Mariah On Fire

In the video for her new single, "Heartbreaker," Mariah Carey plays two parts. There's Good Mariah. She has blond hair and wears a pink T shirt. Bad Mariah has dark hair and long, red fingernails. Bad Mariah has stolen Good Mariah's boyfriend. The two women meet in the ladies' room and proceed to get into a very unladylike fight. They scratch, they kick, they pull each other's hair. Good Mariah wins. You could dismiss it as just a silly music-video gag. But when you sit down to listen to Mariah Carey's new album, "Rainbow," it's clear that musically, there are two Mariahs. Top-40 Mariah sings octave-soaring mainstream ballads. Hip-hop Mariah records with Master P and Snoop Dogg. She says those two Mariahs are at odds only when people try to categorize her music based on her skin color. "I'm very ambiguous-looking; I could be anything, really," Carey says. "Unless I had a sticker on that first album that said, 'Hi! My mom's Irish. My father is African-American and Venezuelan,' then there was going to be controversy."

At 29, Mariah Carey has sold 100 million albums. Last month, when "Heartbreaker" debuted in the top spot on the Billboard singles chart, she broke the Beatles' record for most weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Although she is rarely heralded as a songwriter, Carey wrote 13 of her 14 No. 1 hits. She took a lot of flack on her last record, "Butterfly," for making an album steeped in hip-hop and R&B. It's telling that when she plays "Rainbow" for guests, she fast-forwards through most of her trademark ballads and smiles broadly when listening to her hip-hop tunes. She says her critics "don't understand that I'm someone who grew up with this music. It's exciting for me to be able to work with Jay-Z or Nas or Missy Elliott." On "Rainbow," Carey dives even further into the roots of R&B. The Minnie Riperton-inspired "Bliss" is five minutes and 44 seconds of hot-buttered soul. "I can't even think that high," marveled producer Jimmy Jam when Carey recorded the song. "It's not that she can hit the notes," Jam says. "A lot of people hit the notes. But the runs and trills that people do in a normal register she does at the top of her voice."

She may not have pioneered the pairing of R&B singing with rap music, but Carey is a very good student. From her partnering with Ol' Dirty Bastard on 1995's "Fantasy" to the sampling of an obscure Tupac track on this album, her hip-hop sensibility is impeccable. When Carey invited Snoop Dogg to appear on "Rainbow," she warned him that he would have to watch his language. "Don't worry, MC," Carey says, imitating Snoop's gravelly bark. "I'm trying to stay on the radio this year." She laughs when she tells the story, but it's clear that she's mindful of her censors. On "Rainbow," she swerves from hip-hop-laced tracks like "Crybaby" to a remake of Phil Collins's easy-listening perennial "Against All Odds." It's almost as if hip-hop Mariah were telling her record company, "Don't worry, Sony. I'm trying to stay on VH1 this year."

It takes a lot of work to cover both ends of the musical spectrum the way Carey does. Notorious for her poor sleeping habits, she says she almost called one of the songs on the album "Insomniac." The song, now called "Crybaby," is about being kept up by a broken heart, but Carey says she also worries a lot about work. "I'm at the helm of my career," she says. "I have great people helping me, but certain things no one can deal with but me." Songwriter Diane Warren is struck by Carey's drive. "She works really hard," says Warren. "No matter what she's done, there's a hunger there. She doesn't have to prove herself, but she feels like she does." Producer Jimmy Jam says, "One day she was singing a vocal in the studio, doing tracking in a second studio and producing a new song in the third. She worked all night and left the studio at 7 in the morning. Four hours later she was shooting a video. She shoots the video all day, goes to dinner. She comes back to the studio and records all night until 7 the following morning. She's totally underrated because you see her on TV and she looks good. She sounds good. But she's got chops in the studio. She does the tedious, painstaking producing work."

Mariah Carey did not become the biggest-selling female artist of the 1990s by cultivating an air of mystery. It's easy to underestimate her because, unlike an artist like Madonna, she's not constantly pushing society's buttons. Regardless of whether she's doing a rap track or a top-40 ballad, her songs cover simple themes: love, broken families and the need to believe in yourself. Perhaps what makes her so popular with men and women alike is that Carey's songs are as revealing as her trademark midriff-baring blouses. She wrote "Butterfly" about divorcing Sony Music chairman and CEO Tommy Mottola, a man some referred to as her Svengali. On the new album, there are not-so-thinly veiled references to her ex-husband and her ex-boyfriends, including baseball star Derek Jeter, as well as to her new love, Mexican singer Luis Miguel.

Carey has always used songwriting to express herself. She grew up on New York's Long Island and was raised by her opera-singer mom. Money was tight and circumstances were harsh. She doesn't talk about her siblings for legal reasons. She has one brother and one sister, both of them more than 10 years older than she is. She has a troubled history with her sister and the two don't speak, but Carey supports her financially. It's not hard to imagine that her new song "Petals" is at least in part about that sister. "I've often wondered if there's a perfect family/I've always longed for undividedness and sought stability/And I miss you dandelion/And even love you./And I wish there was a way/For me to trust you." She has two nephews from her sister; she is putting the oldest through an Ivy League law school. "I'm definitely the caretaker," she says. "But I feel that I'm also always fighting for myself."

On "Rainbow," she tells her fans that the album "chronicles my emotional roller-coaster ride of the past year. If you listen very closely, there's a story here with a very happy ending." One gets the sense that Sad Mariah, if not Bad Mariah, is part of that emotional roller coaster. "This is the first album I've done that doesn't have a sad song at the end of it," she says. "So maybe that's a hopeful sign." When she debuted 10 years ago, Carey seemed like the quintessential pop-music Cinderella. Now it seems like she's trying to figure out how to hold on to happily ever after. It's like she's still looking for a sign--a rainbow, a butterfly--that says everything is going to be OK.

Mariah On Fire | News
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