I was prepared to ridicule Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse mercilessly. The title is preposterous, obviously; nobody says “chanteuse” except music critics too lazy to spend 15 seconds on thesaurus.com, and no one who spent part of this album’s gestation period judging American Idol can really be described as “elusive.” Then there was the flubbed roll-out, during which Carey told Billboard that her album would be released by surprise, Beyoncé-style, only to watch Def Jam execs swiftly declare that it most assuredly would not be. That drama came on the heels of two years of release delays and false-starting singles, and a full year after the release of the only recent Carey single to resemble a success, the top-20 Miguel duet “#Beautiful.” There’s also the fact that the project’s best single is called “#Beautiful,” but honestly a garish and superfluous hashtag seems tame compared to calling your album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse. This thing was ripe for a ripping of delightfully enthusiastic proportions. ‘Twas to be a trainwreck the likes of which haven’t been seen since Glitter. And, OK, the title alone does demand a few moments of playful flagellation.
Terrified mugger dangles off rooftop. Strangulated plea: "Who are you?!?" "Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse."
— Tom Breihan (@tombreihan) May 2, 2014
I just hope there's a "Find the Elusive Chanteuse" contest that involves video clues and hashtag riddles.
— Keith Harris (@useful_noise) May 1, 2014
"but … but who will sing the aria?" *door slams open* *gasps* "i will." "w-w-who are you?" "ME. I Am …… Mariah. The Elusive Chanteuse"
— YOUNG UGGHHH (@skinny412) May 1, 2014
are you there god? it's 'me. i am mariah… the elusive chanteuse.'
— rob harvilla (@harvilla) May 2, 2014
What is the worst album title of all time? http://t.co/S6UDsyi1Gt
— The Guardian (@guardian) May 8, 2014
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to come clean: The album is good. Not great! Never let anyone tell you Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse is great. That would be as ridiculous as naming your album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse. But Carey’s first non-Christmas full-length in five years is low-key stacked with solid B and B+ singles that could wipe the floor with most of what we’re hearing these days on urban and top 40 radio. Largely constructed in partnership with manager Jermaine Dupri, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse loosely hopscotches across music history while also shoehorning Carey into a number of contemporary sounds. The resulting pastiche is not a dominant return to form, and certainly nowhere near BEYONCÉ where awe-inspiring tours de force are concerned. But for someone a quarter-century into her career, a seminal talent who’s watched more than a few pretenders come and go, this album is an affirmation of vitality.
It includes winning tributes to ’80s hip-hop (“Dedicated,” which samples Wu-Tang’s Carey shout-out from “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”), ’70s Philadelphia soul (“Make It Look Good”), and the late gospel legend James Cleveland (“Heavenly”). On a more modern tip, Carey pairs successfully with leading producers Mike Will Made It (“Faded”) and Hit-Boy (“Thirsty”), both of whom effectively graft Carey’s signature soul-pop sound into their own respective sonic universes. There is “#Beautiful,” as fittingly gorgeous as ever, and “You’re Mine (Eternal),” an effortless glide that features the album’s best use of Carey’s signature dog-whistle soprano and producer Rodney Jerkins showing an old dog can learn new tricks — tricks perfected by Noah “40” Shebib and Mike Will Made It, incidentally. The Fabolous duet “Money ($ * / …)” shouldn’t work, so blatantly does it jack Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” and dress it up a de-rigueur horn loop out of the “Thrift Shop”/”Talk Dirty”/”Problem” playbook, but it’s right in that pop-rap sweet spot where even chodes like Big Sean and Chris Brown seem more agreeable. And there are at least two successful efforts to cash in on the disco-funk revival without actually dialing up its mascot, Pharrell: the organic “You Don’t Know What To Do,” in which even multiple Wale guest verses can’t kill Mariah’s vibe, and the synthetic “Meteorite,” in which Q-Tip proves he can produce aggressive disco breaks with the best of them. I imagine she’d have gone back and included a DJ Mustard production too if the album hadn’t already been plagued by so many postponements, and from the sound of her other attempts to modernize, that probably would have gone a lot better than Jennifer Lopez’s Mustard-marinated “Girls” did.
