The Number Ones

November 10, 1990

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Love Takes Time”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


When Mariah Carey’s self-titled debut album first arrived in stores, the liner notes of the CD and cassette copies didn’t mention “Love Takes Time,” the song that would become Carey’s second #1 hit. “Love Takes Time” was on the album. It was the final track. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the tracklist. “Love Takes Time” had been a last-minute addition to the LP, and Columbia hadn’t had time to adjust things. For a little while, then, “Love Takes Time” was a sort of accidental hidden track. The people at Columbia knew that the song was a smash, and they had to have it on the album, even if it meant that the physical copies of that album would get all messed up as a result.

When Carey and her old collaborator Ben Margulies wrote “Love Takes Time,” Carey had finished working on Mariah Carey. The album’s songs had been fully recorded and mastered, and they were on their way to being pressed up. Carey was already thinking about what to put on her next LP. Before the first album’s release, Carey was on a quick promotional tour, singing acoustic mini-sets in a few cities. On a flight from one of those stops to the next, she played her demo of “Love Takes Time,” the song that she and Margulies had just written, for the Columbia Records execs on the plane. They flipped out, and they demanded that the song be added to her first album.

Mariah Carey was not into the idea of heading back into the studio to cut a proper version of “Love Takes Time.” She’d worked on her first album for months, and she didn’t want to spend more time painstakingly perfecting one of her ballads. But Don Ienner, the president of Columbia, insisted, telling Carey that the track was a “career-maker.” Carey recorded “Love Takes Time” in a hurry, and the song just barely made the album’s deadline, though not in time for it to be on those first tracklists. Columbia may have even destroyed some early copies of Mariah Carey just so that the album wouldn’t be sent out into the world without “Love Takes Time.”

Listening now, it’s hard to imagine label execs losing their shit for a heartbroken ballad like “Love Takes Time.” When I hear a song described as a surefire pop hit, I tend to imagine something catchy and exuberant. But things were different in 1990. “Love Takes Time” is catchy, in its way, but it’s definitely not exuberant. Instead, “Love Takes Time” is a grand showstopper about being utterly devastated, trying to imagine a time when things will be better again.

Carey starts out “Love Takes Time” cooing gently, like she hopes to recapture some sort of tenderness that she’s lost. She’s trying to make up for something, trying to apologize, but she’s mostly just singing about how sad she is: “I had it all, but I let it slip away/ Couldn’t see I treated you wrong/ Now, I wander around feeling down and cold/ Trying to believe that you’re gone.” In that last line, “believe” is a funny word. Carey’s narrator wants to process what’s happening, but the pain is so fresh that she can’t understand it quite yet.

Like basically every other Mariah Carey song in existence, “Love Takes Time” exists primarily as a vehicle to showcase that near-incomprehensible voice. “Love Takes Time” is structured as a gospel song, more or less. The melody is bone-simple, which gives Carey room to ululate all over it. She holds that central melody, but she also allows her voice to wobble and soar. At the climactic moments, she sings that melody more-or-less straight-up. Most of the time, though, she trills and riffs and wanders.

At different points of “Love Takes Time,” Carey’s voice becomes raspy and forceful, something that only rarely happens on Mariah Carey songs. On the bridge, for instance, Carey wails about how she and this other person should be together: “You might say you don’t miss me, you don’t need me/ But I know that you do, and I feel that you do inside.” On the words “know” and “feel,” Carey latches down hard, going guttural and letting the world hear the grit in her voice. That’s when the music surges up dramatically, getting loud and stormy. But then the storm subsides, and Carey again finds a glassy softness. That rise-and-fall may be a cliché, but Mariah Carey has never been afraid of cliché. On “Love Takes Time,” she makes the cliché work for her.

The big knock on Mariah Carey is that her voice can overwhelm her songs — that the song themselves can become empty vessels for vocal showmanship. But I don’t think that happens on “Love Takes Time.” Instead, I think Carey’s theatrics work within the context of the track. She always keeps the melody close at hand. (Carey sings her own backing vocals, and those backing vocals are what allows her lead to spin all over the place.) Carey’s fluctuating voice lends majesty to the song’s wounded vulnerability. It’s like she’s so sad that she can barely control her own tremendous gift.

When the Columbia label brass heard “Loves Take Time” and rushed the song into production, they called on Walter Afanasieff, a studio musician who’d never produced a song before. Afanasieff, born to Russian parents in Brazil, had found a place on the jazz-fusion circuit in the early ’80s. For a while, he worked with Narada Michael Walden, the producer behind hits like Carey’s first single “Vision Of Love.” Afanasieff had played on Walden productions like Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who, and when Carey and Walden worked together, Columbia bosses Don Ienner and Tommy Mottola liked what Afanasieff did. They gave Afanasieff a staff producer job at Columbia, and when they needed a working recording of “Love Takes Time,” they called on him.

Carey and Afanasieff only had a few days to record and master “Love Takes Time,” and Afanasieff played every instrument on the track. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Afaniasieff says that he laid down the instrumental track in Los Angeles and then immediately flew to New York to get Carey’s vocals. Carey worked all night on recording the vocals, and then Afanasieff jumped back on a plane to finish the mixing job.

For the most part, Afanasieff’s “Love Takes Time” arrangement is exactly what you’d expect. The big drums kick in just after the first chorus. The synths gradually well up as the song reaches its explosive finale, and then they cool out again once that finale is over. Other than Carey’s voice, all of the sounds on the track are processed to death in that extremely late-’80s adult-contemporary way. (The piano has what I’ve come to recognize as the Yamaha DX7 sound, and I deeply loathe that synthetic-sustain thing that it does.) “Love Takes Time” works in spite of that production, not because of it. It’s like Mariah Carey was already singing from the future, like the standard methods of pop production just hadn’t caught up to her yet. But Carey and Afanasieff evidently liked working together, at least for a while. Afanasieff’s work will appear many more times in this column.

As it turned out, Mariah Carey didn’t really need a career-maker. “Vision Of Love” had already done that work for her. Columbia released “Love Takes Time” as a single shortly after “Vision Of Love” fell out of the #1 spot. At that point, Mariah Carey was already platinum. By the time “Love Takes Time” reached #1, the album was double platinum. It would go platinum many more times, and it would spin off more big hits. We will see Mariah Carey in this column again very soon, and then we’ll see her plenty more times after that.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Love Takes Time” soundtracking an emotional montage in a 2019 episode of Pose:

THE 10S: Deee-Lite’s joyously silly utopian club anthem “Groove Is In The Heart” peaked at #4 behind “Love Takes Time.” It’s not vicious or malicious; it’s a 10.

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