Mariah Carey’s Loverboy: A Musical History

Andrew Martone
17 Min Read

I still remember excitedly hurrying down to my hometown Sam Goody in July 2001. I was 11. The copies of Mariah Carey’s new single “Loverboy” were in stock and I was getting mine. It was my first full album cycle as a Mariah fan, and I was prepared to devour “Loverboy” with ferocity. I still remember getting home, ripping the shrink wrap off, and throwing the 2-track CD single into my bedroom’s portable stereo. I was desperate to get my first listen of “Loverboy” and it’s rap-packed remix. Little did I know, what I was hearing was a far cry from Mariah’s original plan for “Loverboy.”

In 2000, Mariah Carey departed Columbia Records/Sony Music after 10 years of unparalleled success. During that time, she became the only musician to ever notch a number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in every year of a decade. For her next act, she signed a blockbuster deal at Virgin Records. Her first project set her on a course into uncharted territory: a soundtrack to accompany her starring debut in a feature film. A script called All That Glitters at some point transformed into Glitter, and the stars aligned into chaos. Before the film’s soundtrack even had a release date, Mariah was in trouble. Sabotage and stress were dealing Mariah a near-lethal 1-2 punch.  But even in turmoil, she still came out on top in one way or another. “Loverboy” is a complicated record with two distinct iterations (and a few remixes to keep things spicy). But it has a long history that informs its existence and variations.

“Loverboy” was meant to evoke the early 1980’s, which is when Glitter is set. To properly set the stage for the time, Mariah found a sample from the era. After writing the song’s lyrics and crafting what she called a “tight” melody and “infectious groove,” Mariah and producer DJ Clark Kent sampled a 1979 record called “Firecracker” by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. They were an electronic band from Japan that rose to prominence in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. 

Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Firecracker” actually was a cover. It was written by Martin Denny and released on his 1959 LP Quiet Village: The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny. Denny was known for naming and helping forge a genre of music called exotica. Exotica was rooted in jazz and hinged on an eclectic mix of sounds ranging from far reaches of the globe that would have then been considered “exotic.” His “Firecracker” sounds like a mix of traditional music from Hawaii and Japan that swirled together in a Pacific storm. 

Denny’s “Firecracker” doesn’t actually contain the melody that would help shape “Loverboy.” That was added by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. When the group’s founder Haruomi Hosono heard Denny’s “Firecracker,” he was inspired to reappropriate the Western world’s idea of “exotic” sounds and present it from an authentic perspective. Their addition of the synth melody which drives “Loverboy” transforms Denny’s composition and transports his faux-Pacific sound into a place where Ancient Japan meets a high-speed, technologically advanced, and electronically driven society. It’s a sonically stimulating record to digest.

“Firecracker” proved to be a hit for Yellow Magic Orchestra in the United States. It cracked the top 20 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1980 and even landed the group on Soul Train to perform the song. 

Incorporating elements of “Firecracker” would be a perfect way to authentically channel the sound of the early 1980’s. Mariah called the song’s publisher and got permission to license the record. She was the first person to license and sample the song.  that would help create an authentic ambiance. 

“And then there was the sabotage,” as Mariah put in her memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Ex-husband Tommy Mottola was made aware of Mariah’s plans and according to Mariah he interfered on the highest level. Within a month of Mariah licensing “Firecracker,” Jennifer Lopez’s team called to license the song too (for the album version of “I’m Real”). The publisher was quoted as saying that before Mariah, no one had ever expressed interest in sampling the song. Then suddenly, two requests within a month of one another. Quite a coincidence for two artists to license the exact same part of the exact same 1979 cover of a 1959 song just weeks apart, if you believe in that kind of thing. 

Though she felt it was a new low for Tommy to interfere with her artistic choices, Mariah was “well trained in the art of turning shit situations into fertilizer.” She refused to let Mottola stop her and scrambled to salvage her record. The original version of “Loverboy” went into the vault and Mariah “switched gears and turned from the techno influence to a funkier sample” in an effort to not let the sabotage hinder her. 

She selected Cameo’s 1986 hit “Candy” as the song’s new base, and even recruited Cameo’s Larry Blackmon to record new vocals for “Loverboy” and appear in the music video. Sonically and technically it’s very different from “Firecracker.” While “Firecracker”’s sample is built on a simple melody that moves up along a series of whole steps, jumps down a fifth and dwells between a half step, the bass line of “Candy” is an arpeggiated chord progression. That means it has two whole steps (or a major third) between the notes, creating a completely different sound. Mariah is still singing the melody of “Firecracker” over “Candy,” especially on the chorus. But she’s not as connected to it as she was in the song’s original version. 

Between the technical changes and sonic changes, the sample selection was flawed. “Candy”’s bassline has a harder sound, pulling Mariah away from her pop pedestal and pushing her into unknown territory. “Candy” also came out in 1986, 4 years after Glitter takes place. This pulls away from the overall focus of the album’s other 80’s material like 1980’s “Funkin’ For Jamaica (NY)” and 1982’s “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.” (although it’s worth noting that Cherelle’s “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” was released in 1984).

I was new to the Mariah scene then, but now I can recognize how big of a sonic departure “Loverboy” was for Mariah. She ventured deeper into more R&B territory with Butterfly’s lead single “Honey” in 1997, but kept it confectionary enough to satisfy the pop charts. Rainbow’s 1999 lead single “Heartbreaker” was originally meant for Glitter and relies on Stacy Lattisaw’s 1982 R&B hit “Attack of the Name Game” as it’s base. That too was sweet enough to satisfy pop fans, despite being another R&B and hip hop venture. The closest song to “Loverboy” in Mariah’s catalog up to that point was “You Need Me,” an album cut from her eponymous 1990 debut album that she would prefer to leave as such. “You Need Me” has an edgier rock sound, fueled by a gritty electric guitar. “Loverboy” also possesses an edge courtesy of the “Candy” loop that drives it. “Candy” is an R&B record, but the way it’s sampled for “Loverboy” isolates the edgy bass and evokes a rock sentiment. 

