In the video for “Butterfly,” Mariah Carey emulated the imagery and storyline of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll. However, the inspiration didn’t stop there. On the album Butterfly, she included a song titled “Babydoll” as well. Perhaps the best example of her yearning for the intangible on Butterfly, “Babydoll” is a song where Mariah longs for intimacy.
“Babydoll” is one of many great examples of Mariah the lyricist going beyond the typical expectations of a song by telling a story with enough detail that it could be transformed into its own freestanding short story. On “Babydoll,” however, Mariah collaborated for the first time with Missy Elliott (who also released her debut album in 1997). Together the pair crafted a song that embodied the essence of R&B in 1997. Flowing over a slinky, urban, R&B baseline that was in line with the sounds of the time (and featured uncredited contributions from Timbaland), the story begins with the first verse, as Mariah sets the scene.
“It’s 2:11, and I’m stressing, watching TV in my hotel suite,” she explains. Immediately, you picture a distressed Mariah in a luxurious hotel suite (penthouse no doubt) alone, watching TV, waiting on her suitor. She continues to express her yearning, singing, “I check my service every second, at 2:10 you still hadn’t called me.” This impatience she feels helps illustrates the point that she’s “obsessing” over him, as expressed at the end of the verse. It is also interesting how she incorporates technology into the song with the reference of her cellphone, which, in 1997, were not commonplace. Already, she had developed a particular attachment to the device as a means of connection and communication to her intangible love interest.
It worth note that Mariah has a particular affinity for this track, particularly the time references. Impressed with her fans’ knowledge of every obscure lyric, she often references the times in “Babydoll”: “it’s 2:11” (she made February 11th “Lambs Day”) and the barely-audible ad-lib from one of the final choruses: “Still laying up in bed, it’s 3:27, my body’s longing, why ain’t you calling?” Not only does 3:27 rhyme with 2:11, “longing” and “calling” but it also symbolic of her own birthday, March 27th.
In the second verse, she continues narrating the story of how she copes with these feelings of yearning, and expresses her frustration: “I want to get intimate but you’re not within my reach.” Her solution? “I’ll have a little more wine and I’ll try to drink you out of my head.” She continues to paint the picture of this moment in a hotel room, sitting up in bed, having a splash of wine (as she’d say) and feeling restless.
Eventually, on the bridge, she enters a dreamlike state and shifts from narrating her actions to expressing her emotions and sharing her inner monologue. The lyrics here are wonderfully descriptive, creating beautiful imagery thanks to the flowery language and impressive vocabulary. She admits, “My subconscious seems to weave itself around you” in reference to her dreams of him. Then, she wonders, “Do you care for me beyond idolization?” this perhaps suggesting that the subject of the song idolized her as a fan would, and could even reference her relationship with Derek Jeter, who was a fan of her music before they dated. It also would explain why she was up waiting in a hotel room, rather than at home.
Finally, though, she gives one last warning: “Tell me how you feel, but don’t keep me at bay because I won’t be waiting long.” This perhaps tells us that there was a certain air of uncertainty in the relationship, and thus he was not only physically intangible, but emotionally as well.
The piano driven ballad, though, does seem a bit out of place on Butterfly. Lyrically, it is the only positive love song on the album that is not nostalgic in nature. Moreover, it seems out of place sonically, too, as the most “adult contemporary” track on the album. If any of the songs on Butterfly could have felt at home on a Tommy-approved album, “Whenever You Call” would be it. Regardless, it is indeed a beautifully written love ballad that would make a perfect wedding song.
While Prince sang the song with unbridled passion and pain on 1984’s Purple Rain, Mariah and Dru Hill opt for a more contemplative rendition. With soulful, rich and beautifully executed vocals and harmonies, MC and Dru Hill frontman Sisqo vocalize their yearning for the intangible with a pleading tone. As they go back and forth, they compliment each other wonderfully, in a moving exchange of shared pain and desire.