The story of my love for Mariah Carey started in 1998 with my budding obsession for Aretha Franklin, VH1 Divas Live, and “Chain of Fools”. But my true journey on the Mariah Carey train began on Christmas 1999, when I unwrapped a copy of Rainbow underneath the Christmas tree.
Rainbow is Mariah’s seventh studio album, and by the time I was drafting my 1999 Christmas list, “Heartbreaker” was all over the music channels, with an unforgettable music video to boot. A movie theater stakeout led to a bathroom fight scene between Mariah and a brunette Mariah (Bianca), meanwhile in the midst of all the chaos Jay-Z appeared on the movie screen to recreate an iconic scene from Scarface. I was enraptured by the song and accompanying music video.
Throughout Rainbow’s 13 other tracks, Mariah’s pen paints over a diverse landscape of genres. She furthered her immersion in hip hop that dominated her 1997 magnum opus Butterfly, while still incorporating elements of pop, R&B, and even gospel into the tapestry of the album. There are catchy, radio-friendly hits, big ballads, and sharp-as-ever lyrics. Rainbow is a colorful palette over which Mariah’s diverse artistry and big voice shine.
It took me years to properly dissect Rainbow: much of my listening in those early days revolved around putting the album in my boombox before bed and setting the sleep timer, or my Walkman on long car rides, because my parents were not trying to listen to Rainbow (not more than once or twice at least). I focused a majority of my energy around the album’s first 3 songs, and naturally gravitated to the album’s other 2 singles.
On and On and On
One of my favorite cuts on Rainbow is the third track: a nearly 6-minute Minnie Ripperton ode called “Bliss”. Mariah leans into her whistle register more than she ever did before, and it drives the hook. “Bliss” is a slinky, sensual cut, that’s as sexual as it is soothing. When I got Rainbow at 9, I had no idea what “Bliss” was actually about. It was just a smooth track that I could fall asleep to. As I’ve aged, I’ve obviously realized the true subject of the song. But as a kid, the easy pace of the drums, keyboards, and limitless whistle notes provided for the perfect backdrop to fade out. With age, the brilliance of “Bliss” became more and more apparent. The doubling of the her whistle with an airy range vocal on the hook, the progression to the climax, the divine moment when she doubles her whistles, those fleeting seconds when she comes out of her upper register to sing and even slightly belt a note, and a moment of choir? It’s a masterclass in vocal arrangements, and a middle finger to the numerous critics who had something negative to say about her using her whistle register in excess. On “Bliss”, the whistle register is what makes the song a standout.
She embraces west coast hip hop on the remix to “Heartbreaker” and “Crybaby,” one cut sampling and another featuring the Dogfather himself, Snoop Dogg. On the “Heartbreaker” remix Mariah reunites with friend Da Brat and “Babydoll” co-writer Missy Elliott for a full-blown men-ain’t-shit female posse cut, flipping a sample of Snoop Dogg’s misogynistic “Ain’t No Fun.” The three lament their dismal men, while the beat gives Mariah room to vocally show out more than the confectionary original.
There’s a similar pace to “Crybaby,” but it takes a different turn musically. It embodies characteristics of classic 90’s west coast hip hop, especially the meandering synth during the hook. She marries her airy upper register with cleverly placed vocal bursts, specifically the “why, is it 5am and, I’m still up spiraling?” and “I don’t get no sleep, I’m up awake, can’t stop thinking of you and me, and everything we used to be, it could have been so perfect see I cry” punctuated by an “I gotta get me some sleep.” It’s such a Mariah cut: lamenting her lack of sleep and being awake at all hours as she wanders around on her tippy toes. Snoop Dogg joins the party, effortlessly coasting over the beat with his smooth, unmistakable flow as if it was made just for him.
The ballads on Rainbow are arguably some of her strongest up to that point. She soars on the anthemic “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme),” unleashing an unyielding sense of resilience that, time and time again, has helped me persevere through some of my darkest moments. It’s a very Mariah composition, in that it has certain qualities that are hallmarks of Mariah’s writing, production, and vocal stylings, most notably a crescendo that is reminiscent of “Outside” and “Vision of Love,” other melodic tendencies that recall “Vanishing”. With all the challenges she faced at Columbia and Sony at the time as a result of her split from Tommy Mottola, Mariah sounds resilient and optimistic for the future.
