In 2014, Mariah Carey released her fourteenth studio album, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse. Met with generally positive reviews, the album stands as one of Carey’s best bodies of work to date, but suffered from a series of release setbacks, and is commercially regarded as a failure. What caused an artist of this caliber, with a body of work this powerful, to struggle so much with commercial success?
As early as 2011, images began surfacing of Mariah Carey hitting the studio, to begin work on her next album, her first since giving birth to her children. Anticipation was high from the start. Carey’s last album under-performed, so it was important that this time around she make waves. Over the next few months, images continued to surface of Carey hitting the studio with frequent collaborator Jermaine Dupri, as well as Rick Ross, and Darkchild, until mid-summer 2012, when Carey announced the release of new single “Triumphant (Get Em)”. With Rick Ross & Meek Mill on deck for support, the single had all the theoretical makings of a hit.
“Triumphant (Get Em)” debuted on August 2, 2012, to very mixed reactions. While Carey was praised for her “persevering spirit” and motivational message, the general criticism centered around her presence, or lack thereof, on the song. Meek Mill and Rick Ross each delivered verses between Mariah’s hooks, but she added to the hook by merely delivering a bridge and soaring vocals over the final reading of the hook before the song ended. As one reviewer put it, it forced fans “to add nearly two full minutes to the three years” they waited for Mariah’s return. In an effort to make everyone happy, Carey released a string of dance mixes featuring new vocals, in the vein of how she did many times over in the 90’s. Unfortunately, nothing could save the song, which peaked at #15 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under Chart.
The same week that “Triumphant (Get ‘Em)” was announced, Carey ended months of speculation and was confirmed as a judge on the 12th season of American Idol. Judging had become a new promotional platform for artists, especially of Carey’s caliber. It gave them an opportunity to be seen in the homes of millions on a weekly basis, helping develop new talent that they inspired, while providing the perfect springboard to launch a new venture, whether musical or beyond. It seemed like the perfect move for Carey.
Unfortunately, American Idol had a counter-productive effect on Carey. Friction between Carey and fellow judge/former collaborator Nicki Minaj ended up overshadowing all other aspects of the competition. In turn, this spat alienated Carey from Minaj’s very young, and very socially active fan base (not very different from Minaj’s earlier feud with legendary rapper Lil’ Kim affected Kim, and how this young demographic perceived Kim). Because Minaj’s fan base is so young, they are generally unfamiliar with Carey and why she merits respect. Combine that with Minaj’s tendency to view superiors and predecessors with an already-diminished sense of respect, and it was a recipe for social media disaster.
During her tenure on American Idol, Carey also added her voice to Disney’s Oz: The Great And Powerful, with a catchy pop song titled “Almost Home”. The song was met with mixed reviews, criticized for being over-produced and safe. Both the song and the film failed to spark significant interest for one another, and Carey continued on.
Idol came to a close, but not before Carey took advantage of her opportunity to unveil her new album in front of the masses. She started building the hype, and on May 6, unveiled her new single “#Beautiful” with R&B up-and-comer Miguel. The song had everything Mariah needed: it was a fresh, breezy, and catchy R&B throwback, dropping just in time for the summer, with an experimental-yet-social media friendly title, and it featured an artist that could only help increase her buzz. The song was met with positive reviews from critics, and it was clear: Mariah was on to something.
What happened next was a series of unfortunate events that severely impacted the release and promotion of the album. Once “#Beautiful” was clearly the lead single Mariah and her label were looking for, a tentative release date of July 23, 2013 was set for the album. While promoting “#Beautiful”, Carey continued to hit the studio and the green screen, releasing different bi-lingual, and genre -altering versions of the song including a spanglish version, dance remixes, and hip hop remixes.
Letting Go Ain’t Easy
Despite “#Beautiful” performing well on the charts, it did not hit #1 like a Mariah Carey single is expected to. As a result, Carey took the opportunity to delay the album’s release and expand it into a fuller body of work. Everything happens for a reason. Just a few weeks later, while filming a video for one of the “#Beautiful” remixes, directed by then-husband Nick Cannon, Carey took a nasty fall off a platform and landed on her side. She dislocated her shoulder, cracked a few ribs, and suffered serious nerve damage to her arm.
