The Number Ones

September 13, 1997

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Honey”

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.

Mariah Carey was early to the Bad Boy party. In 1995, Sean “Puffy” Combs’ startup label had already cranked out a bunch of rap and R&B hits, but it wouldn’t become a full-on pop juggernaut for a couple of years. When Mariah Carey got Puff to remix her huge hit “Fantasy,” the combination still made for a vaguely risky move for both Mariah and Puff. The risk paid off. The “Fantasy” remix was huge, and it helped pave the way for the coming Bad Boy chart takeover. The next time Mariah Carey and Puff Daddy worked together, the world was different for both of them.

“Honey,” the first single from Mariah Carey’s 1997 album Butterfly, arrived after uninterrupted months of Puff Daddy productions at #1. The previous two chart-toppers, Puffy’s own “I’ll Be Missing You” and the late Biggie Smalls’ “Mo Money Mo Problems,” were both Puff Daddy joints, co-produced with in-house Bad Boy beatmaker Stevie J. At that point, Mariah Carey was starting a new phase of her life and career. While working on Butterfly, Mariah separated from Tommy Mottola, the much-older husband who was also her record-label boss. At the time, Mariah was arguably the biggest star in all of pop music, and she didn’t have to worry about her breakup hurting her career. Tommy Mottola needed her more than she needed him.

Mariah Carey has spoken at length about how she felt that Tommy Mottola controlled her. She felt like she was imprisoned in their palatial mansion, and she also felt hamstrung artistically, with Mottola and other Columbia execs preventing her from fully diving into the rap and R&B that she loved. But “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” had proven Mariah’s instincts sharp. “Honey” was a new tweak on Mariah Carey’s sound and persona. On “Honey,” Mariah interacted with rap more effortlessly than she’d ever done in the past, and she also got hornier than she’d ever been on record. Those two things had a lot to do with each other.

It’s possible to think of “Honey” as one big act of revenge against Tommy Mottola. The song is more openly sexual than any of Mariah’s earlier singles, and Mottola definitely knew that she wasn’t singing about him. Mottola also didn’t like or understand rap, and after all those months of Bad Boy at #1, it was pretty clear that rap music had become the dominant strain of pop by 1997. In the “Honey” video, Mariah Carey escapes from a middle-aged Italian guy in a mansion. But if “Honey” stands as a personal declaration of independence on a few different levels, it also works as pop music. Even when she was making a musical fuck-you for her label-boss ex, Mariah Carey kept things slick.

Every Mariah Carey album is a balancing act between Mariah’s artistic ideas and the commercial expectations that were imposed on her from the very beginning of her career. On Butterfly, Mariah was still putting in tons of work with Walter Afanasieff, the old-school adult-contempo ballad specialist who was her main collaborator for years. But Carey also looked elsewhere for inspiration. Butterfly has contributions from rap producers like the Trackmasters and Cory Rooney. Carey co-wrote one song with Missy Elliott. On another, she twists tongues alongside Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone, from past Number Ones artists Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. “The Roof” — released as single in Europe, but not here — is built from a sample of Mobb Deep’s guttural stab-your-brain classic “Shook Ones, Part II,” and the video version features Mobb Deep themselves. Mariah Carey was stuck off the realness.

“Honey” started off as a collaboration between Mariah Carey and another ’90s New York rap genius. At the time, Q-Tip was still the leader of the great Queens group A Tribe Called Quest, and he was also the production mastermind behind most of Tribe’s records. (A Tribe Called Quest’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Award Tour,” peaked at #47. As a solo artist, Q-Tip later got as high as #26 with 1999’s “Vivrant Thing.”) When Mariah sought out Q-Tip, she already had the basic idea for a song that she’d started writing while on a solo vacation in Puerto Rico.

In her 2020 memoir, Mariah wrote that she took that trip to Puerto Rico for a very specific reason: She knew Derek Jeter would be there. Mariah had already enjoyed a chaste hookup with the Yankees star in New York, and she wanted to see him again. She engineered another meetup in Puerto Rico, and the two of them got together again. (In the book, Mariah insists that she didn’t bang Jeter until after her divorce was final. It’s crazy that these two galactically famous people managed to keep their dalliance secret for decades, but they pulled it off.) Mariah started writing the “Honey” lyrics while looking out at the ocean, and they’re pure innuendo. Until reading this Rich Juzwiak review, I don’t think I had any idea that “Honey” was a barely-disguised ode to jizz, but now I can’t unhear it: “It’s just like honey when your love comes over me.”

