Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ is Music’s Most Underrated Album

Vincent Anthony
16 Min Read

September 16, 1997.

In September 1997, Mariah Carey released Butterfly, her self-described favorite and best album. Among her adoring fans, the #Lambily, it is widely considered the fan-favorite and best album as well, though some do differ in opinion. Still, Butterfly remains a sorely underrated classic in the grander scheme of things. You won’t find Butterfly on most “best albums of all time” lists by music’s most revered and respected publications. Butterfly was not lauded by critics, nor was it showered with Grammy’s. Sure, it received good reviews and praise, but the album is not anywhere near as respected as it should be among other albums by pop stars. It is an injustice.

Butterfly is music’s most underrated album because of this lack of respect. The album contains quite possibly the most poetically beautiful lyrics of any album released by her peers, with vocals equal or arguably better than anyone with the pipes to rival her. Musically, the production is flawless, the sound is subtly innovative, and boasts some groundbreaking collaborations both behind the scenes and with its guest features. The content of the album makes it one of the most personal and honest albums ever recorded. It is by far Mariah’s best work, and Mariah is by far the most successful and talented female singer-songwriter-producer. That alone should catapult Butterfly to the Top 5 or at least Top 10 of every “best albums” list. Below, I’ve outlined 20 reasons why Mariah Carey’s Butterfly music’s most underrated album.

1. The unrivaled introspectiveness

Butterfly is by far Mariah Carey’s most personal album. Free from the control of her looming ex-husband, Mariah was finally able to make an album where she could be 100% true to herself. On Butterfly, she examined her life experiences, both past and present, in songs that sound as though they’re pages from her diary; “Breakdown,” “Close My Eyes,” “Outside” and the title track, for example.

2. The unabashed honesty

With introspection comes honesty, and on Butterfly, Mariah did not hold back. “Breakdown” is probably one of the most honest songs ever recorded about heartbreak. “My All” and “Babydoll” are painfully frank representations of the word “longing,” while “Outside” and “Close My Eyes” don’t hold back in assessing the adversities in her past.

3. The gut-wrenching emotion

Introspection and honesty are the perfect recipe for a gut-wrenching emotional response. Through both her words and her vocals, Mariah delivers some of the most emotional moments of her career. The ad-libs during the heartbreaking climax “Breakdown,” or the powerful promises of “Whenever You Call” will tug on your heart strings for sure.

4. The meaningful metaphor

As an album title, Butterfly is a metaphor for Mariah’s breaking out of the cocoon to be her true self. However, the masterful use of metaphor doesn’t cease there. Throughout the albums lyrics, she weaves in complex, thought-provoking metaphors. The title track creates an allegory through its use of extended metaphor. Within that, she includes a poignant metaphor, singing “wild horses run unbridled or their spirit dies.” Then of course, there’s the lead single “Honey,” which some believe is a metaphor for something very naughty…

5. The timeless nostalgia

Several tracks on Butterfly have a genuine, nostalgic air that made them feel timeless upon their release in 1997. “Fourth of July” and “The Roof” find Mariah recanting past experiences, longing for a replay. No one else delivers a nostalgic moment quite like Mariah. Alas, over the last 20 years, all of the album’s twelve tracks have become irreplaceable pieces of 90s nostalgia.

6. The subtle sensuality

Never before had a Mariah Carey album been so sensual, yet, Butterfly is still subtle in its sensuality. The sexual innuendo “Honey” is cleverly hidden by wordplay, while songs like “My All,” “Babydoll,” and “The Roof” express a sensual yearning for love and affection in a very intimate way. Never raunchy, Butterfly is a beautiful soundtrack for love-making on a romantic evening.

7. The Mariah Carey vocals

It wouldn’t be a Mariah Carey album without the Mariah Carey vocals. Yes, “Mariah Carey” is an adjective; a very specific one. Her versatile vocal abilities are unparalleled. Not only are her technical abilities on display on this album, but perhaps more significant are the many colors and textures of her voice that she showcases on Butterfly. They’re all unmistakably Mariah Carey yet so diverse in delivery. Mariah creates moods and provides outer-body experiences with those vocals. She will send you straight to your feels with the way she delivers a particular lyric. She takes songs to places only she can for their climaxes. On Butterfly, the most notable examples of this are the bridges of “Outside” and its title track. Her voice soars and will leave you on the floor.

