June 12, 1990
It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago today Mariah Carey released her eponymous debut album. The release of the album, and its lead single “Vision of Love,” forever changed the sound of music and introduced a curly-haired superstar – who became an iconic living legend – to the world. While the diva herself may shy away from mentioning the “age” of the album (after all, she is eternally 12, dahhhhling) such a milestone will undoubtedly be celebrated and honored by fans today.
There is so much we could talk about in regards to this phenomenal debut album. Sure, we could focus on its success: it is one of the most successful debut albums ever, peaking at #1 (of course) and selling upwards of 9 million copies in the U.S.; all four of its singles hit #1: “Vision of Love,” “Love Takes Time,” “Someday,” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry“; it won Mariah the Best New Artist Grammy and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Vision of Love,” and much more.
A Different Breed of Artist
From the start, though, Mariah Carey was different from her superstar peers. She achieved similar success to other female stars like Janet Jackson, and was incessantly compared to Whitney Houston, but she is carbon copy of neither. While it was perhaps overshadowed by her inhuman vocals, Mariah Carey’s other claim to fame was her immense songwriting and producing talent. On her debut album, she co-wrote every song – something almost unheard of for a pop-star’s debut album. While she was only labeled producer on one of the album’s tracks, “Vanishing,” she would later claim she deserved the credit on all of the tracks.
Producer is a title she held for nearly every song she released following her debut album, and to date there are only 2 original songs in her catalog that she did not pen firsthand, and both were for films (“All My Life” from Glitter and “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt). Mariah Carey prides herself for her songwriting and producing as much as for her vocals. For years, she has fought against the stigma of being just “the voice,” repeating reminders, interview after interview, that she writes and produces her music and is no label puppet.
Mariah Carey: Adult Contemporary?
While that may be the case, she was -much to her dismay- controlled by and obliged to the desires of her record label when she was a 20 year old newcomer to the industry. While she was heavily influenced by R&B, soul, hip-hop and especially gospel, she was led toward a safer, more “adult contemporary,” crossover sound. Carey didn’t want that though; to work with superstar producers. She didn’t want her music to be overproduced. She didn’t want to sound like everyone else; or to be “schmaltzy,” she told Rolling Stone in August of 1990. In the piece, this conflict was very much apparent:
“In a rehearsal studio in midtown New York, Mariah Carey is singing “Vision of Love” – over and over. Her left hand moving at her side, she experiments with the harmonies, improvising a new arrangement with a pianist and two backup singers. In contrast to the lush production that dominates Carey’s debut album, the trio provides a spare accompaniment, leaving plenty of room for her mighty voice to explore the shape of the melody. Why, she’s asked during a break, didn’t she record the song this way? “It wasn’t my choice to do so much production,” she answers quickly and goes back to work.”
While in 2005 we might have experienced The Emancipation of Mimi, from 1990-1995 (unbeknownst to most) we were experiencing The Stifling of Mariah Carey. Regardless of her discontent, she did what she had to do to appease the label and ultimately it worked out well for her. As Rolling Stone said, she was “diplomatic” about it, yes, but still quietly, subtly defiant:
“Asked to evaluate what’s right or wrong with her first album, Carey answers diplomatically. ‘I wasn’t used to working that way,’ she says. ‘I think it worked out okay in the end.’ But as she returns to her rehearsal, far from her label’s supervision, Carey continues to rearrange her hit single the way she hears it.”
That quiet defiance would, over the next 5 years, warp into a bold statement: she took her “Fantasy” and made it reality via the route of a remix. But, we’ll focus on that #1 single at a later date. Now, it’s time to digress back to the point: Carey’s #1-single-yielding debut album.
Stripped Down, Aretha Franklin-Inspired Cut
There was more to the album than just its four #1 singles, though. And, like we did for “Vision of Love,” we will do a post about each of those individually. Aside from the #1’s, there are plenty songs worthy of note from Mariah Carey. A fan and Mariah favorite alike is the stripped down, piano-driven ballad “Vanishing.” Dripping in soul and impeccably sung, “Vanishing” is an Aretha Franklin-inspired soulful R&B cut. With effortless emotion and ravishing runs, Carey proved herself and staked her place in the ranking of R&B’s best vocalists with just one song. Appropriately, she performed the song on her first Saturday Night Live appearance in 1990:
Another gem from the album is the whistle-laden mid tempo “All In Your Mind,” which ends with a string of high notes you may mistake for being a musical instrument or a bird call outside your window. The song itself recalls R&B of the 60s, especially with the male background vocalists singing in a style reminiscent of doo-wop or “barbershop” a cappella singing groups. Backstage during the same SNL appearance, Mariah and her background singers played around with the song, a cappella, and she even recreated the high notes on the spot:
The next track on the album, “Alone in Love,” has a similarly moody aesthetic; its vibe more dark and sad, with an air of longing. Vocally, it is straightforward and foreboding to match its metaphorical but otherwise unremarkable (yet effective nonetheless) lyrics. The trifecta of “Vanishing,” “All In Your Mind” and “Alone In Love,” which appear in succession on the album, could be considered the climax of the album, while “Vision of Love” acts as its epic exposition being the first track.
