Mariah Carey is pop music’s most criminally underrated songwriter. While the publicity machines behind Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Alicia Keys made it a point to shove down our throats that they are singer-songwriters, that portrayal of Mariah Carey happened far too late. When she debuted, it was all about her extraordinary vocal talents – and that phenom of a voice overshadowed her other, equally vital talent: songwriting.
Although Mariah scored #1 hits in every year of the 1990s (15 total from 1990-2000), she failed to garner the notoriety she deserved as a songwriter. Of those 15 #1’s, she wrote 14 of them. The only one she didn’t write was a cover of the Jackson 5 classic, “I’ll Be There.” Despite this amazing feat, she is not viewed as the supreme singer-songwriter she so deserves to be.
Mariah Carey stands as the only solo artist with 17 #1s as both the sole singer, and co-writer. The only songwriters who stand ahead of Carey are Paul McCartney, with 32 #1’s achieved via songs written for The Beatles, Wings, himself, and other artists. Similarly, John Lennon has 26. Max Martin has 22, thanks to the numerous hits he co-wrote for pop music’s biggest names. At #4, with 17, is Mariah Carey. She is the only female among the top 6, and the only one who was the sole singer of each of her entries.
Chart statistics aside, Mariah Carey posseses a prolific pen. Undoubtedly, she is a musical and lyrical genius. From the infectious melodies she crafted that vaulted her to the pole position 17 times, to the catchy, relatable words attached to them, she is indeed a master. Beyond that, she has penned some of pop music’s most poetic and introspective lyrics. We have selected twelve shining examples of her impeccable craft; one from each of her studio albums.
“Vanishing,” from 1990’s Mariah Carey
Written by Mariah Carey and Ben Margulies.
It’s almost a right-of-passage to introduce a big, new voice with a stripped down, piano ballad on her debut album. The difference, in Mariah’s case, was that the pen behind the big voice was her own. “Vanishing” was a perfectly gorgeous, no frills introduction to Mariah’s voice and songwriting. She wrote the song as a teenager, but she was already displaying incredible skills as a lyricist at such a young age: the theme of darkness/light that recurs in the song and the sophisticated vocabulary make this song a great representation of how she had finessed her craft right from the debut.
“Getting so hard to see…
Taking the light,
Letting the darkness inside,
“Can’t Let Go,” from 1991’s Emotions
Written by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff
The thing about Mariah Carey is that she writes songs that perfectly suit her voice. “Can’t Let Go” is the perfect ballad because it plays to her strengths as a vocalist and allows her to display every emotion she’s singing about. The melody and the lyrics are equal parts catchy and somber for the subject matter of the song and that’s what makes them extremely relatable. This is something that has always characterized Mariah’s output.
“Just cast aside
You don’t even know I’m alive
You just walk on by
Don’t care to see me cry”
“Hero,” from 1993’s Music Box
Written by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff
When Mariah wrote “Hero” she wasn’t aware of the impact this song would have on people’s lives. It was probably one of the easiest songs for her to write, but it was also the one that would identify her as an ICON in the eyes of many. Twenty-five years later, “Hero” is still the song many fans turn to when they need a reminder of their inner strength and, as Mariah herself has admitted, even she has had to turn to it in times of need. When all else fails, Mariah will always be there to comfort you with her voice and her universal wisdom. An angel, basically.
“You can find love
If you search within yourself
And the emptiness you felt
“Underneath the Stars,” from 1995’s Daydream
Written by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff
The Daydream album was absolutely a turning point for Mariah as a songwriter, because it allowed her to experiment by writing more personal lyircs and to explore the use of imagery. “Underneath the Stars” was the first time Mariah made us wander with our minds in a daydream, while listening to her silky smooth voice glide over a throwback 70s R&B beat. It’s a song that combines all of her influences effortlessly and is unfortunately pretty underrated.
“As we drifted to another place in time
And the feeling was so heady and sublime
As I lost my heart in you
There in the dark
Underneath the stars”
“Breakdown,” from 1997’s Butterfly
Written by Mariah Carey, Stevie J., Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone.
Who else but the songwriter supreme would make “nonchalant” work in a chorus with such nonchalance? Her pen game is so strong that it compliments the staccato technique so perfectly and without sacrificing the strong melody at all. “Breakdown” is laced with internal rhymes, modeled after the style of the featured hip-hop group, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, with that signature Mariah flair. In the aptly titled “Breakdown,” she took one of the most relatable, painful shared experiences among human beings and embodied with words and sounds.
“Well, I guess I’m trying to be nonchalant about it
And I’m going to extremes to prove I’m fine without you
But in reality I’m slowly losing my mind
Underneath the guise of smile, gradually I’m dying inside”
“Crybaby,” from 1999’s Rainbow
Written by Mariah Carey and Snoop Dogg*
In the 90s Mariah Carey was often criticized for not displaying emotion through her perfectly technical singing. With “Crybaby” she had a chance to show everyone how wrong they were. A physically exhausted Mariah wrote this song to express her frustration with her life both professionally and romantically. The second half of the song is so raw that it’s unbelievable: her spent vocals are still so pwerful that you too really feel exhausted and spiraling while listening. It’s hypnotizing. Once again, she showcases her brilliant storytelling skills, taking you on a journey through her night of “babbling,” until 5 A.M, in her “new friend’s home,” on her “tippy toes,” so that he won’t know. It just feels so real. Like, an oversharing, in-your-feelings Instagram post before anyone ever thought to.