In her book, Mariah calls Q-Tip “one of the coolest and most creative guys out there,” but that doesn’t mean that he was an obvious collaborator for her. Q-Tip never really broke into R&B or pop, and he never seemed that interested in doing so, either. But the man’s pop instincts were there. Q-Tip programmed the drum track for “Honey,” and he also sampled the digital bassline from “The Body Rock,” the 1980 single from old-school Bronx hip-hop greats the Treacherous Three. (The Treacherous Three never had a Hot 100 hit, but leader Kool Moe Dee reached #62 with his 1988 single “Wild Wild West.” A song that samples that particular track will appear in this column eventually.)

Mariah Carey loved Q-Tip’s “Body Rock” sample, and she had another suggestion for an ’80s hip-hop staple to sample. At her request, Q-Tip took a piece of “Hey DJ,” the 1984 single from the World’s Famous Supreme Team. That song had been produced by Malcolm McLaren, the former Sex Pistols svengali who’d fallen in love with New York hip-hop in the early ’80s, and McLaren got a songwriting credit on “Honey.” (The DJ scratching on McLaren’s 1982 single “Buffalo Gals” appeared, in sampled form, on Hanson’s “MMMBop.” It’s fucking crazy that two different 1997 chart-toppers had samples from Malcolm McLaren’s rap experiments, but that’s what happened.) Q-Tip used the bassline and the sweet descending synth melody from “Hey DJ.” Mariah loved that song, but she had an ulterior motive for the sample. The hook from “Hey DJ” — “hey DJ, just play that song” — was Mariah’s secret coded message to Derek Jeter.

Once Mariah Carey and Q-Tip had the basics of the track down, Mariah took the track to Puff Daddy and Stevie J, who became just the third team of producers in Hot 100 history to score three consecutive #1 hits. (The first two were George Martin and the Bee Gees guys.) I don’t know how much of the final “Honey” product is Q-Tip and how much of it is Puffy and Stevie J, but the song definitely has that Bad Boy sheen all over it. Maybe Puffy would’ve sampled more obvious songs, but the bright midtempo gloss of “Honey” fits right in with the Puffy aesthetic. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Puffy says that Mariah wouldn’t record her “Honey” vocals with him in the studio: “A lot of people feel I’m overbearing, so I wasn’t allowed in the studio when she did her vocals. I’m trying to work on that.” Instead, Mariah recorded her vocals over and over, and Puffy says that she gave him 100 tracks. (I can’t tell if he’s exaggerating. I can almost never tell if Puff Daddy is exaggerating.)

In any case, Mariah Carey slid right into the Bad Boy takeover without any cognitive dissonance. In the grand arc of her extremely long hitmaking career, “Honey” marks a slight departure. Where previous Mariah singles had been built around showcasing her vocal firepower, “Honey” is more about that sampled groove. Mariah lets her voice get breathy and pillowy, and she floats right over that track. Mariah still pulls out the dazzling melismatic runs, but those runs rarely feel like leads. Instead, she become a texture within the track. The sampled piano line might be more memorable than any of Mariah’s own melodies. That’s not a problem. “Honey” has an unshowy smoothness that fits Mariah’s whole style beautifully.

“Honey” might be full of coded messages to Tommy Mottola and Derek Jeter, but it doesn’t sound like an agenda at work. Instead, the track plays out as a long, contented sigh. The chorus comes back again and again, and Mariah’s lead vocal twirls in and out of the hook. Puffy murmurs his Puffy ad-libs, and Mase, jumping in on backup vocals, gets a lot of mileage out of rhyming “Mariah” with “on fire.” The song isn’t a monumental work of pop savvy like some other Mariah Carey singles, but I’m never sorry to hear it. It breathes.

