Mariah Carey and the Catalyst of “Caution”

Vincent Anthony
15 Min Read

There comes a time in every iconic music superstar’s career when they must accept they have transitioned from icon to legend. Some do so obnoxiously, others are a little more graceful about it. With the release of her fifteenth studio album “Caution” in November 2018, Mariah Carey humbly embraced her legendary status. Music critics finally did, too, lauding the album and rendering it the most critically acclaimed of her career. It won’t make up for the 1996 GRAMMYs snub, but it’s something.

Of course, Carey’s place in the music record books is more than secure. She has spent more weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 than any other artist (91) and has more #1 singles than any other solo artist (19). Her albums have been certified for a total of 74 million units by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), making her the top-ranking woman, and second to only Michael Jackson among Black artists. It’s only natural that, for most of her career, Carey surely felt pressure to succeed as a hitmaker.

“When ‘Caution’ finally came, at that point in her career there was nothing else for her to prove,” says Princess Gabbara, an entertainment journalist, editor, and author whose writing has appeared in ESSENCE, Vibe, MTV News, and Billboard, where she interviewed Carey.

“She was able to create music for fun again, just for herself and the people who appreciate it most: her fans.”

Released after a tumultuous period both personally and professionally, Carey was a woman liberated on “Caution.” No longer confined by commercial expectations, she commanded the respect she deserved and earned. Carey, seemingly more comfortable and sure of herself than ever, returned to the studio in early 2018 to begin the recording sessions that would compose “Caution.”

“The studio is such a safe place for me, the right environment,” Carey told Rob Markman during her “Genius Level” interview. “I had been outside of that environment for too long and doing too many superfluous things that I really didn’t need to be doing.”

Over the four and a half years between “Caution” and 2014’s “Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse,” Carey indeed had a lot going on. She got divorced, engaged, and then broke it off. She changed managers a few times, went on three tours, had two Las Vegas residencies, produced a cringe-worthy reality TV show… and then there was the New Year’s Eve 2017 debacle. However, she kicked off 2018 by returning to the very same stage, vindicating herself with a stellar performance

Later that year, she disclosed that she’s battled bipolar disorder since 2001, saying she could no longer “live in constant fear” of someone exposing her (spoiler alert: someone was about to do so). In an exclusive interview with People, Carey admitted, “​​I sought and received treatment, I put positive people around me and I got back to doing what I love — writing songs and making music.” Seven months later, she released “Caution.”

“’Caution’ is a return to her creative prowess because all of the negative drama was gone, and she could just create with no distraction,” says Gabbara. 

During her “Genius Level” interview, Carey also spoke on the creative process behind the album: “I really wanted to collaborate. One of my favorite things to do is collaborate and go back and forth…I did a lot of that on this record.”

That she did. “Caution” found Carey collaborating with an array of producers and songwriters, most of whom she had never worked with before. The result was an impressively fresh, modern R&B album. Teaming up with trusted names like Timbaland, No ID, Shea Taylor, Poo Bear, Bibi Bourelly, DJ Mustard, Nineteen85, and The Stereotypes, Carey masterfully combined contemporary R&B styles with her signature, crossover sensibilities. She also worked with less predictable collaborators, such as EDM producer Skrillex and, most notably, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. Though each of the album’s ten tracks pairs Carey with a different set of co-producers, they mesh perfectly.

“It’s one of her most cohesive albums,” says Taylor Gray, indie R&B artist and playlist curator. “She was able to fuse many different sounds and collaborators and it worked seamlessly. It was very forward-thinking for Mariah … a little more alternative in certain elements.”

One of the album’s most “alternative” sounding tracks is “Giving Me Life.” Penned by Carey and Hynes, with a guest verse from Hip-Hop legend Slick Rick, the track is like nothing Carey has ever recorded, yet still manages to sound unmistakably her own. 

“I think her collaboration with Blood Orange is an indication of the future for her,” says Andrew Chan, author of “Why Mariah Carey Matters,” a book critically examining Carey’s legacy. “The whole weird psychedelic outro that she does, it’s just fantastic.”

Praise for “Caution” is not limited to Gabbara, Chan, or Gray. On Metacritic, a website that creates an aggregate score for albums based on published reviews, the album has a score of 82 based on nine reviews, which they note as “universal acclaim.”

“She started to finally receive a lot of her flowers,” says Gabbara. “It felt like a full-circle moment. Not only the fans, but the critics recognized that too.” 

Critics were definitely impressed. In Entertainment Weekly, Leah Greenblatt wrote, “On … the breezy, pleasingly defiant ‘Caution,’ she finds a freshness that’s been missing from her recent material.” Similarly, in the Pitchfork review by Maura Johnston, she noted that Carey employs “of-the-moment producers to add current touches to her tracks, but the way she uses them on ‘Caution’ results in her fine-tuning her aesthetic, not bending to current playlist-friendly trends.”

