The Number Ones

May 4, 1996

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby”

Stayed at #1:

2 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.

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From a certain perspective, “Always Be My Baby” is one of the sweetest, prettiest, most effortless songs that’s come out of Mariah Carey’s long career. The song isn’t exactly Mariah working within her comfort zone. Instead, it’s her finding a new comfort zone, twirling her wildly virtuosic dip-divy vocal ululations around an easy lope of a hip-hop beat and just letting her voice flow. Much of Mariah’s early success had come from using that voice on relatively traditional adult-contempo ballads, but this kind of breezy midtempo jam was where she really excelled, and there’s joy in hearing her locking in and truly hitting her groove.

From a slightly different perspective, though, “Always Be My Baby” is a song about someone in possession of near-psychotic levels of self-confidence. “Always Be My Baby” is a love song, but it’s a breakup song, too. Mariah Carey’s narrator has been dumped, but this doesn’t bother her in the slightest. Instead, Mariah sings that she knows that her ex will be back, that it’s only a matter of time. If anything, she sounds happy that the relationship has hit this stage, like she planned for this to happen all along and she’s already looking forward to the inevitable reunion. From that perspective, certain “Always Be My Baby” lyrics read less as sweet nothings and more as threats: “Boy, don’t you know you can’t escape me?/ Ooh, darling, ’cause you’ll always be my baby.” For Mariah Carey, this other person’s free will isn’t even an obstacle.

Maybe you think it’s creepy. If you do, I understand. If “Always Be My Baby” was a man singing about a woman, it would definitely be creepy. But I don’t find the song creepy. It’s Mariah Carey, seemingly emanating sunshine from every pore, displaying the full force of her own flyness. In Mariah’s hands, there’s nothing ominous about “Always Be My Baby.” If there’s any darkness to the song at all, it’s in hearing someone absolutely refusing to see a shitty situation for what it is, leaving herself vulnerable to a deeper future sense of heartbreak. But again, since it’s Mariah Carey, nobody feels too worried. If anything, I think the dissonance between Mariah’s lyrics and her delivery is the secret weapon of “Always Be My Baby.” It lends a strange sense of psychological complexity to a song that sounds lighter than air.

“Always Be My Baby” comes out of Mariah Carey’s love of rap music — the same impulse that led to her singing over a Tom Tom Club sample on “Fantasy” and then specifically requesting a remix verse from Ol’ Dirty Bastard. One of the key collaborators that Mariah sought out for her monstrously successful Daydream album was Jermaine Dupri, the Atlanta hitmaker who’d come into the game by writing and producing “Jump” for Kris Kross. Like Mariah, Dupri started out young. (Dupri is a couple of years younger than Mariah, and he made “Jump” when he was 19.) Like Mariah, Dupri was comfortable in both rap and R&B. Mariah and JD would work together a great many times over the years, and “Always Be My Baby” was the first song that they ever made together.

After the huge success of Kris Kross, Dupri started his own label So So Def, which was a joint venture with Sony and Columbia, the big labels controlled by Mariah’s record-exec husband Tommy Mottola. Mottola didn’t like or understand rap music, but he knew that there was money in it, and So So Def was a way to capitalize on that. At So So Def, Dupri had early success with Xscape, an Atlanta girl group who mostly sang over rap beats. Dupri co-produced and co-wrote most of Xscape’s 1993 debut album Hummin’ Comin’ At ‘Cha, including the big single “Just Kickin’ It,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.) Mariah loved Xscape’s album, and she wanted some of that sound for herself.

For “Always Be My Baby,” Mariah wanted something harder and more raw than the production that she’d been using. At first, Mariah shocked Dupri by telling him that she wanted to sing over the beat from the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1994 classic “C.R.E.A.M.,” and I continue to find Mariah’s Wu-Tang fandom hugely endearing. Can you imagine if she’d worked with the RZA in the mid-’90s? Could’ve been great! (“C.R.E.A.M.” peaked at #60, and it’s Wu-Tang’s highest-charting single as a group.) Rather than using that RZA beat, though, Dupri worked with his regular collaborator Manuel Seal to find a sound that was sunny but that also had some kick to it.

