After you’ve been crowned “Artist of the Decade,” sold millions of albums worldwide, influenced an entire generation of vocalists, penned an iconic Christmas tune, and pioneered the now-ubiquitous pop-rap collaboration, the pressures of what comes next can be paralyzing for an artist.
However, 15 years into her illustrious career — and following something of a rare commercial downturn — Mariah Carey dropped the best-selling album of 2005: The Emancipation of Mimi. Thanks to the success of TEOM, which sold six million copies in the U.S. alone and helped garner Carey a whopping 10 Grammy nominations across 2006 and 2007, Carey found true artistic freedom.
The 14-track opus leans on the signature ballads (e.g. the megahit “We Belong Together,” aka the “Song of the Decade”) that Carey’s known for, but the dance-oriented “Get Your Number” and “To The Floor” remain standout tracks, driving home the LP’s celebratory vibe. TEOM is also notable to fans and critics for Carey’s use of her personal nickname “Mimi,” which symbolized the legendary diva pulling back the curtain a bit and letting her guard down after spending over a decade in the spotlight.
More importantly, the album’s title was a direct nod to Carey’s redemption following her previous studio efforts, 2001’s Glitter and 2002’s Charmbracelet, which received less than favorable reviews. So naturally when TEOM opened to the second highest first-week sales of Carey’s career and spawned the singer-songwriter’s 16th No. 1 hit, “We Belong Together,” Carey’s 10th studio project was immediately dubbed as her comeback album.
“In terms of having huge hits, [TEOM] definitely was a very successful album, so people were like, ‘It’s a comeback album,’” Carey tells Billboard. “For me, it was like a coming together of a lot of things with that album more than a comeback album. But they can call it that if they want to.”
In honor of the upcoming 15th anniversary (April 12) of the now-iconic studio project, Carey reflects on the creative process, success, and legacy of The Emancipation of Mimi.
What’s the first memory that comes to mind when it comes to The Emancipation of Mimi era?
It really was a moment and it did feel special. When I think about all the different songs on [the album] and the different collaborators, the timing was just right. It was the first time I collaborated with The Neptunes, and it was the first time I worked with [the late James] “Big Jim” Wright as a producer with “Circles” and with “Fly Like a Bird.”
My most sacred memory from that time would be recording the vocals for “Fly Like a Bird” in Capri. I recorded a lot of other [tracks] there, too, but I just remember finishing that song and feeling like there was something so special about it. I work at night, especially when I’m singing, so I was watching the sunrise [while] listening back to the song, and I was just like, “I’m so proud of this song.”
“It’s Like That” is one of your strongest album openers. Why did you decide to kick off the album with “It’s Like That” instead of “We Belong Together”?
That was a major decision. L.A. Reid really wanted an uptempo song, and I have to give him credit for inspiring Jermaine [Dupri] and I to go in [the studio] and do an uptempo record. We had “We Belong Together” and then I was like, “How can we not go with that song first?” But L.A. [Reid] planned to release something with a little bit of tempo and then we’d do “We Belong Together.”
My gut wanted to go with “Shake It Off” first. In retrospect, it was the right decision, but at that time, I was loving “Shake It Off” so much. I think there was a feeling that maybe “Shake It Off” didn’t have a broad enough appeal, which is ironic because it ended up doing better than “It’s Like That,” but I loved doing “It’s Like That.” It’s kind of like a party anthem, and when I [perform] it live, I really love the energy that the audience has.
[The song] was pretty celebratory, because I had come off the Glitter debacle, and I had gone into Charmbracelet, which I still love as an album, but it didn’t have the same kind of broad appeal. When I went in to work on [TEOM], it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m really going to kill them now.” It wasn’t that. It was just the way everything fell into place at that time – [including] collaborating with The Neptunes and Pharrell [Williams] for the first time, and even Young Genius, who was 15 years old when he did the beats for “Joy Ride.” I got to have fun and do things that people weren’t expecting.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you learned “We Belong Together” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100?
I don’t remember exactly where I was when I found that out, because from the time we released the song, it was kind of like wildfire. It just went, and it stayed number one for a long time, so I was happy with that. But my memories around that song are more [associated with] writing the song. After I left the studio, I got in the car and I just played the demo over and over. I was like, “This is going to be really monumental.” I didn’t know exactly how the moment was going to be, I just knew that I loved it.
