Aside from being an incredible jam — and the rare No. 1 hit to include “incessantly” in the chorus — “Heartbreaker” is an important song in Mimi’s career.
The power of Carey’s vocals is well documented and nearly unmatched, but a powerful voice alone doesn’t give you 14 No. 1 hits in 10 years. But of all her hits, “Heartbreaker” best demonstrates her ability to keep her ear to the ground, to sense a shifting pop landscape and change with it.
Throughout the ’90s, R&B moved closer to rap in form and content. While many hitmakers resisted rap, Carey played an important role in this transition. Ol’ Dirty Bastard showed up on a remix to “Fantasy,” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rapped on her stalled 1998 single “Breakdown,” and sampling had always factored into her approach.
But “Heartbreaker” was the first smash single from Mariah to feature a rapper on its initial release — her most blatant merger of the two forms to date. She also demonstrated her pop savvy by giving an assist to Jay-Z, who was starting his own climb towards pop domination. Carey graciously took him with her to No. 1; he wouldn’t taste top 10 crossover success again until 2001.
The “Heartbreaker” remix pushed her even further into the world of genre hybridization. She pulled in two rappers, Missy Elliott and Da Brat, and sampled another rap song, remaking the beat from a 1993 track by Snoop Dogg.
“Heartbreaker” doesn’t only stand out in the context of pop trends, though — it’s a different vocal approach for Carey.
Singers of her caliber often make ballads their bread and butter. And obviously, singing ballads is smart for Carey — it plays to her strengths to limb out and then keep climbing, to engage in melismatic runs and revel in the extent of her range.
But what makes “Heartbreaker” surprising in Carey’s ’90s catalog is its restraint. Rolling Stone compared “Heartbreaker” to “Fantasy” on the grounds that both sampled early ’80s New Wave funk — Stacy Lattisaw‘s “Attack of the Name Game” and Tom Tom Club‘s “Genius of Love,” respectively.
Carey hits high notes in “Heartbreaker” (that goes without saying), but the song feels closer to Aaliyah‘s “Rock The Boat,” a soft wave of a song that followed in 2001. “Fantasy” is a cheerful, strutting tune, a burst of energy. “Heartbreaker,” however, is smooth around the edges — and tragic in the middle.
In the big-budget video for “Heartbreaker,” Carey tracks down her cheating boyfriend at a movie theater and fights with the other girl he’s taking on a date — also played by Carey. The martial arts battle that takes place between Carey and her evil alter-ego in the movie theater bathroom humorously dramatizes the way she was battling herself for pop dominance at the turn of the century.
No one touched Carey in the ’90s — she released the majority of her No. 1 singles and put out seven albums during the decade. She would continue to be successful after “Heartbreaker,” but part of its lasting impact is the way it defined the model of a supremely successful, highly adaptable star — a model that still rules the pop scene today.