For Spin, Winston Cook-Wilson gave Carey, and “Caution,” high praise: “More than just a sound effect, “Mariah Carey”-ness is a style and an attitude, a mode in which so many artists continue to make music. On ‘Caution,’ she is still doing it better than most of her students, and sounds more comfortable than she has in quite a while.”

Chan, too, notes that this album marked a shift in how critics wrote about Carey, but he also attributes that to a change in demographics among critics: “Things change when more people of color start writing about music; when more queer people start writing about music. Much of the music criticism was controlled by a certain type of straight white man who really had no interest in what Mariah or a lot of other black women were bringing to the table musically.” 

“It also says something about how Mariah’s legacy has solidified,“ he adds.

While Carey is famously averse to acknowledging time, the album was released 28 years into her career, on the cusp of her fourth decade in the industry. At 54, Carey is far from retirement but is certainly a veteran, a “legacy act” – which comes with good and bad elements. Due to ageism (and slightly confusing single choices), the album barely made a dent, commercially. However, its critical acclaim and subsequent celebrations of her legacy that followed “Caution” show that Carey is beginning to receive the respect that an artist of her caliber deserves.

“People started to realize we need to appreciate our living legends while we have them,” says Gabbara.

Since “Caution” was released, Carey herself has made several conscious decisions to celebrate her legacy and catalog. While she may opt to refer to them as minutes and not years, she celebrated the 25th Anniversary of iconic albums “Daydream,” and “Butterfly,” the 30th Anniversary of “Music Box,” and her entire career with a campaign called “#MC30.” In 2020, she also released her first memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” alongside an album of unreleased songs “from the vault,” titled “The Rarities.” 

Each of these events was met with celebration from fans and critics alike, perhaps contributing to the snowballing success of Carey’s evergreen classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which, after notching its first week at #1 in 2019, has only grown more popular. With it, Carey’s profile as the “Queen of Christmas” continues to elevate. 

This year, her “It’s Time” video announcing the start of the holiday Mariah season became the most-watched video on Twitter (X), with over 122 million views. On TikTok, it has over 93 million. Currently, Carey is on tour spreading Christmas cheer with a setlist that includes holiday favorites, as well as some of her biggest hits and fan favorites. Just in time to celebrate its 5th anniversary, there’s even a “Caution” cut included, the Lil’ Kim-sampling gem that should’ve been its lead single: “A No No.” 

As she continues to release (GRAMMY-nominated) special editions of her classic albums and trek around the world each Christmas as obligated by The Crown, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Mariah Carey is no longer shying away from reminding us that while she may be the Queen of Christmas, she is not just the Christmas lady. Following the acclaim she received for “Caution,” Carey has definitely seemed more emboldened and aware of her worth. 

“I think maybe there is something that happens with artists who just don’t get any critical respect,” says Chan. “It’s almost like you feel shy about praising yourself or putting yourself forward as a major musician, maybe because you’ve never been made to feel that by people who have respected positions and can judge that. Once you have a sense of how influential you are and it’s being acknowledged in the press, I can understand how that would make you go back and reflect on what your contribution has been over decades.”

In celebration of the album’s release, Sony Music installed an exhibition called “The Mariah Carey Experience” at Sony Square in New York City. With different photo booths that allowed fans to recreate a couple of her iconic album covers, a museum-style display of her #1 hits and memorable ensembles, and of course a Christmas moment, it simultaneously placed her legacy front and center alongside her then-new album.

Before landing on “Caution,” Carey originally planned to title the album after a different track, the reflective ballad “Portrait.” A tradition at this point, she bares all on the dramatically introspective album closer. She sings, “I won’t let the teardrops spill tonight/ Just conceal myself and hide/ This portrait of my life.” Dripping in insecurity, “Portrait” illustrates a woman fighting to survive, remaining resilient (“down but not demoralized”), but in shame (“how do I disappear?”).

The last song recorded for the album, “Caution,” became the album’s title track instead. A wise choice, from both a stylistic (the song is more representative of the set, sonically) and marketing (the artwork and other caution-taped theme promo materials were really cool) standpoint. However, maybe unconsciously, “Caution” paints the picture of a much different woman in comparison to “Portrait.” On the slinky, Caribbean-inspired groove, Carey confidently sings, “Proceed with caution, but don’t make me wait/ Before too long, it just might fade away.” 

While yes, the song is about a new relationship, perhaps as an album title it was metaphorical. “Caution,” the album, was a catalyst; it was Mariah Carey putting the world on notice. She demanded respect as an artist, and releasing a damn good body of work was the most effective form of statement to make her case.

Recently, Carey announced that she’s back in the studio working on her next album – the follow-up to “Caution” that fans have been eagerly anticipating. Indeed, “it’s time.”

Revisit “Caution” by Mariah Carey

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Vincent is the founder of the magazine and has had a strong passion for popular music since, well, 1997! If it's not obvious, his favorite artists include Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, P!nk, and many more. Vincent lives in New York, where he is a high school English teacher, and currently he is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.