Mariah Carey's Journey to a New Album: The Billboard Cover Story
After waiting five years between albums, Mariah explains the struggle behind her next release: "This is my life since we last left off. Just picture a dot dot dot, and then here's the album"
Mariah Carey is having a Case of the Mondays.
It's the day after Easter, and she's nursing a kick to the face from her nearly 3-year-old son Moroccan after a long day of egg hunting. "We were sort of winding down the day, removing his shoes, and he was having his own moment of not wanting the night to end and he ended up getting me square in the nose while the shoe was still on," says Carey, 44, on the phone from her apart- ment in New York. Though her nose has a "tiny bump" that Carey has been treating with ice and milk, the incident has still apparently swollen her face enough that she has had to cancel a planned photo shoot and in-person sitdown with Billboard. "I think it's OK. It's still really red. I could've covered it up and tried to look decent, but shouldn't my "Billboard" cover be a little less about that and more about the music?" (The cover photo is an outtake from her album shoot.)
If you've followed the headlines around Carey in the years since 2009's "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel," you would know it hasn't always been about the music. Since the birth of her twins Moroccan and Monroe in April 2011, she has weathered a rocky stint as a judge on American Idol in 2013, for which she was paid $18 million, according to People, as well as an accident on a music video set that led to a dislocated shoulder and cracked ribs. The injury preceded the latest in a series of delays for her planned 14th album, which at one point was earmarked for early 2013. Though her Miguel duet "#Beautiful" was a decent-sized hit last summer, peaking at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 with sales of 1.2 million (according to Nielsen SoundScan), a trio of other singles failed to catch fire, most recently February's "You're Mine (Eternal)," which spent a week on the Hot 100 at No. 88 and has sold only 56,000 copies.
But in late May, Carey hopes she can silence her naysayers and super-serve her patient fans with the much-anticipated release of her 14th album, which at one point was intended as a digital-first, all-at-once release a la "Beyoncé." Though her label Def Jam now says an official pre-order is expected for later this week, announcing the album's title, cover and tracklist, it's clear from talking to Carey that she misses the good old days of the '90s. The time when you could deliver an album the old-fashioned way, when you had to go to the store to see the song names and the cover art. "I have to be the one that announces this, especially the title," says Carey, noting the album takes its name from a "personal possession of mine that's part of an entity that I've had almost all my life."
The "Beyoncé" parallels would have made even more sense when you consider that Beyonce was coming off an underperforming album (2011's "4") before going the surprise route, much like Carey's "Memoirs" produced just one top 10 hit ("Obsessed") and sold a disappointing 549,000 copies, low enough to cancel a planned remix album.
Carey will cop to a few of the prerelease singles not doing particularly well, pausing to note that 2013's Stargate-produced "Almost Home" was intended for the "Oz, Great and Powerful" soundtrack. "It was never about, 'This is my album,' but I wasn't fully connected to that song. I was in the middle of that other situation in my life, which we will erase and pretend it never happened." (That "situation" being Idol, which we'll get to later.) "You would think I would be all about the singles-driven situation, and I am in a way, but with this particular album I want my fans to hear it as a body of work," she says. "This is my life since we last left off. Just picture a dot dot dot, and then here's the album."
"Life happens, and that added to the making of this album," songwriter-producer Bryan-Michael Cox told "Billboard" in February. "Over the past couple years we've added songs, scratched songs, slow-baking this record like a honey-baked ham. And when you take a bite of that ham — people will be extremely and pleasantly surprised."
Carey's label group Island Def Jam is probably best described as cautiously optimistic about the album, declining to respond to multiple fact-checking and interview requests for this story.
In terms of fans, anticipation for a new Carey album hasn't been this high since her mid-2000s comeback, which saw 2005's "The Emancipation of Mimi" go quadruple-platinum and turn "We Belong Together" into the biggest radio hit of her career, spending 14 weeks atop the Hot 100 and becoming Billboard's top song of the 2000s. But in addition to the reteaming with Jermaine Dupri ("We Belong Together," "Always Be My Baby") on two tracks for the new album, she has assembled a team of collaborators that shows she has paid attention to the hip-hop and R&B charts in recent years. There's tracks from of-the-moment producers like Hit-Boy (Kanye West and Jay Z's "N***** In Paris") and Mike Will Made It (Rihanna's "Pour It Up"); guest features from Wale, Nas and Trey Songz; and even c ontributions from veeran arranger Larry Gold and the Love Unlimited Orchestra and a "special guest that I'm not allowed to reveal."
Talk to Carey about the album, and you'll get lengthy if cryptically worded explanations about the material, making liberal use of favorite words like "journey" ("If I use that word one more time I'll have to start an '80s rock band"), "festive" (her time on Idol, she says, "was not festive") and "moment" ("I just need a moment to finish this track listing"). She'll call you "dahhhling," with a Zsa Zsa Gabor affectation, and grill you on your "lambily" status (that's Mariah speak for hardcore fans, or "lambs"). "There's no way I'll be able to quite relive the splendor of certain moments — name that tune, lambily!" she says at one point, asking if you've spotted her lyrical reference to "The Roof " from 1997's "Butterfly."
