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.
Under normal circumstances, a triple platinum album is not a failure. But the phrase “normal circumstances” very rarely applies to Mariah Carey, the woman who spent the ’90s running roughshod over the Billboard Hot 100. After the gargantuan success of her self-titled 1990 debut album, Mariah consciously pushed her sound into new realms on her 1991 follow-up Emotions, messing around with house music while also getting deeper into R&B. Emotions is a full-on pop album, and nobody could mistake it for a self-indulgent artiste move, but it wasn’t exactly the same type of pop album as the one that Mariah had just released a year earlier. For the people at Mariah’s label, this was a problem.
The title track from Emotions was a #1 hit, and Carey’s next two singles went top-five. Emotions eventually went quadruple platinum. These are superstar achievements, but Columbia Records wasn’t going to let Mariah Carey be a mere pop superstar. The label wanted her to be the pop superstar. When Carey made her next album, the label got its wish.
By the time Mariah Carey released her 1993 album Music Box, her label boss wasn’t just her label boss. In June of 1993, Mariah married Tommy Mottola, the Sony Music chief who’d signed her a few years earlier. Mottola, two decades older than Mariah, had started dating her around the time that he divorced his first wife. Mottola and Carey had a hugely glitzy wedding, and they moved into a palatial estate in Bedford, New York. Carey later said that Mottola was cold and controlling, and she took to calling her mansion Sing Sing because she felt imprisoned there. To hear her tell it, Tommy Mottola essentially looked at Mariah Carey as an investment to be protected. Maybe that’s why Music Box sounds the way that it does.
Mariah Carey co-produced every song on Music Box. Other than one cover, she also co-wrote every song. That doesn’t mean she had any real autonomy on the record. By most counts, the people at Columbia made the active decision to market Mariah Carey as an old-school balladeer, giving her the same kind of presentation that she’d had on that first album. (The success of Mariah’s Unplugged EP might’ve also had something to do with that.) In terms of sheer numbers, this strategy worked; Music Box sold even more than Mariah’s first album. It didn’t make for a better record, though. With some exceptions, Music Box is absolutely choked with puffy, grandiose ballads, and it does not make for a riveting listen. Fortunately, the album’s first single is one of the exceptions.
“Dreamlover” is, quite simply, a jam. It’s not a ballad or a club track, though it could probably work in the latter capacity. It’s a song about longing, but it doesn’t sound like a song about longing. Instead, “Dreamlover” is an effortless floater. It drifts along, euphoric and frictionless, radiating joy in every direction. It’s pure cotton candy — sweet and sticky and weightless and insubstantial. I happen to think that cotton candy is fucking delicious, so it absolutely works for me.
Viewed from a certain angle, “Dreamlover” might be the earliest example of Mariah Carey’s long flirtation with rap music. Mariah had always loved rap, but you can’t hear a whole lot of evidence of that on her first two albums. “Dreamlover” is emphatically not a rap song, but rap is somewhere in its DNA. Mariah co-wrote and co-produced “Dreamlover” with Dave “Jam” Hall, a producer from Mount Vernon, New York. Hall’s roots were in rap; he got his start working with Brand Nubian and Heavy D. From there, Hall produced Mary J. Blige’s debut single “You Remind Me,” and he also worked on three other tracks from MJB’s debut album What’s The 411?; that’s why Mariah wanted to work with him. (“You Remind Me” peaked at #29. Mary J. Blige will eventually appear in this column.)
Mariah and Dave Hall started off together by listening to loops from old records, and they settled on a sample that a few other producers had already used. Two years earlier, Carey’s single “Emotions” had been built on the groove of “Best Of My Love,” the 1977 chart-topper from the Emotions. On “Dreamlover,” Mariah used a sample of a different Emotions song. Before finding fame as a disco group, the Emotions released “Blind Alley” as a deep cut on their 1971 Stax album Untouched. By the time Mariah sampled that groove on “Dreamlover,” “Blind Alley” samples had already appeared on tracks like Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’,” the Pharcyde’s “4 Better Or 4 Worse,” Cypress Hill’s “Cock The Hammer,” and a Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” remix.
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Mariah Carey tries to argue that the “Blind Alley” sample isn’t really that important to “Dreamlover”: “That’s very low in the mix; you really can’t even hear it.” I think those drums actually slap pretty hard, and the entire feel of “Dreamlover” soaks up a whole lot of playful energy from “Blind Alley.” But this was the era when lots of people still thought that sampling was the same thing as thievery, so maybe Mariah thought she needed to downplay the sample’s importance to legitimize her own song. In any case, Mariah came up with the lyrics and the melody for “Dreamlover” by singing over Hall’s beat.