Though cute, “You Need Me” and “Prisoner” are as cheesy as they are cute. Of course, the vocals are phenomenal but that’s where appreciation for these tracks end for most. While many fans do love Mariah’s “rap verses” on “Prisoner” (much to her dismay – fans once “petitioned” her to perform the song on the Charmbraclet World Tour and she, simply put, had none of it) both songs are otherwise unremarkable, vocals aside.
Sandwiched between the two above is the beautiful “Sent From Up Above,” a romantic and warm R&B mid tempo which Carey sings in a beautiful, etheral tone. There is an airiness in her vocals on this track that is seldom found elsewhere on the debut, but frequently in the albums to follow. Lyrically, it is a bit clichéd, but not overwrought. The song is typical of the early 90s (or, really, late 80s) R&B and is definitely a highlight of the album.
The Fifth Single
Again, we will go into further detail on the four #1s in the weeks to come, but there was in fact one more single from the album: “There’s Got to Be a Way.” One of the rare occasions in Mariah’s catalog where she talked about social issues, the song was released as a single in the UK in lieu of “I Don’t Wanna Cry.” The song is a bit reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s 1987 hit “Man in the Mirror,” both thematically and sonically. On our Mariah+Janet playlist, I paired the song with Janet’s “State of the World.” All three have similar lyrical themes, but of course, Mariah’s is the most vocally bombastic . The track had a video, too, though Mariah probably wishes we forgot about it (not to mention, she also probably isn’t a fan of the [over]production)…
Looking back on this era, it is hard not to smile fondly at the Mariah Carey of 1990. She was just 20 years old: shy, sassy, beautiful, and immensely talented. Aside from perhaps her shyness, nothing has changed. Even then, she was calling people “dahhhling”, as she does to this day. She is still adamant about how her music sounds; though, now, she has full control. Every song she sings is written and produced by her. She still sings beautifully and arguably better than most of her peers. She’s continually cited as an inspiration by countless upcoming singers. She is still adored by millions of fans worldwide. She is still a “Vision of Love.” Indeed, she is still #1 twenty-five years later, and still will be, to infinity…
For the nostalgia…
Watch The First Vision video below, recorded at her debut album showcase at the Tattoo Club in 1990, and released on home video in 1991.
EST 1997 Staff Reflections
Many of our writers wanted to share our own personal reflections about the album, as well. Below, read what each of us has to say:
I have to confess that it was only after E=MC2 that I really delved into Mariah’s back catalogue, but what I will say is that I was not disappointed. Mariah Carey may not have been the Mariah I was used to vocally but all that did was expose me to the world of what many people called “Old Mariah”. Songs like “Vanishing” and “All In Your Mind” are still favourites of mine to this day and although neither was a single, both are considered to be fan favourites in their own right. It’s also interesting to hear Mariah try out different styles like the rock-influenced “You Need Me” and her pre-“Fantasy” rapping on ‘Prisoner” (lol). Mariah’s self titled debut was a bold introduction to the now legendary diva and the body of work itself is now legendary.
I was born 5 weeks before this album was released, so I have always felt a special connection to it because it is a testament to the musical times when my mom was pregnant with me. It took about 10 years for me to finally discover it, after first seeing Mariah in ’98, and getting Rainbow for Christmas in ’99. I only really dug into it and listened deep about a year or two ago, and then I truly recognized it’s magic.
Until then, I listened to “Vision of Love,” “Someday,” and “Love Takes Time.” A very high level, singles driven reading of the album to say the least. From there the rap on “Prisoner” captivated me, as did its sound, distinct from most of the rest of the album. The melody of “All In Your Mind” is something I find myself singing on a weekly basis, and of course “Vanishing” is the first of many quintessential Mariah album-cut ballads to follow over the decades. Even over recent time, “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” the most underrated #1, has grown on me significantly Perhaps this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t consider it a flawless album. I do however, believe that it is one of her strongest works as a singer and songwriter, and considering that I view her debut to be as strong as her last album speaks to her unwavering artistic genius.
For me personally, the album is significant for a multitude of reasons. First, because like Mariah’s music career I too was born in 1990, less than 4 weeks after the album was released, on July 6th. Of course, the fact that it is the debut of one of my favorite artists makes it significant regardless. It also has some of my favorite Mariah songs: “Vision of Love,” “Vanishing,” and “Alone in Love,” and like I said… who can resist the hilarity of the “Prisoner” rap? (Sorry, Mariah!) Over the years, I have grown to love and appreciate the album more and more. At 25, it is truly a classic album and timeless piece of pop music history.