September 25, 2005.
On this day in 2005, Mariah Carey held the #1 and #2 spots on the Hot 100 with “We Belong Together” and “Shake It Off.” By the time 2005 rolled around, Mariah Carey had gone from being the most successful music artist of the 1990s to not having had a genuine hit in 5 years apart from a guest spot on a Busta Rhymes track. If expectations for her 2005 release The Emancipation Of Mimi were shaky, it was with good reason. Little did anyone know that Carey would release her biggest and most influential song in a decade with “We Belong Together.”
Mariah Carey thought she had completed her album, The Emancipation of Mimi, but L.A. Reid sent her to work with Jermaine Dupri some more because he felt the album lacked a big record. One of the songs that came out of that time was “We Belong Together.” After hearing Carey sing the song, Reid said, “That’s the one we’re looking for.”
“We Belong Together” was released as the second single from The Emancipation of Mimi, and the track found Carey continuing her habit of fusing pop and urban music in a way that created its own genre. Lisa Lopes of TLC famously credits Carey with creating ‘hip-pop,’ but the ballad style of “We Belong Together” gave hip-pop a new twist.
As Pop Journalism‘s Robert Ballantyne wrote in naming it the top song of 2005, on the surface “We Belong Together” seems like a trademark Mariah ballad. There’s a piano intro, a plaintive melody and vocal, and lyrics about a man Mariah can’t get over. But as Ballantyne points out, “at the eight-second mark, all preconceptions get thrown out the window when that hip-hop beat kicks in.” The song is fueled by an 808-styled kick and hi-hat, thus integrating the sleek syncopations of hip-hop styled R&B.
Add in the lyrical references to Bobby Womack and Babyface, and Mariah’s rapid-fire vocal part (which Michael Slezak of Entertainment Weekly says is “so devastating you get the urge to create turmoil in your own relationship just to have an excuse to play this track”), and “We Belong Together” perhaps becomes the single that best combines Mariah’s gifts as a music artist. Kalefah Sanneh writes in New York Times that the song “seems simpler than it is,” and Johnny Loftus of the Metro Times Detroit notes the “classic sensibility” of the song and states it makes for “perfect pop/R&B songwriting.” It’s also, as Sal Cinquemani of Slant says, “as innovative as Mariah’s been in years.”
Jon Caramanica of the New York Times pointed out that Mariah “learned how to game the system with songs that appear to have multiple tempos all at once, languorous vocals set against steady beats” so that she had “slow records masquerading as fast.” Rivers Cuomo of the rock band Weezer noted something similar when he talked to Pitchfork about “We Belong Together” being one of his favorite songs of 2005. Cuomo noted that the song has a lot of lyrics and the vocal feels conversational, yet “there’s a great, catchy melody there.”
In naming it one of the best songs of the decade, Popdose noted that Mariah and producer Jermaine Dupri “found a midway point” between classic R&B and a contemporary feel. Stylus called Carey’s performance “evocative,” Rich Juzwiak has called the song “ingenius,” and musician Matt Nathanson dubbed it “a perfect song” to VH1. It’s no wonder Carey won the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for the song, and “We Belong Together” won the Grammy for Best R&B Song and was nominated for the overall Song of the Year.
Great and innovative songs can be overlooked, though, especially by artists who haven’t had the favor of radio and consumers in years. This wasn’t the case with “We Belong Together.” It became huge in 2005 and spent 14 weeks total at #1 on the Hot 100. Media sources ranging from New York Times, Metro Times Detroit, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune ran articles anointing “We Belong Together” the song of the summer in 2005, and it became a record-breaker.
“We Belong Together” broke the BDS record for audience impressions at radio multiple times. It became the most-listened to song ever in a week, a record it would hold until 2013 when it was surpassed by Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” “We Belong Together” would end up spending 16 weeks at the top of the Hot 100 Airplay chart. Billboard named it the Song of the Decade. As Stylus said in naming “We Belong Together” one of the best singles of the year, when the song came on the radio, “none of us dared to change the station.”
Another mark of a great single is often its influence. After the ascension of “We Belong Together,” critics began noting songs that were created in the same mold (i.e. pairing a pop ballad sensibility with a hip-hop beat). Slant magazine mentioned songs by artists ranging from Jessica Simpson to Christina Milian to Ne-Yo being in the “now-popular ‘We Belong Together’ mold.” Katharine McPhee told VH1 her own song “Each Other” reminds her of “We Belong Together,” and Amazon.com said Paula DeAnda’s top 20 hit “Walk Away” is “like a lost track” from [The Emancipation of Mimi].
Perhaps the most direct evidence of the influence “We Belong Together” came from co-writer Johnta Austin. Austin told Billboard that he was called by Jimmy Iovine to create a song “in the same lane of ‘We Belong Together’” for Mary J. Blige. The result was perhaps the biggest hit of Mary J Blige’s career: “Be Without You.” Cinquemani was thus correct when he wrote for Slant, if not for “We Belong Together,” “there wouldn’t be [Mary J. Blige’s] “’Be Without You.’” Rivers Cuomo has even acknowledged that “We Belong Together” was a big inspiration for Weezer’s 2008 song “Heart Songs.” Whether or not “We Belong Together” was the first song of its kind, it’s obvious that its success led to the creation of similar songs. However none that followed have been able to match the success of Carey’s song.
It seems pretty clear that “We Belong Together” is not only a quality single and a popular one, but that it led to a mini-trend in music. As Cinquemani stated in naming it one of the best singles of 2005, “Mariah’s finally got her own anthem.”