When you're a legacy pop artist still making albums decades into your career, the odds are rarely in your favor.
Make an of-the-moment album featuring a bunch of new names making new sounds, and you'll be accused of trend-hopping. Make a vintage-sounding album that harkens back to your earliest or most famous work, you'll be accused of pandering, of being a museum piece. Make anything in between, and you'll likely just be called irrelevant. It's a losing game, and as the smartest aging pop greats tend to discover, the smartest move is not to play at all -- make albums only when you feel like it, and then just make the kind of albums you want to make.
It probably shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Mariah Carey enters her 15th album sounding entirely unconcerned with any such conceptions. "GTFO," the lead single and first track from this Friday's (Nov. 16) new Caution album, features a typically resolute Mimi, gently demanding an unworthy soon-to-be ex perform the (spoken-out) titular action. Laying her signature sing-sigh over a moaning, Porter Robinson-sampling shuffle from producer (and frequent Drake collabroator) Nineteen85, Mimi downs a bottle of Caymus, lapses into franglais, and blankly proclaims, "don't mean to be rude, but take your shit and leave." It's called "GTFO," but it's quintessential Mariah DGAF.
The rest of Caution follows in turn. It's a resolutely mid-tempo album, and its pacing reflects that -- the set's ten tracks have no obvious peaks or valleys, and little in the way of unexpected left-turns to break up the vibing. The set boasts an impressive roster of producers as timely as Nineteen85 -- including DJ Mustard, No ID, Blood Orange and even Skrillex -- but they're all clearly here in service of Mariah, bending their trademark sonics to fit into her pop-n-B comfort zone, rather than asking her to do the same. The album's sound is uniform but not stagnant; in fact, its lush chilliness and steady treading make it the perfect soundtrack to the beginning of winter, now officially Mariah SZN.
The features are similarly well-curated, a mix of welcome old friends and logical new buds to complement Mariah's presence without ever impinging upon her spotlight. When 2018 assist leader Ty Dolla $ign announces his presence via ad-lib on "The Distance," your mind might race trying to figure out where they've collaborated before, since the pairing feels so natural -- ditto when Slick Rick's unmistakable drawl chirps in with a "The ru-ler!" self-ID on "Giving Me Life." Even Gunna, a prototypical Hot Right Now rapper who'd be an eye-rolling presence on most 40-somethings' new work, makes for a welcome guest on "Stay Long Love You," quickly mumbling R-rated fealty to Carey and exiting the fray before things get weird. (It helps, of course, that Mariah has long been established as a champion of the hip-hop vanguard, from Ol' Dirty Bastard in the mid-'90s to Meek Mill earlier this decade.)
And while Caution does come pre-packaged with a heavy dose of pop nostalgia for Mariah's similarly maturing Lambily -- a Lil Kim sample here, a Bone Thugs reference there -- none of the songs dwell so much in the past that they threaten to get lost there. Carey buries her mini-throwbacks like Easter Eggs for her fans, like in "Giving Me Life," which begins and ends its main portion with samples of Eddie Murphy's dialogue from the classic 1983 comedy Trading Places. No further reference is made to the movie or its dialogue throughout the song, and there seems to be no obvious reason for the samples except to make a fun bookend to the song for her fans, many of whom will ID the source instantly. And if not, no problem, moving on. For longtime fans looking for a journey back to the 20th century, she's happy to take them there, but not while leaving any newer fans behind.
Of course, it all works because the songs themselves are strong enough to stand on their own, without needing headline-grabbing guest contributors or fan-servicing back-in-the-day trips to serve as hooks to hang them on. There's still no one who does romantic melancholy quite like Mariah Carey, simultaneously vulnerable and invincible, heartbroken and cold-blooded, with just the right touch of self-referential humor to avoid ever becoming totally maudlin or monstrous. ("Somethin' is tellin' me you're ready, am I wrong?/ Maybe the lyrics are too heavy in my song," she worries in "8th Grade.")
The kiss-off "A No No," with its blithely dismissive chorus and frisky, "Crush on You"-borrowed beat, is one of the most fun songs she's done this century, while the piano-ballad closer "Portrait" is as intimate a confessional as we've ever heard from her, with all the weight of the decades we've shared with her bearing down on each vocal run. ("Somewhat desensitized, still the same hopeful child/ Haunted by those severed ties, pushing past the parasites.") And at just ten songs -- a rarity in these days of seven-track mini-albums and 25-cut opuses -- the album takes its own advice by G'ingTFO exactly when it should.
Caution is an appropriate title for a new album by a longtime diva like Mariah -- there's an obstacle course's worth of pratfalls laid out by industry expectations, by pop-star ego, even by fans themselves, and it's unfairly easy to get messed up by them. But on her 15th album, Mariah calmly sidesteps all of 'em with a veteran's grace, making it look easy -- making it look like those potential tripwires were just in our heads all along. The album likely won't spin off a breakout hit, or reintroduce Mariah to the Spotify generation, or change the course of her career in any dramatic way. But it's a new Mariah Carey album, and it feels like exactly what she and her fans wanted it to be. When you're going The Distance with a pop star, that's all you can really ask for.