“Petals,” which takes more of a reflective approach, is one of her most personal ballads to date, in line with “Looking In,” “Outside,” “Camouflage,” and “Portrait.” She pens words to her estranged sister Alison, her former step-children, and others. And though there are repeated progressions, melodies, and variations, there is no lyrically repeated chorus, a nod to the earlier, equally personal “Looking In.” It’s lyrically pungent, with other lines focused on her ex-husband Tommy Mottola (“I know you really like to see me suffer… I wish that you and I’d forgive each other”), and her former writing partner Walter Afanasieff (“So many I considered closest to me, turned on a dime and sold me out dutifully, although that knife is chipping away at me, they turned their eyes away and went home to sleep”). Songs like “Petals” are a true testament to the artistry of Mariah Carey and her power as a songwriter. It’s a stark contrast from the songs that top the Billboard charts, but she possesses the versatility as a songwriter to write a “Heartbreaker” and a “Petals” and allow them to exist on the same album.
On the album’s sole cover, Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds”, her vocal show out is beyond. She takes the song’s original key, and reaches for the sky, despite hitting not a single whistle note, nor going as far as she could had she taken the key upwards. It’s striking, powerful, and impactful. In the UK, it was released as a single featuring boyband Westlife.
Mariah also included two interludes that bridge the gap between songs in the album’s sequence. “Vulnerability” is a quick vocal show-out that bookends the “Heartbreaker” remix, utilizing lyrics from the song’s hook. The album’s title cut on the other hand, “Rainbow,” is something that she’s explained just never got finished. It’s just a few lyrics that optimistically lead into the album’s final track.
The closer on Rainbow begins another tradition of sorts, a gospel-tinged ode. “Thank God I Found You” sounds like a confectionary pop song, but lyrically it reads like gospel. With a grand key change, the song ascends even further into the heavens. It’s also a very unique union of voices with Joe and 98 Degrees joining for the spiritual closer. Clearly it struck a chord with the world, becoming Mariah’s second number one from the album after “Heartbreaker,” and her record-setting fifteenth number one single.
Of course, like many Mariah albums before and after, Rainbow is enhanced through a series of remixes, on both the dance and urban sides. “Heartbreaker” aside, “Thank God I Found You” was also reimagined in the urban direction. Unlike “Heartbreaker” though which leaned more into rap, “Thank God I Found You” was reimagined in an R&B vein with the heavily influence of Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last.” Joe reprised his role on the remix as he had the original, and instead of 98 Degrees, Nas graced the remix with his presence.
Perhaps the most notable remix from the Rainbow era came from “Heartbreaker.” Though David Morales oft assisted in big Mariah remixes (“Dreamlover,” “Fantasy,” “Honey”), this time Junior Vasquez brought Mariah’s mainstream hit into the clubs. With new vocals in tow, “Heartbreaker” instantly became a club anthem, and received further invigoration through the incorporation of Val Young’s 1985 dance hit “If You Should Ever Be Lonely.” There’s brilliance in seeing Mariah continue to incorporate these 80’s hits into her current singles, as she’d done on the “My All” remix with “Stay Awhile”. In 2006, Mariah delivered a set of strictly dance mixes at Disneyland Paris, and included a performance of “Heartbreaker/If You Should Ever Be Lonely”:
She did reunite with David Morales on Rainbow, for a set of remixes to “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme).” Morales first created a mix for the clubs using the original track, in the vein of the remixes he and Mariah re-recorded together in the past. But that wasn’t the end of their reunion for Rainbow. Mariah did return to the studio for a version they dubbed as the “Morales Revival Triumphant Mix.” This mix is a 10 minute saga that evokes more of a jazzy house feel when stripped back, but still driven by a hard club beat. There are breaks where Mariah speaks, paraphrasing the song’s lyrics. It feels even more freestyled than previous remixes, as if Mariah just drops in as she pleases and sings what she wants.
In a true full circle moment, I found myself sitting at a taping for Mariah’s appearance on TRL in November 2018, as she promoted her latest album, Caution. As she departed, she passed my way and etched her signature on my copy of Rainbow, grabbed my hand for a moment and held on to me before being quickly whisked away to her next stop. I walked down 7th Avenue with that CD in my hand, staring at it for nearly 10 blocks. Nearly 20 years later, I got to the other end of Mariah’s rainbow.