As Carey began work in earnest on the project in 2012, a friend compiled an exhaustive, 1,000- track playlist of all of Carey's catalog and remixes, dubbed "The Ultimate MC Audio Collection." Through revisiting her own 24-year career, Carey reminisced about forgotten remixes from the '90s with producers like the late David Cole and her early experiments with genre-fusing. "I will always lean toward R&B in general, but I do think that merging hip-hop and R&B was one of the best things that happened for me as a fan of music. There's this whole pop and hip-hop mixing together thing now — first of all, it's not new, and second of all, why are we acting like it is?"
The album will also showcase Carey's intro-spective, "morose" side, which certain lambily have treasured through the years from deeply personal cuts like "Looking In" (from 1995's "Daydream"), "Close My Eyes" (from "Butterfly") and
"Petals" (from 1999's "Rainbow") — songs that offer an intimate glimpse into the person behind all the diva behavior. "It's so good to hear people say they grew up with me as the soundtrack to their life, even though I was making it, so that was the soundtrack to my life as well," she says.
It was Carey's reconnection with "Looking In" that shaped the final phase of the current album. She performed the song live for the first time with the New York Philharmonic in Central Park last July, just one week after her shoulder injury, clad in a faux-fur sling that matched her white ballgown. The song's lyrics were inspired by her unhappy marriage from 1993 to 1998 to Tommy Mottola, and found her singing in the third person about a girl who "dreams of all/ That she can never be/She wades in insecu- rity, yeah/And she hides herself inside of me." Carey broke down in tears at one point during the song, cautioning the audience beforehand that it "requires a bit more stability than I have right now. I kind of got in trouble for writing this song so I'm going to try."
After the show, Carey revisited the songs she had already earmarked for the ballad-heavy album and decided she needed a change of pace. That's where two of the three Hit-Boy tracks came in, as well as a fresh collab with Dupri, who became her latest manager thereafter. (Carey's management underwent several changes in 2012 and 2013, including parting ways with former Idol co-star Randy Jackson after many years together and a brief stint with Coran Capshaw's Red Light Management.) "There were certain parts of the album where I needed to be lifted up again. I needed something uplifting." (That's a "Dreamlover" reference, lambily.)
That Carey is taking even more of a hands-on approach to her music these days is no surprise from a woman who co-wrote all her No. 1 singles, and has also taken more aspects of her career in her own hands amid her various management shifts and other endeavors. After being "bamboozled" by the Idol experience when footage of her feud with fellow judge Nicki Minaj leaked, for example, Carey says she would like to executive-produce her next reality-competition venture. "I have another project that I'm so very excited about that's finally coming to fruition. I would want to do something that was authentic. And I did feel that there were some truly talented singers on there this year, last year, whenever that was. It's a blur, it has all been a blur, all of it, dahhhling."
But she's also in a rarefied class of superstars in their third decade of fame who can still compete in the big leagues. Madonna, Cher and Celine Dion continue to rank among Billboard's top-earning artists more for their exhaustive touring work, not because they're still getting the massive radio play and album sales of their respective heydays. Carey, meanwhile, has never been much of a roadhorse (she didn't even tour until 1993, when she played 10 theaters in support of her third album, "Music Box") and still considers herself more of "a studio rat" at heart.
"I love being in the studio, making Wall of Sound background vocals. That's when I'm most at home, other than being with 'dem babies' now. I love being onstage and connecting with the lambily most importantly, but it's just that now nothing's just an experience with your fans and your fans alone. It's on YouTube immediately, not 'Oh, that was an amazing moment I just experienced.'" So until she's willing to do a global arena tour or a Las Vegas residency, Carey will need to keep churning out hits to extend her living legacy.
Dupri seems weary of the expectations that come with official "comeback singles," which is why one of his first items of business as Carey's manager last fall was releasing the ballad "The Art of Letting Go" as a teaser track on Carey's Facebook page to set the tone for the album, rather than the typical event strategy. Though "Letting Go" will appear on the album along with "#Beautiful" and "You're Mine," the hope is that the fans' response will democratize the typical album process from here.
"The challenge with Mariah has always been if I like one record and she likes another, you can never pick a single that satisfies everybody," says Dupri. "If you just did what Beyonce did, she just gave you 17 singles and you picked which record you like."
Even though Carey's latest album marks the longest gap between albums, it certainly won't be her last, despite a recent interview with Bravo's Andy Cohen on "Watch What Happens Live" where she indicated she might be treating it as such. Still, it signifies something of a make- or-break moment at this phase in her storied career as Billboard's second-most-decorated Hot 100 chart-topper, next to The Beatles.
"I will always make music.When I said [this album] could be my last, that's because tomorrow's not promised to anyone. When I release anything, it's difficult — it could be a performance that you don't love and it's like, 'Great, everybody's going to pick this apart,' and that's it. What I'm trying to say is I wanted this to be something I could be proud of, whether it's like, 'Yay, No. 1 song!,' and this and that. However things end up happening, we've all worked so hard. The true lambily have all worked so hard to break all these Billboard records and to have this incredible experience with me that I want them to have this almost as a gift."