The Number Ones

June 4, 2005

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”

Stayed at #1:

14 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 cooked. This was the popular perception, to the point that there even was a popular perception. Mariah had dominated the pop charts for all of the ’90s, and she’d quietly reinvented herself a few times over the course of the decade. In the first few years of the new century, though, Mariah had flamed out in a very visible way. Back-to-back albums had flopped resoundingly. I don’t remember Mariah’s downfall being especially shocking. Mariah was a pop singer, and pop singers’ careers have a tendency to end. But when Mariah came back, that was notable.

Mariah Carey spent a few years wandering around in the dark, going through bitter splits with two different record labels. Virgin, the second of those labels, had to pay tens of millions to get Mariah to leave. But then, all of a sudden, Mariah was back. Mariah Carey didn’t just return after those wilderness years. She stormed back in with one of her all-time biggest hits. A full decade and a half after she scored her first #1 hit, Mariah spent virtually the entire summer of 2005 on top of the Hot 100. Virgin Records learned a costly lesson: You should never count Mariah Carey out. Case in point: Through a convoluted journey that we’ll eventually cover in this column, Mariah Carey has the #1 song in America right now.

The Mariah Carey comeback was a full-on historic phenomenon, and it almost seemed to happen out of nowhere. But Mariah didn’t return with a noisy, show-offy statement smash. Instead, she got there with “We Belong Together,” a lovelorn sigh of a ballad that never demanded attention. Mariah had adjusted her style to meet changing times, but her updates were all subtle, canny tweaks. As a song, the Mariah Carey comeback smash “We Belong Together” is pretty good. As an example of an established pop star meeting the moment, it’s a masterpiece.

In February of 2000, the overblown ballad “Thank God I Found You” became Mariah Carey’s 15th Hot 100 chart-topper. If she’d never ascended to #1 again, Mariah would’ve still had an absolutely insane hitmaking run. For a good five years, “Thank God I Found You” really looked like it would be her last dominant hit. After Mariah finished the album cycle for 1999’s Rainbow, she left Columbia Records, the label run by her ex-husband Tommy Mottola. She signed a five-year deal with Virgin Records for a reported $100 million. And then: Glitter.

Mariah Carey had wanted to make a movie for a long time, and Tommy Mottola had always dissuaded her. She got her chance when she got out of her Columbia contract, but the production of her cinematic debut was chaotic and full of compromise, and the resulting movie was an all-time historic bomb, the kind of thing that seems like it was made with the specific intent of winning Razzies. The film’s release was even more messed-up than its production, and the image of Mariah doing a strip-tease for a stunned Carson Daly on Total Request Live became more notorious than anything in the movie itself. Months before the film’s release, Mariah was hospitalized for what her handlers called “a physical and emotional breakdown.”

Mariah’s fall was dramatic, but there was context behind it. For one thing, Tommy Mottola was, by most accounts, actively working to sabotage Mariah’s Glitter era. “Loverboy,” the first single from Mariah’s Glitter soundtrack, had to be reworked at the last minute when Mottola grabbed the Yellow Magic Orchestra sample that Mariah had planned to use for the original version of Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real.” (“Loverboy” still peaked at #2. It’s a 4.) Also, this was the peak Us Weekly era, when the tabloid press was making it very, very hard for celebrities to be vulnerable weirdos in public. When Mariah looked like she was slipping, the sharks circled.

After Glitter tanked, Virgin spent tens of millions to buy Mariah Carey out of her contract. Mariah then moved on to Island, and 2002’s Charmbracelet, the first album that Mariah recorded for her new label, seemed to barely exist. The Glitter soundtrack and Charmbracelet both went platinum, so Mariah still had her fans, but she barely even seemed to be in conversation with the pop mainstream anymore. The only charting single from Charmbracelet was the self-serious ballad “Through The Rain,” which peaked at #81. During that stretch, Mariah’s only big hit wasn’t really her own. In 2003, Mariah sang the hook on Busta Rhymes and his Flipmode Squad’s “I Know What You Want,” and that song reached #3. (It’s a 7.)