8. The iconic visuals

Without question, Butterfly was Mariah Carey’s visual peak. From the album cover, to the full photoshoot, to her hair and ensemble style choices, and most importantly, the music videos… everything was on point. The free-flowing, golden brown, caramel drizzled hair and the controversial skin-bearing ensembles forever changed the image of Mariah Carey. Buttefly‘s videos were innovative, creative, artistic and thought provoking. Whether it be “Honey” where art seemed to imitate life, the theatrical “Butterfly,” or the painting-come-to-life “My All,” with Butterfly MC delivered visually.

9. The relatable themes

Mariah covers a lot of ground on Butterfly. Running through the album’s 12 tracks, in one word each: Infatuation, growth, yearning, reminiscing, young love, unrequited love, lust, adversity, devotion, liberation, heartbreak, and otherness. All of these are easily relatable, making Butterfly not only a fan-favorite, but a classic.

10. The superb samples

Being the hip-hop artist that she is, Mariah is a big fan of the sample. A lot of music we listen to has an element of sampling within it. From Tupac and Eminem to One Direction, inspiration has been taken from previous artists to create something new. With the use of vocal packs, it is becoming even more possible to sample vocals for an artists’ new track. On Butterfly, only two tracks utilize a sample, but both are superbly done. On “Honey,” she utilized two classic hip-hop samples, The World Famous Supreme Team’s “Hey DJ” and The Treacherous Three’s “The Body Rock.” Meanwhile, on “The Roof,” she sampled a then-recent hit by Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones Part 1.” The way she flipped these samples into completely different new songs while still keeping that hip-hop realness is unreal.

11. The incorporation of Hip-Hop

With the samples, Mariah effortlessly incorporated hip-hop elements into her music on Butterfly; more than ever before. In contrast 1995’s Daydream found most of her hip-hop influences regulated to the remix versions of songs. With Butterfly, she had a bit more freedom. Not only were there the samples, but Mariah even enlisted Bone Thugs-n-Harmony to guest on “Breakdown,” their first collaboration with a singer of Mariah’s stature. It was a big deal for both artists.

12. The inventive Prince cover

Mariah flipped Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” from an energized rock-and-roll tinged electric ballad into a slower, more subdued yet equally emotional ballad. Not only that, but she turned Prince’s classic from a solo number into a duet with R&B group Dru Hill. Once again, Mariah found herself trading lines and holding her own vocally, alongside an entire group, cascading through her range effortlessly.

13. The thesaurus-opening vocabulary

While listening to Butterfly, you might need to pull out your thesaurus because Mariah Carey’s vocabulary is college level. The album’s twelve tracks are littered with SAT words that’ll leave you with an improved vocabulary by the time you’re done. Unlike most, she actually knows how to use the words properly, too. Here’s a sample of some of those words:

blatant, elusive, abruptly, unbridled, ambiguous, emblazoned, envision, apprehension, splendor, flourish, succumb, resounding, fervid, strewn, entwined, ominously, tentatively, unyielding, nonchalant, guise, wayward, dissipate, inherently.

14. The masterful poetic writing

Part of being a poet is using beautiful language in your writing, and her vocabulary skills alone prove that. However, throughout the album’s lyrics she also uses an array of poetic devices and figurative language that enhance the songs both lyrically and musically. The beautiful lyrics to a song like “Close My Eyes,” on which she sings, “orangey clouds roll by, they burn into your image and you’re still alive,” show not only her rhyme-making skills, but just how beautiful she makes language sound.

15. The style-making rap-singing

In the late 90s, as R&B and Hip-Hop became more and more mainstream in Pop music, singers began displaying a bit of a hip-hop, rap-style singing. Most would credit this trend to the rappers, however, Mariah Carey was one of the first release such rhythmic, rhyme-riddled recordings. The chorus of “Breakdown” is one of the best examples of this. Nearly every other word rhymes, and she emulates Bone Thugs’ signature flow effortlessly.

