Anyone who's followed Mariah Carey's 19-year career knows that there is a distinct divide between Old Mariah and a New Mariah. The line was drawn around the time of 1997's Butterfly, when her look became sexier, her music became more beat-driven (it's always straddled fences, but it started to lean away from AC territory and toward R&B and hip-hop) and her ultra-femme, sassy, slangy, ridiculous persona unfolded. At the same time, her voice was changing. Not only was she employing it more dynamically (it was not enough anymore to just open her lungs and wail runs), but it was also showing signs of imperfection (probably from her always opening her lungs and wailing runs). In fact, maybe the most relevant divide between Old Mariah and New Mariah right now is that Old Mariah sang songs that no one else could sing, while New Mariah sings songs that no one else would sing.Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel is filled with one-liners that will make fans swoon and critics cringe. The ridiculousness it's brimming with is worth a blog post of its own and I mean that (to quote Memoirs opener "Betcha Gon Know") for real, for real, for real, Oprah Winfrey-whole-segment for real, for real 20/20-Barbara Walters, for real, for real, 60 Minutes for real. On "Up Out My Face," the worthy follow-up to "Shake It Off," she tells her object of former affection, "If you see me walking by ya boy, don't you even speak / Pretend you on a sofa, and I'm on the TV." She tempers the sex jam of her career, "The Impossible," with grade-school imagery (she loves her dude like a freeze pop, a milkshake, shooting stars, bubble bath, Kool Aid and a high-school girl on the first date, among things). The lame first single, "Obsessed," is mostly anonymous, but still contains zingers like, "Seeing right through you like you're bathin' in Windex." In "It's a Wrap," she fuses '50s torch-song retroism with '00s slang (starting at the title and ending with, "It's going down like a denominator"). She oozes over the crunk fireworks display that is "Ribbon" (my personal favorite), "You make me feel so unloose." I could start attempting to figure out what the hell she's trying to say about the state of her vagina with that one, but I'm just going to leave it as the Zen-like riddle that it is.
She's clearly having fun, but weirdly, Memoirs sounds like anything but. It's as though she wants to put a high-thread-count veil over her wackiness. Sonically, the album is black-and-white compared to the similarly idiosyncratic E=MC², which was so varied in sound, it was more of a rainbow than Rainbow. The-Dream and Tricky Stewart wrote and produced almost all of Memoirs with Mariah, and it shows. You can do only so much with snaps and claps and 808 booms and sprightly pianos and brass flare-ups, and the dull palate ultimately renders Memoirs overlong ("Inseparable," "Standing O" and "More Than Just Friends" feel particularly redundant, while "Angels Cry" waters down the "We Belong Together" formula so much with its crocodile tears -- all could have been axed and the album would have lost nothing).
Despite proving their flair for sonic variety on the far superior How to Be a Lady Vol. 1 by Electrik Red, Tricky and Dream seem mostly confined by Mariah's careful hand here. Clearly, the idea is to create a cohesive album, but Mariah's in over her head. Despite containing about six tracks that are as good as anything she's put out, the pronounced highs and lows make this samey thing her most scattered album since Rainbow. It, thus, feels like a conceptual failure. And while it'd be nice to chalk up this aim of cohesion to experimentation (as backwards as that sounds), the reality is that Mariah's creativity is largely driven by reaction. She is driven by audience feedback the same way Lisa Simpson is driven by grades (Mariah bandies about her amount of No. 1 hits -- 18 -- like she's showing the world her report card). There is no doubt that she enlisted Tricky and Dream again because they were the only ones with whom she created a hit on her last album ("Touch My Body" -- and what a silly hit it was!). I'd also be willing to bet that she thought primarily in album scope here because the commercial disappointment E=MC² played so much like a collection of singles. For the first time since 1995's Daydream, there are no rappers to be found on a Mariah Carey album, and I wouldn't be surprised that is to combat frequent suggestions by fans and critics that she relies too heavily on guest verses.
See with Mariah, there's the virtuoso, there's the persona and then there's the hitmaker, and that last side always wins out. That makes her music something of a balancing act -- like always, she's trying to please everyone (though at least now, she's part of the group). People complained about her belting, so she started to whisper and people really didn't like that, so she's hit a middle ground with her voice (and the results actually sound spectacular at last, albeit occasionally overdubbed to death). Sometimes her balancing is cloddish (as deliciously cheesy as it is, her snap 'n b spin on Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is" feels like a forced union of Old Mariah and New Mariah), and sometimes it's acrobatic. In "Ribbon," a subjective declaration is twisted into objective truth ("You don't know how it feels when you whisper in my ear"). The slow-as-honey instant classic "H.A.T.E.U." is a break-up track, which finds her in a spot which grief is as unrealized as love ("I can't wait to hate you make you pain like I do / Still can't shake you off"). When she sings in the pre-chorus bridge, "We went round and round till we knocked love out / We were laying in the ring, not making a sound," she's expressing something we've heard 5,000 times already in a clever way. And that's why we listen to R&B, to hear new takes on old conditions, to feel life breathed into cliches. A little more of that might have saved Memoirs from its coma.