When I was recording the vocals for “We Belong Together,” I spent a really long time doing the background vocal arrangement by myself in the studio. L.A. Reid happened to be in the building and he came to see me and he was with these financial guys. He says, “I want to come bring these guys by to see you,” and I’m like, “Oh no! He’s going to make me play it for him.” So I was like, “Let me just hurry up and do this outro.” And that pressure made me do my best, I guess. [Laughs.]
Talk to me about the album cover – it’s memorable because it’s clear you were a woman who was fully in charge of her own life and career at that point. How much thought went into the concept? Was there a specific statement you were trying to make with the artwork?
We did a few different photos, and actually my favorite shot is the one that’s featured on the Platinum Edition. That thing I’m wearing is not even a dress. It’s something that wraps around your body. It’s so weird, but you just had to be confident in wearing something like that and just be really present. I was just in a moment where it’s like, “Look, people may have written me off, but I will never write myself off, and this is an important time for me.”
“Say Somethin’” marked the first and one of the rare instances where you worked with The Neptunes. What was it like working with Pharrell Williams in his heyday?
Those writing sessions were great. Pharrell is just such a vibrant person and artist, so I really enjoyed making that record with him and collaborating with Snoop [Dogg] again on that song. It wasn’t my usual session, because I did the vocals there with [Pharrell] in the studio. Usually I go in by myself and just do whatever I’m feeling, but it was a real collaborative moment. [The label] wanted to actually go with “Say Somethin’” as the lead single. [They] were like, “I love it, I love it. It’s so different for you. You should go with it.” I felt like it was a really strong album cut, but I didn’t see it as the first single for me, because I thought it was too different. I think we really made the right choice artistically to work [with Pharrell]. It was such a perfect time in my life and my career for that.
What track on TEOM took the longest to create and execute conceptually?
There were a couple of songs on the album where I tried to go with more of a live instrumentation like “Circles” and “I Wish You Knew” – the audience is on that song. Those were [written and produced] with “Big Jim” Wright again – we were just in this little place in the Bahamas. We had written “Circles,” then I went upstairs and all of a sudden I heard another melody and it wasn’t for that song. I was like, “Did he leave yet?” Because Jim was about to leave, so I ran downstairs and said, “This is what I’m hearing.” [Hums the opening notes of “Fly Like a Bird”] So he stayed for a little while as we mapped out the music together, and then I wrote the lyrics by myself after the fact. I wanted to take my time with that one.
I would say [“Fly Like a Bird”] encapsulates who I am as an artist. It’s one of those career-defining songs.
Many of the tracks on TEOM, such as “Mine Again,” “Stay The Night” and even the unreleased “When I Feel It” have that retro sound and they feel very much inspired by ‘70s R&B and soul. Did you set out to create that vibe?
“When I Feel It” was just a track that [producer] Mahogany had, and I just tried to do an arrangement that would work for me as a vocalist on top of that track because it was already so laid out. I do think “Circles,” “Mine Again,” “I Wish You Knew,” and “Fly Like a Bird” definitely have that ‘70s vibe. I just wanted them to feel organic. So it wasn’t like this whole thing is going to be a retro album, but it was inspired by that type of music, especially because I started working with “Big Jim” Wright and he was such a consummate musician that you couldn’t avoid trying to make the track feel not over-produced but just soulful.
How did you feel when you first heard the album in full?
We spent a long time working on the sequence for the album — listening to it and just really putting it together as a body of work, as a cohesive piece of music that almost feels like it was one song. The sequencing of the album, I think, had a lot to do with the success of the project, as well, because it very much blends together from start to finish, even though there’s peaks and valleys.
Any favorite tracks off TEOM?
It’s really hard to pick. I love “Fly Like a Bird.” If I’m listening to the album, I would probably play “Fly Like a Bird” and I would play “Your Girl,” which we all knew was never really going to be a single, but it’s actually one of my favorites. Of course, I’m so thankful for “We Belong Together,” but I really appreciate this album from start to finish. I think it really did what it was supposed to do. I just had the best time working on it and really got absorbed in the process.
The quickest album I ever did was Rainbow, which took three months, and there was a reason for that, because I was moving labels. But I really did take my time with TEOM creatively. I recorded much of it in Capri with just me basically living in the studio with no distractions, and that’s what I love.
What do you hope TEOM says about your legacy?
I look at it as a very important time in my career, a very significant time for me as an artist. It was a sense of feeling triumphant when it was as successful as it was. I know a lot of people were introduced to me from that album, as well. So I would just love for people to take away the music from that album. I hope that it makes people feel good. That’s the goal.