On the other hand, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse also contains “Supernatural,” an attempt at a Beyoncé-style baby tribute bogged down by ga-ga-goo-goo gibberish from Carey’s twins and DJ scratching that sounds as outdated as the babies sound young. When she borrows the stuttering cadence from Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly,” it’s slightly awkward; when she converses with her baby daughter in an English accent, it’s downright embarrassing. Album-opening gospel piano ballad “Cry” openly apes Idol alumna Candice Glover’s own album-opening gospel piano ballad, “Cried“; I get that she was trying to kick things off by reminding us about her impressive range, but did she really need five minutes to do it? “Camouflage,” another slow jam, disappears into the foliage without anyone noticing, and the George Michael cover “One More Try” feels like Carey’s “I’ll Be There” cover redone with Casio presets. Both of them contribute to the sense of lagging momentum that plagues the album’s back half. And while I appreciate the sincerity of the spoken-word bit that wraps up the tracklist, it’s hard not to cackle at the Hallmark narcissism of Carey describing the self-portrait she drew as a 3-year-old — the one that inspired the album title — as “a visual treasure.” As someone who’s been digging up old childhood relics to purge my basement before a move, I understand the sentiment, but Carey sounds so hokey and self-absorbed expressing it that there’s no wonder she thought it was a good idea to name her album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse.
Will Mariah Carey ever rule pop music again? Probably not. A cursory listen to Lily Allen’s leading-lady laundry list on “Sheezus” will remind you that Carey’s not among those contending for the crown at the moment, and an album as conservative as Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse probably won’t put her back in that conversation. That might sting for someone who in her first decade piled up enough #1 hits to release a comp called Number 1’s, who achieved an astonishing degree of cultural ubiquity, who was once the gold standard of rappers’ romantic aspirations, who already achieved one triumphant comeback in 2005. But the reality is even continuing to make enjoyable records is a victory compared to where Carey’s original peers are now. When was the last time Madonna made anything as enjoyable as “#Beautiful”? Even before Whitney Houston’s tragic death, she wasn’t exactly clogging up the airwaves either. Boyz II Men, with whom Carey recorded the longest-running #1 hit in Billboard history, have long since been relegated to the state fair circuit. Toni Braxton, whose rise coincided with Carey’s, exists in the grown-and-sexy sphere now. The entire boy band thing came, went, and came back again during Carey’s tenure, and even the massively successful NKOTBSB ordeal was a nostalgia tour, not something that made New Kids and Backstreet Boys stars again. The mere fact that Carey persists as a reliable contributor in the contemporary pop sphere is an achievement in itself. She has no reason to be ashamed, other than naming her album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse.
Q: Who’s the only performer since the Beatles to hit #1 and #2 simultaneously with his or her first two Hot 100 singles? A: You already kno-ow. Does this mean Iggy Azalea will go on to be a culture-defining force on par with the Fab Four? Maybe she won’t ascend to the Beatles’ level of influence, but for better or worse, it actually wouldn’t surprise me one bit if an entire generation of wannabe Iggys sprung up, “The Real Slim Shady”-style, in the wake of today’s Azalea-saturated situation. “Fancy” is #1. “Problem” is #2. Bow down to your new queen of pop. As Billboard notes, this also makes Azalea the 15th artist all time to occupy spots 1 and 2 simultaneously, the third female to reach those heights (after Ashanti in 2002 and Mariah Carey in 2005), and the fourth solo female rapper to hit #1 after Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998, Lil Kim (as part of the massive “Lady Marmalade” remake) in 2001, and Shawnna (assisting Ludacris on “Stand Up”) in 2003. And oh, by the way, “Fancy” counts as Charli XCX’s first #1 too.
What else happened near the top of the Hot 100? Familiar titles “All Of Me,” “Happy,” “Turn Down For What,” “Dark Horse,” and “Talk Dirty” hold down spots 3-7, and Justin Timberlake’s “Not A Bad Thing” continues to linger near the bottom of the top at #9. But there are some entrants in the top 10 too in the form of Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” at #8 and Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” follow-up “Wiggle” (Feat. Snoop Dogg) at #10. That means last week’s climbers, the posthumous Michael Jackson song “Love Never Felt So Good” and Coldplay’s EDM excursion “A Sky Full Of Stars,” fall out of the top 10.