The “Honey” video, directed by Bad Boy favorite Paul Hunter, cost two million dollars, and it goes for full blockbuster sweep. During the extended comedy-sketch intro, we see Mariah Carey as “Agent M,” a beautiful and dangerous spy imprisoned in a Puerto Rican mansion. Our fake Tommy Mottola is Frank Sivero, Frankie Carbone from Goodfellas, and Mariah tells him that she doesn’t understand his hair. Then she escapes from his two bumbling underlings, played by Eddie Griffin and the Jerky Boys’ Johnny Brennan. (Mariah in her book: “I lived for the Jerky Boys; they were so silly.” Shout out to anyone willing to go to bat for the damn Jerky Boys in this decade.) Mariah then jumps from a balcony into a swimming pool, does a whole striptease routine, and leads her captors in a jet ski chase before meeting a cute boy on a deserted island. She’s made up to look like a Russ Meyer heroine or a Bond girl, and she looks hot as hell.

The “Honey” video plays out a lot like Paul Hunter’s video for Biggie’s “Hypnotize,” right down to the boat chases. Hunter may have been the Salieri to Hype Williams’ Mozart, but he could stage a fun boat chase. Hunter also directed a video for the Bad Boy remix of “Honey,” which has verses from the Lox and Mase. That remix was supposed to have Biggie, too, and Mariah talked to him on the phone about it before he died. (Before they could discuss collaborating, Biggie had to clarify that he was just playing around when he called Mariah “kinda scary” on his track “Dreams.”) Biggie died before he could record his verse, though, so Mariah had to make do with the rest of the Bad Boy roster. In the video for the remix, the Bad Boy crew rescues Mariah via helicopter, and Mase’s charm is at its full insane wattage.

There were other “Honey” remixes, too. Mariah’s “Always Be My Baby” collaborator Jermaine Dupri put together a So So Def mix of the track, sampling the Jackson 5’s “It’s Great To Be Here” and adding his own rap verse. Mariah’s buddy Da Brat jumped on that remix, too, but the So So Def remix didn’t get the full blockbuster-video treatment.

“Honey” debuted at #1, becoming the third Mariah Carey single to achieve that distinction. When “Honey” hit #1, Mariah reached a whole new chart milestone. Before “Honey,” Mariah had 11 different chart-toppers, which put her in a three-way tie with Madonna and Whitney Houston. “Honey” was Mariah’s 12th, which made her the most dominant female solo star of all time; the achievement put her even with the Supremes. At that point, only two artists had more #1 hits: The Beatles and Michael Jackson. (Elvis Presley also had more, but many of those were in the pre-Hot 100 era.) Mariah Carey wasn’t done yet, either. We’ll see her in this column again.

The success of “Honey” marks the end of that long, dominant Bad Boy summer, which couldn’t keep going forever. Bad Boy made plenty more hits, but the tides were starting to turn. Puffy had opted not to sign DMX, the feverishly intense Yonkers rapper who was already making a name for himself in New York. DMX instead signed to Def Jam, and the guttural rawness of his massive 1998 debut album It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot felt like a direct rebuke to Puffy’s style, even though plenty of Bad Boy artists, Mase included, appeared on the record. Soon enough, the Lox launched an ultimately successful grassroots campaign to get themselves dropped from Bad Boy so that they could sign with DMX’s Ruff Ryders crew instead. (DMX’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” peaked at #16 after his death last year. When it was new, “Ruff Ryders Anthem” only got to #93.)

Shortly after that DMX album arrived, Puff Daddy tried to push his whole theatrical-slickness thing harder than it should’ve ever gone. Puff’s song “Come With Me,” recorded for the godawful Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie, featured Jimmy Page and tried to make a self-aggrandizing fire-and-brimstone rap anthem out of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” “Come With Me” became an instant punchline. I almost respect the song for having the courage to be that unapologetically, unambiguously bad. “Come With Me” reached #4, but I don’t remember anyone liking that song. I remember a whole lot of “come with these nuts” jokes that summer. Puffy had lost his mysterious magic touch. (“Come With Me” is a 2.)

Bad Boy never had another dominant stretch like what happened in 1997, but Puff Daddy wasn’t done. His success might’ve taken a dip, but he remained a chart fixture for years after that one all-conquering summer. We’ll see Puff Daddy in this column again under a couple of different names.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: I’m frankly pretty surprised that “Honey” hasn’t ever been sampled prominently or shown up on very many soundtracks, so this is going to be a pretty unsatisfying Bonus Beat. Here’s Mariah and shiny-suit Mase doing their best to recreate the “Honey” video on Top Of The Pops:

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