Things remained relatively quiet musically for the remainder of the summer while Carey endured her injury, and early into the fall, until October hit and Carey seemed to be revving up for her next move. In mid-October she announced on Facebook that she planned to release her new single “The Art Of Letting Go” on Facebook on November 11. The buzz began, and on November 11, 2013, The Art of Letting Go emerged on Facebook. Aside from a slight issue with the upload, the release went off without a hitch. Despite not being a typical radio-friendly song, critics praised Mariah’s back-to-basics approach of the song, steering away the trends of EDM, rap collaborations, and shock tactics.
She did employ one shock tactic in the promotion: Jimmy Fallon. Carey teamed up with Fallon to round up a select group of Carey’s superfans (including our very own Vincent), and trick them into coming to a studio for a listening session of the new song. Unbeknownst to the fans, Carey would be behind the scenes singing the song live, and emerge at a random moment, leading to a fantastic viral video. Unfortunately, the song failed to make a major dent on any charts in the US.
December arrived and Carey began her usual holiday fanfare, performing her Christmas classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on various televised programs and successfully keeping her name on the minds of many while she continued to expand her album, and strategize the next move for the album release. She wrapped up her holiday season with a New Year’s Eve appearance, announcing her next single release for Valentine’s Day 2014.
As the weeks passed, the anticipation began building again for Carey to finally reveal release details for the album. A few days prior to the single release, Mariah taped an appearance at the BET Honors, scheduled to air later in the month, premiering “You’re Mine (Eternal)” live, laying on top of a piano in a super low-cut ensemble. Finally, the day before unveiling “You’re Mine (Eternal)”, it was announced that Carey’s new album would arrive on May 6th.
“You’re Mine (Eternal)” flailed at mainstream and urban radio, despite an attempt to woo urban listeners with Trey Songz on the remix. She did triumph in the clubs, with the dance remixes finding her at home on top of the Billboard Dance Club Songs Chart. As May 6 approached, concern began to grow amongst fans. There was no album title, cover art, track list, or next single to indicate that the album was actually coming on May 6, until weeks before the album’s anticipated release it was announced that Mariah Carey would cover Billboard Magazine.
On the cover of Billboard, Mariah revealed that she wanted this album to be released and heard as a whole body of work, not piece-by-piece. She was attempting to take an approach similar to that of Beyoncé, but all she was really aiming to accomplish was to deliver her album in a full form like Beyoncé, without employing all the shock tactics. This is where things began to publicly crumble. The day her issue of Billboard hit news stands, Carey’s label Island Def Jam issued a statement that not only would Carey’s album be pushed back to late May, but also, she would be releasing it in a traditional format: the album’s cover and track list would arrive prior to the album’s release, and the release would be a simultaneous physical/digital drop.
Some saw it as sabotage, others saw it as the culmination of years of conflicts between Carey and her label. Between the years of delays that plagued this project, coupled with private disagreements on single choices, and this being Carey’s last album on her contract, everything seemed to be crumbling. It was already heavily speculated that Carey would not renew her contract and would follow L.A. Reid (who helped orchestrate her 2005 comeback) to his new home at Epic Records, and back home with the majority of her catalog at Sony Music. From the outside looking in, Island Def Jam was over Carey, and had very little interest in providing her with the respect or resources needed to achieve success with this album.
Me. I Am Mariah…
Within days, Carey debuted the album title and artwork, and the criticism began. The album title, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse, was long-winded and seamlessly upstaged every whimsical album title of Carey’s that it followed. The standard edition’s artwork depicted Carey somewhere between The Birth of Venus and the rising sun, with a boatload of photoshop to boot.
Between the unveiling of the visuals and releasing the album, Carey unveiled two more songs: “Thirsty” premiered on Power 105.1, and “You Don’t Know What To Do” was performed live on the Today Show. It was after this performance that she began drawing the heaviest criticism for photo shopping her album cover, due to the noticeable difference in her size on the album cover, and in performance. While the standard cover is heavily airbrushed, it is important to note that the artwork was shot nearly a year earlier when Carey was at her thinnest since 2008. The artwork for the deluxe edition even leaked in 2013, proving that the photo shoot had occurred that year, as opposed to around the time the album actually was released in 2014 (source).