Dupri found Seal, a musician from Illinois, singing and playing piano in a hotel lobby one night and signed him to So So Def. (Manuel Seal is no relation to the other Seal.) Manuel Seal never really became an artist himself. Instead, he co-wrote and co-produced a whole lot of music with Dupri, including a bunch of early So So Def hits from Xscape and Da Brat. (We’ll see Seal’s work in this column again.) For “Always Be My Baby,” Dupri laid a drum track, and Mariah and Seal improvised together for a while, with Mariah singing and Seal playing piano. It took time to work the song out, but the title of “Always Be My Baby” was something that Mariah came up with in the moment.

Dupri and Seal worked on a couple of tracks from Mariah’s Daydream album, and their other contribution is the album track “Long Ago.” That one has a pretty nasty Dupri beat, and it’s a whole lot closer to the idea of Mariah singing over “C.R.E.A.M.” But “Always Be My Baby” is something else. The “Always Be My Baby” beat has serious bones, and its piano hits hard. But “Always Be My Baby” never feels like a tough song. The fluttery acoustic guitar sound hides the beat a little bit, and so does Mariah’s cascading, euphoric vocal. You can hear the smile in her voice.

Can we talk about the “Always Be My Baby” chorus for a minute? Really, it’s not just the chorus, it’s the “doo-doo-doot oawww” bit on the intro, too. That part, coming in with the beat, hits like a champagne buzz. So does the chorus itself. On many of Mariah’s early hits, she sang all her own backing vocals, and that army-of-Mariahs style gave a dreamlike impossibility to some of those tracks. On “Always Be My Baby,” Mariah sings some of the backing vocals, but she also works with a team of backup-singer pros, including the gospel and R&B great Kelly Price. (As lead artist, Kelly Price’s highest-charting single is the R. Kelly/Ronald Isley collab “Friend Of Mine (Remix),” which peaked at #12. The biggest hit with Kelly Price as a billed featured guest is Whitney Houston’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Those extra voices help anchor “Always Be My Baby,” and they end some extra low-end heft to the song’s groove.

Maybe that low end is why Mariah feels free to soar all over the track the way that she does. Mariah sings the absolute hell out of “Always Be My Baby,” and since the backing vocals handle the straightforward hook, Mariah’s lead just cuts loose, weaving in and out of the beat. I think there’s a real rhythmic intelligence to the way Mariah sings on “Always Be My Baby.” She’s capable of riding a beat like a rapper, and you can hear a bit of that in the way she sinks her teeth into a word like “inevitably.” She also puts on a deceptively powerful display of sheer vocal technique on the track. There’s a great conversational balance to the bridge. Mariah and her backup singers deliver one line straight-up: “I know that you’ll be back, boy.” And than Mariah answers herself, letting her voice soar free: “When your days and nights get a little bit colder, whoaaowwaoaw.” Somehow, she gets the balance exactly right.

Lyrically, Mariah lays out the song’s themes before the first verse is over: “Now you want to be free, so I’ll let you fly/ ‘Cause I know in my heart, babe, our love will never die.” So maybe all the vocal theatrics on “Always Be My Baby” are just Mariah’s narrator showing why she knows that this person won’t be able to keep resisting her. She’s Mariah Carey. What’s she got to worry about?

Mariah directed her own “Always Be My Baby” video; it was her second self-directed clip after “Fantasy.” Once again, Mariah knew exactly how to depict herself; the image of Mariah drifting out over a lake on a tire swing is the kind of thing you don’t forget. Mariah shot the video in upstate New York, at Camp Mariah, a Fresh Air Fund camp that Mariah’s charity sponsored. In the clip, a couple of kids sneak out of their cabins, steal off to a bonfire party, and share a quick underwater kiss. Mariah watches all of it happen, glowing in the knowledge of her own ability to inspire young love. I’ve been a camp counselor before, and you’re definitely not supposed to let the kids sneak off and hook up like that. But maybe the rules are different when you’re the pop star sponsoring the whole camp in the first place.

Mariah also directed a different video for Jermaine Dupri’s “Always Be My Baby” remix. Dupri brought Xscape and Da Brat with him to record that remix at the home studio in the palatial mansion that Mariah shared with Tommy Mottola. Mariah wanted to work with Xscape, and she loved Da Brat. (Da Brat’s highest-charting single, 1994’s Dupri-produced “Funkdafied,” peaked at #6. It’s a 7.) Mariah recorded new vocals for the “Always Be My Baby” remix. Xscape sang backup, and Da Brat knocked out a fun verse that referenced a lot of past Mariah hits: “Who rocks your music box and breaks down your structure?/ You fantasize as you visualize me as your dreamlover/ Fuck with your emotions unplugged in your daydream.”