“Sipping Bailey’s Cream, by the stereo
Trying to find relief on the radio (ah, what’s up?)
I’m suppressing the tears, but they start to flow
‘Cause the next song I hear is the song I wrote…”
“Want You,” from 2001’s Glitter
Written by Mariah Carey, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Big Jim Wright.
On this 80s via 2001 moment, Mariah delivers one of the most rhythmic, slinkiest tracks in her catalogue. Musically, its so 80s, thanks to Jam and Lewis, but the delivery was so late 90s/early 2000s thanks to Mariah’s innovative writing and vocal stylings. The pre-chorus is flawfree, staccato and rhyme-laden, accented with SAT vocabulary.
“But I was timid like a child,
Inhibited and way too shy,
I’d glance but then avert my eyes,
All twisted up in my desire”
“Lullaby,” from 2002’s Charmbracelet
Written by Mariah Carey and Dre & Vidal (Vidal Davis, Andre Harris).
Ms. Carey loves to give you a story, and “Lullaby” is further proof of that. She sets the scene and delves into her memory to produce a full-on, four minute long short story of literary proportions. She give you character development, flashbacks, imagery, allusions to her previous work (“The Roof,” “Melt Away,” “Long Ago”), and dialogue to emphasize the internal and external conflicts weaving throughout her tantalizing tale. She is THE literary diva. Oh, don’t even get me started on the arrangements!
“So familiar you know
That it actually almost feels like deja vu
Of that night on the roof
We kissed under the sky amid city lights
A sudden flashback to so long ago”
“We Belong Together,” from 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi
Written by Mariah Carey, Jermaine Dupri, Manuel Seal and Johnta Austin*
The quintessential comeback song, “We Belong Together” reminded the world of why Mariah Carey and the #1 spot belong together. That reminder, of course, came as the result of an impeccably written pop song. A sibling to “Crybaby” in the sense that both find her pining next to a radio, “We Belong Together” finds the perfect balance between being universal enough to be relatable for all, while seeming so specifically personal that it’s authenticity was striking and unshakeable. For 14 weeks.
“I’m feeling all out of my element
Throwing things, crying tryin’
To figure out where the hell I went wrong
The pain reflected in this song
Ain’t even half of what I’m feeling inside
I need you, need you back in my life baby”
“I’m That Chick,” from 2008’s E=MC2
Written by Mariah Carey, Johnta Austin, and Stargate (Mikkel Eriksen, Tor Hermansen)*
The majority of the songs on this list are mid-tempos or ballads, so lets take a moment to appreciate one of Mariah’s boppiest bops: “I’m That Chick.” Some might roll their eyes at the cutesy yet witty puns that are abound throughout this disco-themed, “Off the Wall” sampling rollerskating romp, but it just proves that Mariah is clearly an adept master of wordplay. It’s okay to have fun sometimes, and remind the other girls that you’re that
“Light in the sky let’s fly high
Boy I got you caught up inside of my haze
And you’re gonna be gone for daysI’m like that ooo weee
You’re fiendin to blaze up
And taste me”
“It’s a Wrap,” from 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel
Written by Mariah Carey*
One of a handful of songs where Mariah is the sole (new) writer, only relying on the use of a sample to complete the track, “It’s a Wrap” finds Mariah revisiting a Barry White classic to set the scene for what would have been one of her most dramatic music videos (or an episode of Maury). Accusing her suitor of stepping out late into the night, Mariah paints the picture of herself sitting up waiting, drinking Patron and in her feelings. The climax is glorious, with Mariah “checking [the lock on] the gate” and all. There was no couch surfing for her man – he had to sleep outside. She was unbothered, Martini in hand, letting the “credits roll.” It is marvelous indeed when a song can transport you into the experience in the way that “It’s a Wrap” does.
“Put all of your shit in the elevator
It’s going down like a denominator
Trying to keep holding on, holding on
Boy, let me go
You gonna wake my neighbors, get away from my door
That was your last shot, you ain’t coming back
It’s the Martini I mean it baby
It’s a wrap.”
“Dedicated,” from 2014’s Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse
Written by Mariah Carey, Chauncey Hollis, James Fauntleroy and Nasir Jones*
Mariah’s love letter to hip-hop, featuring one of its Kings, Nas, is unsurprisingly well-written. It’s a groove that glides across musical landscapes, sampling WuTang, referencing her own pop game-changer (the “Fantasy” remix), with soulful, enamored vocal delivery. Effortlessly harmonizing and fluttering through her range, she weaves the boundaries R&B and Hip-Hop, or “Hip-Pop,” better and more authentically than anyone. The song’s use of an extended metaphor to personify Hip-Hop as the person she is singing this love song to, recalls Common’s classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Not only does Mariah reaffirm her songwriting brilliance with this overlooked gem, but she asserts her status as a genuine member of the Hip-Hop community.
“Tell me can you visualize
36 Chambers high
Feels like we’re there, yeah yeah yeah
The remix of a fantasy,
I hear ’em singing back to me”
BONUS: “All I Want For Christmas is You” from 1994’s Merry Christmas
Written by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff.
How could we leave it off? It’s the greatest, most successful modern Christmas song… and one of the most enjoyable musical experiences ever. It just exudes joy, happiness and festivity. All written by Mariah on her Casio keyboard, spruced up a bit by Mr. Afanasieff. No doubt, for the masses, this song will go down as the most important song Mariah Carey has ever written. Yet most don’t even know she did.
*These songs utilize samples. The writers of the samples have been excluded to showcase the writers involved in the creation of the new body of work being highlighted.