As far as I can tell, the original version of “Dreamlover” that Mariah recorded with Hall has never been released. Tommy Mottola thought the song wasn’t ready, so he brought it to Walter Afanasieff, Mariah’s regular collaborator, to sweeten it up. In the Bronson book, Afanasieff says, “Mariah and Dave did this loop thing, and it was new to us pop producers at that time. Their version of ‘Dreamlover’ was missing a lot of stuff. The spirit of the song was up, but it wasn’t hitting hard enough.” Afanasieff reworked the drums, and he also played a Hammond B-3 organ all over the track. Along the way, Afanasieff earned himself a production credit. I’m generally not into Afanasieff’s whole production aesthetic, but that organ does sound great.
“Dreamlover” might be Mariah’s attempt to keep up with contemporaries like Mary J. Blige, but it really doesn’t sound like that. Instead, the song seems to exist out of time. Those sunny bursts of organ are a slick little ’60s soul touch, and the drums literally come from a ’70s soul record. Maybe that’s why “Dreamlover” evokes classic pop without sounding like a slavish attempt to recreate classic pop sounds. Or maybe “Dreamlover” hasn’t really aged because people have never stopped wishing for a mythic, perfect love. It’s an evergreen thing.
On “Dreamlover,” Mariah Carey sings about this ideal partner she’d love to meet. She never says anything specific about this person; it could be just about anyone. She’s more focused on the feeling that she wants this person to provide. She needs a lover to give her the kind of love that will last always. She needs somebody uplifting to take her away, baby. There’s evidence that Mariah’s narrator has been through shitty relationships in the past: “I don’t want another pretender to disillusion me one more time/ Whispering words of forever, playing with my mind.” But the song itself is laser-focused on the feeling of being swept away.
Unlike every other Mariah Carey chart-topper to that point, “Dreamlover” isn’t specifically built to showcase Mariah’s voice. She definitely gets a ton of crazy notes off, and there’s a great extended high note on the word “you” just before the bridge. But Mariah’s voice never dominates “Dreamlover.” Instead, she uses that voice to hang sparkly lights all over that sun-dazed groove. Even at the end, when she’s going nuts with ad-libs, we also hear her multitracked voice singing that hook, working as her own crew of backup singers. The song’s chorus finds some ebullient form of hypnosis, so Mariah repeats it a bunch of times. It never gets old. “Dreamlover” is a lightweight song, but it embraces its own lightweight status, turning that lightness into an asset. The song just sounds happy.
The “Dreamlover” video definitely embraces that happiness, to almost cartoonish ends. Mariah, surrounded by flowers and long grass, sings in a sunny field while a bunch of good-looking guys dance around her. She also sings from a hot air balloon, a sort of literal visual complement to the song’s lighter-than-air feel. There’s a baby pony or a miniature horse or something in there, and it’s very cute. Mariah Carey’s dog makes a cameo. Her new husband does not. Her smile looks like a million bucks. Director Diane Martel, who’s now a music-video legend but who’d just started off her career by making Onyx’s “Throw Ya Gunz” video a year earlier, makes the whole thing feel utterly unreal, like a daydream.
When “Dreamlover” came out as a 12″ single, it included a very different version of the song. Working with the hugely influential house DJ and producer David Morales, Mariah utterly remade “Dreamlover” as a full-on house track. For that remix, Mariah re-recorded her vocals, which was not common practice for remixes in that era. She kept the same lyrics, and she sort of kept the same melody, but Morales’ Def Club Mix of “Dreamlover” is still virtually unrecognizable. Morales stretches the song out to 10 minutes, building it on a four-four thud and a disorienting ping-pong synth loop, and Mariah howls vengefully over it. That remix slaps, and it shows that Mariah Carey could’ve been an absolute monster of a house diva.
In the years ahead, Mariah Carey’s remixes would become increasingly important, to the point where they sometimes became the definitive versions of her songs. Maybe the remix is the reason that “Dreamlover” went to #1 on the dance chart. Whatever the case, “Dreamlover” set the Music Box album on a path to some insane sales figures, and it became, to that point, Mariah Carey’s biggest hit yet. Bigger hits would follow. We will see a whole lot more of Mariah Carey in this column.
BONUS BEATS: The UK rapper Slowthai used a “Dreamlover” interpolation on his 2020 James Blake/Mount Kimbie collab “Feel Away.” Here’s the bugged-out video:
(James Blake has never had a Hot 100 hit as lead artist, but he did guest on the 2018 Jay Rock/Kendrick Lamar/Future track “King’s Dead,” which peaked at #21.)
THE 10S: Michael Jackson’s soaring, gospel-powered ballad “Will You Be There,” given extra juice after showing up on the Free Willy soundtrack, peaked at #7 behind “Dreamlover.” It holds me like the River Jordan, and it’s a 10.