Though it’s a good song and a well-executed re-imagination, leading the soundtrack to Glitter with the reimagined “Loverboy” proved to be a mistake. The song received tepid reviews upon its release on June 19, 2001. NME applauded the idea of incorporating “Candy,” but called the execution “a bit of a mess.” Billboard Magazine’s Chuck Taylor dealt one of the harshest (and most ironic) blows by saying the song sounded “dangerously close to self-sabotage.” If only he knew. 

The song peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was considered a failure for Mariah in the eyes of many. Remember that this was Mariah Carey, who notched a #1 record on the Hot 100 in every year of her career up to that point. The only artist to ever hit #1 on the Hot 100 every year in a decade. Every lead single from her non-holiday albums peaked at #1 (and two even debuted there, making her the second artist and first woman to achieve this). In the public eye Mariah’s new venture with Virgin Records was off to a rocky start. And Virgin was feeling that too, since they signed Mariah to a then-record-breaking $80 million contract, believing they were betting big on a sure thing. 

“Loverboy” also arrived with a suite of remixes, which was standard for Mariah in those days. On the dance side, Mariah paired up with MJ Cole and David Morales to create a suite of remixes. MJ Cole produced a fast-paced remix and a haphazard dub mix. David Morales did what he does best and got Mariah back in the studio for his “Club of Love” remix and accompanying “Drums of Love” and “Dub of Love Remix.” Mariah’s new vocals glide over the Morales mixes, which transform the song into a sensual dance floor experience.

Then, there was the rap remix. Unlike many of Mariah’s previous rap mixes which used new Mariah vocals and a new beat, “Loverboy” retained the beat and most of the original record’s elements. Verses from Da Brat and Ludacris and their respective protegees Twenty II and Shawnna. helped give the record some extra flavor. Mariah even added a few new vocal flourishes, and invited everyone to record their parts for a video, shot alongside with the original version’s video by David LaChapelle. Most notable was the verse from Da Brat, who is a close friend of Mariah’s. Brat chose to take a few swipes at Jennifer Lopez and the theft of the “Firecracker” sample in the closing lines of her verse, sing-rapping to the melody of “Firecracker”: 

Hate on me, much as you want to
You can’t do, what the fuck I do
Bitches be, emulating me daily (Mariah echoes a coo of “daily” behind her)
Hate on me, much as you want to
You can’t be, who the fuck I be
Bitches be imitating me baby

Sometimes, revenge is a dish best served after marinating for a decade or two. In the middle of the 2020 pandemic, Mariah announced her memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey and an accompanying compilation album The Rarities. Included amidst the treasure trove of unreleased material was something of a holy grail: “Loverboy – Firecracker Original Version.” 

For years, I’d been digging around for the “Firecracker” version of “Loverboy” with the hope that it existed somewhere in the depths of Mariah’s vault. I’ve even been known to tweet relentlessly about it, begging for it to surface and be released. It was the an exhilarating moment for me to finally hear this song after years of waiting. I knew I was going to physically react when hearing it for the first time so recorded my reaction, because that’s what the kids are doing these days. 

One listen to “Loverboy – Firecracker Original Version” and it’s immediately apparent that Mariah hadn’t just licensed the sample, she had a fully formed record from top to bottom. It’s miles ahead of the simplistic “Firecracker” incorporation on the record that stole the sample. “Loverboy” is “Firecracker.” If you removed the “Firecracker” sample and melody, “Loverboy” would barely be a series of drum loops (some of the percussion is even from “Firecracker”). 

The chorus is nothing short of delicious. Since the melody was never changed when the samples changed, there’s a deep satisfaction in finally hearing Mariah’s melodic ascent shadow the sample’s whole steps and the subsequent back and forth. The chorus’ vocal stacking is also greater than the “Candy” version, which creates a fuller and more complete sound around Mariah’s lead vocal. Coupled with an acapella introduction of “do-do-do-do”’s that harkens back to “Dreamlover,” it’s hard not to be infuriated at the idea of what could have been in 2001. Mariah’s dense harmonies create a confectionary sound that rivals her other great lead singles like “Dreamlover,” “Fantasy,” and “Heartbreaker.” 

Reviewers of The Rarities agreed, and called the “Loverboy – Firecracker Original Version” a highlight. Slant said it “slaps hard à la 1997’s “Honey,”” while NME called it “effervescent club banger.” Fans were divided over which version they prefer, and even Mariah herself weighed in during an episode of Watch What Happens Live, saying that she prefers the “Candy” version. 

Despite being locked away for nearly 2 decades, a piece of the “Firecracker” version has been among us this whole time. The David Morales remixes of the song find Mariah repeating ad-libs of “hey loverboy.” Those are part of the “Firecracker” version, but didn’t make the cut for the “Candy” version.

The “Loverboy” story is far from over, though. During the 2016 Sweet Sweet Fantasy tour, Mariah included “Loverboy” in the setlist for the very first time. She proceeded to do the same during a #JusticeForGlitter segment of 2019’s Caution World Tour. Who knows if it’ll receive placement on Mariah’s next tour setlist, and whether or not the “Firecracker” version will ever be performed live. For now, just rest easy knowing that had this debacle not occurred, we may not have gotten what is arguably one of the most iconic gifs in pop culture history:

The Meaning of Mariah Carey, by Mariah Carey and Michaela angela Davis, Macmillan, 2020, pp. 231–231.

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