For that remix, Dupri made a new beat, looping up a sample of an early Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis production, the SOS Band’s 1983 single “Tell Me If You Still Care.” (“Tell Me If You Still Care” peaked at #65.) For that video, Mariah went with the “One Sweet Day” format, just filming herself at work in the studio with Dupri, Xscape, and Da Brat. The echoing drum machines and the lush synth-funk arrangement fit the track nicely. That remix never became a world-altering smash like the Puff Daddy remix of “Fantasy,” but it’s a cool reinvention of the song.

Mariah loved working on the remix with Dupri and his collaborators. The way she tells it, that session gave her a taste of freedom, which was a rare thing for her at the time. A big theme of Mariah’s 2020 memoir The Meaning Of Mariah Carey is the way Tommy Mottola put considerable resources into controlling Mariah, surrounding her with security guards and handlers until she felt like she was imprisoned. In the book, she tells a story of giving Da Brat a tour of her mansion and then, when she found a place where they weren’t under video surveillance, suggesting that she and Brat should sneak off to Burger King to get some fries.

When Mariah and Da Brat were out at Burger King, the security guards freaked out, pulling guns on Dupri and his people, who were just working in the studio and who had no idea where Brat and Mariah were. An increasingly panicked Dupri kept calling Brat’s cell phone, telling them that they needed to come back, and Brat slowly realized how serious the situation was. In her book, Mariah paraphrases what Da Brat told her: “You done sold millions of records, girl. You live in a damn palace. You have everything, but if you can’t be free to go to fucking Burger King when you want, you ain’t got nothing. You need to get out of there.”

In her book, Mariah writes that this was one of the moments when she realized that her marriage was no good for her: “If Da Brat, a 19-year-old female rapper from [Chicago’s] West Side, is afraid for you, you know the situation has got to be dire, dahling.” (She writes the whole memoir in that kind of voice. Good book.) At the moment, Mariah Carey was fabulously successful. “Always Be My Baby” was the third single from Daydream, and it was the third to reach #1. “Fantasy” and “One Sweet Day” both debuted at #1, while “Always Be My Baby” debuted at #2 and eventually pushed past Céline Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” to the top. Eventually, the “Always Be My Baby” single went quintuple platinum, and it remains one of Mariah’s best-loved songs. Just in the past few years, “Always Be My Baby” has given the Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe its title, and Mariah has sung it from her home studio on a 2020 quarantine TV special.

Still, even during that insanely dominant mid-’90s stretch, Mariah Carey wasn’t happy. In the years to come, she’d continue her explorations into rap music, and she’d change her life circumstances. We’ll see plenty more Mariah Carey in this column. The next time Mariah appears in this space, she’ll be single.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beenie Man’s pretty-great 1998 dancehall version of “Always Be My Baby”:

(Beenie Man’s highest-charting single is the 2004 Ms. Thing/Shawnna collab “Dude,” which peaked at #26.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: One of the only performances that I remember from the 2008 season of American Idol is the yarly, smoldery post-grunge version of “Always Be My Baby” from eventual winner David Cook. Here’s Cook singing the song on Idol:

(David Cook’s highest-charting single, 2008’s “The Time Of My Life,” peaked at #3. It’s a 2. As an institution, American Idol will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fifth Harmony’s 2015 Tyga collab “Like Mariah,” which heavily interpolates “Always Be My Baby”:

(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Ty Dolla $ign collab “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10. Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello will eventually appear in this column. Tyga’s highest-charting single, 2011’s “Rack City,” peaked at #7. It’s another 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Baltimore art-rap great JPEGMAFIA sings a bit of “Always Be My Baby” on his 2020 track “Living Single.” Here’s the “Living Single” video:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Last month, Rosie Thomas released her indie-lullaby cover of “Always Be My Baby,” which features Sufjan Stevens, the Shins, and Josh Ottum. Here it is:

(The only one of those artists who’s ever been on the Hot 100 is the Shins; their 2007 single “Phantom Limb” peaked at #86.)

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