades ago. The Norwegian producers, Stargate, sampled Michael Jackson for one of their co-productions with Carey, just as they famously did for Rihanna’s ”Don’t Stop The Music.” This time out, they trot out ”Off the Wall” on ”I’m That Chick,” which may also remind you of a typical song from little sister Janet, with its sweet, mid-tempo saunter and equally sweet lyrics.
The album ends with the gospel-flavored piano ballad ”I Wish You Well,” which sends you out on a quiet note of wistfulness, with lyrics about turning to God for help. But if he can’t help you fly, well, at least through Carey, he can help you migrate.