Whatever drugs Mariah Carey’s taking are doing wonders for her music. Actually, what am I saying, “whatever drugs”? It’s obvious that she’s on the pot, or that she wants you to think she is – an inhaled “sssssss” kicks off the best song, “I’m That Chick,” on her best album, E=MC². And then: “Ooh wee!" is repeated enough to make this slow-burning disco come off like the shadier cousin of Rick James’ “Mary Jane.” Weed imagery dominates her boasts (“Boy I got you caught up inside of my haze,” “You’re fiendin’ to blaze up and taste me,” “You ain’t seeing things or hallucinating,” “Pull me in and breathe,” “I’m like that uptown haze them real thugs blaze / We’ll touch the sky…”), as though delusion is her artistic medium
And, duh: of course she’s high. I can’t imagine anything but marijuana driving her to the destination of this album’s title, which, in long form stands for Emancipation = Mariah Carey (squared). That sort of nonsense-logic is the thing of tokers and children, and image-wise, Mariah is both. (And seriously, even when you spell it all out, what the fuck does “Emancipation = Mariah Carey (squared)” even mean? Is that, like, a two-second review of The Emancipation of Mimi? Is it her coy way of simultaneously announcing that this album is its sequel and that she doesn’t understand exponents? And if so, she so high that she thinks her “2” needs to be up there with her?) Whatever, though, tracks like “Chick” and “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” are sonic euphoria, career-highs that are so clean, you could snort off them.
And then, the paranoia sets in and it clings to this album like patchouli on Like a Prayer. I count no fewer than six rewrites of her relevance-reigniting megahit, “We Belong Together” (in sequential order: “I Stay in Love,” “Love Story,” “Last Kiss,” “Thanx 4 Nothin’,” “For the Record” and “Bye Bye”). These tracks, I assume, are intended to be hit insurance and as such, suggest that the memory of Glitter and the ensuing pop gutter hasn’t faded a bit. Between its pop hits, Emancipation flirted with a live, full-band feel; E=MC²'s motif, in total contrast, is the plastic boom-tick of the 808-ballad. Not that I'm complaining -- to rewrite "We Belong Together" is to rewrite "Breakdown," a track forward-thinking enough to still bear repeating.
The best of these fast slow jams is the Bryan Michael Cox co-produced “For the Record,” which skirts sounding like it’s stuck in the past via futuristic chimes, whooshes, thwacks and pseudo-strings. (Incidentally, Cox is also responsible for “I Stay in Love,” the most soulless song Mariah’s cut since, well, before Glitter. It sports a piano line so deliberate, it’d be laughed off a Broadway original cast album.) The commercial crassness of these retreads is perfectly encapsulated in “Bye Bye,” in which Stargate’s stock ballad beat fits under the “We Belong Together” template. Meanwhile, Mariah announces this song “is for everybody.” Not just all the parents and children of the world -- everybody! Take that, Celine! “Bye Bye” is about death, and only thing more universal than that topic is probably taxes (funnily enough, E=MC² was released on April 15). Initially, the obsequiousness of “Bye Bye” was too revolting even for me, but what keeps me coming back to it is its ultimate silliness. I snort at “This is for my peoples who lost their grandmothers” every damn time I hear it, and the chorus litany of “Mamas, daddies, sisters, brothers, friends and cousins” sounds like the basis of a companion piece to the preschool standard, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” It’s supposed to make me cry, but “Bye Bye” makes me howl inside. It’s not so much like laughing in church as it is at the crazy lady ranting about abortion on the corner, shaking her plastic fetus.
From what I’ve gathered, those who hate this album, hate it for the lack of sophistication in its flagrant hit-mongering. But that’s like hating a Pollack for being too splattery. People forget that Mariah’s function has always been that of hitmaker. She’s worked hard for her numbers (18 No. 1's and she has the balloons to prove it). Until her 2001 breakdown, working hard meant averaging an album a year and rerecording virtually every single for various remixes. She's lessened the pace, but the wheels upstairs turn just as rapidly. E=MC² originally was supposed to come out six months ago. Leading up to November, every time she’d make a public appearance and answer the inevitable questions about the album, she’d talk about it as a work in progress, frequently saying that she was “just recording,” even into the new year. I love that Mariah has seemingly turned from compulsive releasing to obsessive crafting, as though she can only be pathological about pop music. (I can relate!) And you want to talk obsessive? Seven of these 14 tracks strike within 10 seconds of the three-minute-thirty-second mark, the supposedly magic running time for a pop single. She thumps the Bible on the arresting piano-gospel closer of “I Wish You Well,” but everywhere else she thumps The Manual.
“Cruise Control,” which cops reggae no more offensively than your average Gwen Stefani track, knits three hooks in a row. It sports a pre-chorus bridge, a chorus and then a mega-chorus. The songwriting craft is astounding. Equally astounding? The idea that it’s appropriate to adopt a Jamaican accent for the track’s second verse, which hilariously goes: “’Can’t nobody can’t nobody tell me nuttin' / When he comes into view / ‘Cause he’s the flyest ting when he be cruisin’ on me avenue / When tha door open, de gals pon de block / They be hopin’, to rob tha clock me say no man / Step up step up bottle broken think I’m jokin’…?” Ting! She says “ting!”
But then, she’s always been interested in passing, from her career-long transition from adult contemporary to hip-hop soul, to now, as she rocks a rasta hat with the fake dreadlocks and elsewhere adopts the ghetto-fab swag of “Migrate” (“’Soon as we walk through the door / Fellas be grabbin' at us like whoa / Tryin' to get us goin' off that Patrón / We sippin' Grigio...slow”). I see this as nothing but a further shading in of her frequently childlike identity: she’s playing dress-up. In a time when aging divas like Janet Jackson and Madonna are doing everything they can to fade into the (often vivid and nice-looking) wallpaper of their music, Mariah isn’t afraid to be her ridiculous self. It’s one thing to sing as well as she does (or rather, can, via editing of her increasingly brittle voice), or to have the knack for melody and harmony that's only getting stronger as she grows older. But Mariah’s secret formula is that larger-than-life persona that she filtrates so precisely into her work. It’s why she can pull off a (dirtily) Southern-fried power-ballad like “Side Effects.” It’s why this album is better than The Emancipation of Mimi (too tempered in the persona department for my taste). And it’s why E=MC² is so damn addictive.
That's the point, but the underlying theme suggests an inverse of it: E=MC²'s engineered infectiousness is a symptom of Mariah's dependence on quantatitve superstardom (via chart success). This isn't an album; it's a collection of hits. As such, it's a perfect reflection of Mariah's pop-artistry and fame addiction. That drug thing? Nothing new at all.