16. The innovative remixes

Mariah has a penchant for remixes, and the Butterfly era delivered some of her best. The lead single “Honey” had a So So Def remix featuring Da Brat as well as a re-recorded dance mix. For the hip-hop remix of “Honey,” she sampled a different part of the same “Hey DJ” song used in the original to create a whole new track. The club mix, on the other hand, is a vocal tour de force. The title track too had a re-recorded dance mix that really stands alone as its own song. “My All,” like “Honey,” had a So So Def remix and a dance mix. Its hip-hop remix was the first of many to come mash-up remixes by Mariah, where she samples and covers portions of an old song and mixes it with her new song that she is remixing. Meanwhile, “The Roof” was remixed featuring Mobb Deep, and “Breakdown” had a “Mo’ Thugs” version as well.

17. The ingenious adlibs

Certainly, its easy to rave about Mariah’s ad-libs from a vocal standpoint. However, equally impressive is the way she will riff and add new lyrics to a song that were clearly freestyled in the vocal booth. For example, on “Babydoll,” amidst layers of backgrounds at the end, she sings, “still laying up in bed, it’s 3:27, my body’s longing, so why ain’t you calling?” Not only does it flow and rhyme, but continues to add to the theme. Usually, an artist will just repeat the lyrics, sung differently – not Mariah.

18. The captivating storytelling

The nostalgic pair of “The Roof” and “Fourth of July” are amazing examples of Mariah’s profoundly captivating storytelling skills. She details these elaborate memories with vivid details and imagery, that it’s almost like listening to a short story. One could probably take either of these songs and work them into a full stage production for Broadway. That’s how well done they are. She gives you characters, a plot and imagery to bring these sensual, nostalgic stories to life.

19. The poignant outsider’s anthem

“Outside” deserves its own mention because, for Mariah’s biracial, LGBTQ or any fans who feel like the “other,” it is an anthem. The powerful song offers solace for anyone who felt similarly to Mariah growing up, and is the reason for the beautiful bond she has with her fans.

20. The lingering, liberating impact

Butterfly forever changed Mariah’s career and sound due to her newfound freedom. It also helped to change the sound and landscape of R&B and Pop, inspiring other Pop/R&B female artists to work with hip-hop artists. Not only that, but it opened the door for Pop artists, particularly females, to be a bit more introspective in their work.

mariah carey butterfly

Want more? Here are 10 more articles we’ve penned about Butterfly over the years:

“Butterfly,” the song, and the album overall:
Butterfly, Fly Away: Mariah Carey’s first emancipation

The debut of “Honey”
Breaking Out of the Cocoon: A look back at the debut of Mariah Carey’s “Honey”

The “Honey” remixes:
The Many Forms of Metamorphosis: A review of Mariah Carey’s “Honey” remixes

The “Honey” and “Butterfly” videos:
Emancipating Visuals: Mariah breaks free with “Butterfly” and “Honey”

“Breakdown,” “Close My Eyes,” and “Outside”:
The Butterfly Effect: Mariah discovers The Art of Letting Go

“The Roof,” “My All,” and “Fourth of July”:
Reliving the Splendor: Mariah’s nostalgic storytelling on Butterfly

The “My All” and “The Roof” videos:
Liberating Venus: Mariah’s sensuality awakens with “My All” and “The Roof”

“My All,” as a #1:
“I’m thinking of”… Mariah Carey’s 13th #1: “My All”

“Babydoll,” “Whenever You Call” and “The Beautiful Ones”:
I Wanna Be Your Babydoll: The longings of a Butterfly

The Lyrics = The Feels
18 lyrics from Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ that’ll put you in your feelings

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Vincent is the founder of the magazine and has had a strong passion for popular music since, well, 1997! If it's not obvious, his favorite artists include Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, P!nk, and many more. Vincent lives in New York, where he is a high school English teacher, and currently he is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.