In an effort to still maintain a body-of-work rollout, the album began streaming in its (almost) entirety via iTunes Radio on May 20, 7 days before the album was released. There were some issues with the stream, mainly that the track “Money ($*/…)” featuring Fabolous was not streaming, but was fixed within hours of the album’s streaming premiere.
As the album streams racked up, the reviews began to pour in. It received relatively typical reviews (Rolling Stone for example, provided her with their typical 3 out of 5 stars [source]), with the exception of the notoriously mainstream-critical Pitchfork, who gave Carey a commendable 7.7 out of 10, applauding Carey for “(paring) her sound down to its essence, while simultaneously subtly expanding its parameters.” The album debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, selling 58,000 copies in the first week. It is Carey’s lowest first-week sales for a non-holiday/non-compilation album in her recording career.
A Body Of Work
Musically, Carey excels. This body of work will go down as one of her best to date. She mainly avoids catering to the trendy pop audience, with perhaps the exception of the disco-dance “Meteorite”, but it still stands as a shining gem among stars. She soars on ballads such as the slow-burner “Faded”, and the quintessential “Camouflage”, as well as the gospel-styled opener “Cry”. On her gospel-fueled closer “Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up Now)”, which finds her mashing up the late Reverend James Cleveland and Mary Mary, she layers vocal after vocal and soars to octaves so high God himself may have to look up to see the notes she reaches.
She takes a page out of the Donna Summer playbook on “You Don’t Know What To Do”, opening the disco-inspired song with a slow vocal showcase accompanied by nothing but a piano, a-la “Last Dance”, “On The Radio”, and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”. Q-Tip takes her into the contemporary dance era with the jazzy dance track “Meteorite”, which evokes memories of her 90’s dance remixes, while still maintaining a contemporary edge.
Vocally, she doesn’t shy away from displaying that her instrument shows wear-and-tear after 24 years of singing for her life. On the obligatory 80’s cover, George Michael’s “One More Try”, her voice sounds worn and slightly raspy at times when hitting certain notes, but still manages to never miss a beat and see the song all the way to it’s end, with unwavering soulful conviction.
The deluxe edition left fans salivating, including only “The Art Of Letting Go”, and previously unreleased cut-and-paste duets (cut-and-paste meaning that Carey did not add any new vocals to the songs, only the guests) from 2010’s abandoned Angels Advocate project. It’s fantastic to hear Carey and Mary J. Blige on the same record (especially with that record being “It’s A Wrap”), but including the duet with R. Kelly, whose child molestation claims were once again commanding his media presence, felt ill-advised. The Target & Japan editions of the album also include the arrangement of “America The Beautiful” Carey most recently performed on Macy’s July 4 telecast in 2013.
You Don’t Know What To Do
As the album rollout continued, it was time to follow up “You’re Mine (Eternal)” with another single. Being that it premiered second, “Thirsty” was expected to be the next single, but instead the Wale collaboration “You Don’t Know What To Do” was selected. Having gained praise in numerous reviews for its slow, piano & vocal driven intro, leading into the a breezy homage to 70’s and 80’s disco, the song had all the makings of a summer hit. From there, things swiftly went downhill. When the artwork was released, fans quickly realized that it was a rehash of the album cover, with a different face photoshopped on Mariah. Within days, Mariah took to Twitter to proclaim that she had to input on the cover art, and invited fans to submit their own.
The album faded from charts fairly rapidly as the weeks passed after its’ release, with no signs of long-term promotion from Carey or her label. Carey toured under the banner ‘The Elusive Chanteuse Show’ for a little over a month in the Pacific to mixed results, as footage from some performances presented audio of her struggling to hit notes and make it through certain songs. As predicted, Carey departed Island Def Jam to relocate back with her extensive music catalog at Sony Music, under L.A. Reid’s Epic Records, where she will inevitably stage another fantastic comeback.
10 years from now, a young music fan digging through crates or scrolling through music on shuffle will come upon this album, and most likely herald it as an underrated classic. This album will go down as one of Mariah Carey’s best bodies of work, along with Butterfly, The Emancipation of Mimi, and her debut. The rich and vibrant musical texture can overcome all of the drama and madness that surrounded the release. She is Mariah. She is at times elusive, but as she has proven time and time again, she is unstoppable.