Great week for Coldplay anyhow, though. Ghost Stories registers the year’s largest first-week sales with 383,000 to give them their fourth straight #1 debut. That relegates country singer Brantley Gilbert, who would have easily topped the chart almost any other week, to #2; his Just As I Am sold 211,000 copies. Billboard points out that this is the first week since November, when Lady Gaga and Eminem both debuted new albums, that two albums topped 200,000 in sales. Michael Jackson’s Xscape is at #3 with 67,000, followed by the Frozen soundtrack at #4 with 65,000, the Black Keys’ Turn Blue at #5 with 54,000, and Now 50 at #6 with 51,000. Then come two more debuts: Phillip Phillips’ Behind The Light (#7, 41,000) and the Twilight-esque soundtrack to The Fault In Our Stars (#8, 34,000). Rounding out the top 10 are Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic (#9, 22,000) and Rascal Flatts’ Rewind (#10, 22,000).
This week also marked the debut of Billboard and Twitter’s real-time chart, the Trending 140, about which more to come when I have more time to fool around with it.
Priyanka Chopra – “I Can’t Make You Love Me”
Former Miss World pageant winner Chopra is an Interscope signee discovered by Jimmy Iovine after racking up 20 million social media followers in India. She and her EDM cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” feature prominently in a recent ad for Beats Electronics’ Pill speaker. She’s allegedly moving to Hollywood, so get used to seeing a lot of her, most likely wearing Beats headphones and/or barely anything at all. As for the song: The original was such a stunner that it would be hard to completely mess it up. Still, while it seems inevitable in retrospect that someone would eventually make a dance version, the feeling of hushed intimacy that elevates Raitt’s rendition to classic status gets lost amidst all this untz-untz. Also, yes, that’s Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes/Gilmore Girls fame mixing it up with Chopra in the video.
La Roux – “Uptight Downtown”
Like “Let Me Down Gently” before it, “Uptight Downtown” glazed me over at first, but on second and third pass its genius materialized. It feels odd to call someone with such a striking visual aesthetic and such infectious melodies “subtle,” but some of La Roux’s appeal seems to be the way her songs sneak up on you.
Alex Clare – “War Rages On”
Clare is the bloke responsible for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer pubstep anthem “Too Close.” “War Rages On,” the lead single from his next album, features that same blend of electronics and post-Damien-Rice open-mic blather. This time, though, there’s no hook to grab listeners quite like “And it feels like I am just too close to love you!” so all we’re left with is.
Ne-Yo – “Money Can’t Buy” (Feat. Young Jeezy)
Sometime between 2008’s marvelous Year Of The Gentleman and 2012’s horrendous yet undeniable Calvin Harris collab “Let’s Go,” Ne-Yo went from a charmingly traditionalist force in R&B to one of pop’s most irritating hacks. I didn’t mind his presence on Young Jeezy’s half-decent “Leave Me Alone,” but the two of them sound absolutely wack right here. Why did they bother with such dated production? Is Ne-Yo’s voice pitched-up for some reason? Isn’t Young Jeezy just going by Jeezy now? So many questions about such a questionable song.
Nicole Scherzinger – “Your Love”
Had to post this if only to chuckle at the numerous lyrical howlers, including but not limited to “My body’s like Bugatti/ You know everybody wants one” and “MC Hammer, girls can’t touch this/ I’ve got everything they don’t” within about 10 seconds of each other. Musically, though, I can live with this. Between the winsome house piano part and a melody that is already lodged into my memory until the end of time after just one listen. It’s certainly a cut above the former Pussycat Doll’s usual dreck.
O-Town – “Skydive”
“I just wanna skydive into your life,” proclaim the winners of MTV and Lou Pearlman’s 2000 reality competition Making The Band. Please don’t, guys.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- The Fader’s Sam Smith cover story, in which he opens up about his life story and his sexuality, is a good read. [The Fader]
- Beyoncé, Shakira, and Lady Gaga are among Forbes’ list of the most powerful women in the world. [Forbes]
- Designer Tom Ford (the one Jay Z rocks instead of popping molly) says Rihanna’s Instagram is more influential than any fashion critic. [Style]
- Lady Gaga canceled some concerts due to bronchitis. [Gossip Cop]
- Estelle disputes the notion that Adele makes soul music. [Global Grind]
- Madonna brought a doctor’s note to get out of jury duty. [NME]