After Charmbracelet came and went, Island Records could’ve pulled the plug on the whole Mariah Carey experiment. Instead, the label doubled down on her. Mariah went into her 2005 album The Emancipation Of Mimi with a different attitude. Despite the title, Emancipation isn’t really a record about overcoming struggle. Instead, it’s an album full of laid-back, breezy party songs. Mariah recorded with tons of people whose work has appeared in this column: Kanye West, Twista, Nelly, the Neptunes, Snoop Dogg. Mariah had messed around with dance and rap for years, but she’d always balanced those tracks out with swollen middle-of-the-road ballads. On Emancipation, she got rid of the old-timey ballads completely, replacing them with midtempo lopes that were more in line with the pop moment.

While Mariah Carey was working on The Emancipation Of Mimi, LA Reid took over as head of Island Records. Reid was an R&B guy who understood Mariah’s appeal, and he encouraged her to keep going in that direction. When Reid heard what Mariah had been doing, he suggested that she record some more songs with her “Always Be My Baby” collaborator Jermaine Dupri. Presumably, that suggestion wasn’t driven by musical chemistry alone. Dupri had been one of the main creative forces on Usher’s Confessions, the biggest album of 2004, and he’d co-written and co-produced three of that LP’s four #1 hits. Soon, alongside Mariah, Dupri made another blockbuster.

Mariah Carey flew down to Atlanta for a couple of sessions with Jermaine Dupri. In the first of those sessions, they wrote and recorded two songs, and both became singles. In the second session, Mariah and Dupri made what would become the first two singles from The Emancipation Of Mimi. First, they recorded “It’s Like That,” a sleek and winding club track with party-up exhortations from Dupri and from Fatman Scoop. “It’s Like That” was the no-more-drama signal. It was catchy and immediate without being too thirsty, and it found Mariah sounding joyous and unbothered. The song came out in January 2005, and it peaked at #16.

But the real hit from The Emancipation Of Mimi was the second single from that second Mariah/Dupri session. Mariah and Dupri co-wrote the ballad “We Belong Together” with Mariah’s regular collaborator Manuel Seal and with Johntá Austin, an Atlanta native who’d hosted a kids’ news show on TBS when he was eight years old and who really wanted to become a singer. In the late ’90s, a teenage Austin co-wrote songs for artists like Coolio, SWV, and Tyrese. Austin stuck around long enough that he eventually did launch a singing career, though none of his songs ever charted. (As a guest, Austin got to #9 by singing on Bow Wow’s 2006 single “Shortie Like Mine.” It’s a 5.)

“We Belong Together” has a storyline that we’ve heard a million times. Mariah Carey’s narrator has broken up with someone, and she regrets it deeply. She longs to be back together with this person, and she can’t believe how badly she messed everything up: “Guess I didn’t know you, guess I didn’t know me.” She tries to move on, but everything keeps reminding her of what she’s lost. She pleads to get back together, but as with so many of these songs, we don’t know whether she’s really saying this stuff or whether we’re just hearing her thoughts. Either way, Mariah doesn’t seem to believe that there’s a reunion on her future. She sounds like she’s already lost, like she knows her plea will go nowhere.

Musically, “We Belong Together” also sounds familiar. It’s pure mid-’00s R&B comfort food. Mariah co-produced the track with Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal, and they lean hard on the tropes of the moment: The soft and tinkly piano intro, the flourishes of acoustic guitar, the simple drum-machine beat. As on Usher’s Confessions, Jermaine Dupri uses the spaced-out 808 programming of Atlanta rap — the synthetic handclaps, the lawn-sprinkler hi-hat hisses — and combines them with the melodic yearning of R&B. The whole thing sounds familiar, but there’s sophistication in that track, too. Some of the sophistication is in the familiarity.

On the second verse of “We Belong Together,” Mariah sings about encountering breakup songs whenever she turns on the radio. In the process, she sings lyrics from a couple of throwback ’80s breakup jams. First: “Bobby Womack’s on the radio/ Singing to me, ‘If you think you’re lonely now.'” That’s a direct reference to soul great Bobby Womack’s 1981 single “If You’re Lonely Now,” a #3 R&B hit that didn’t cross over to the Hot 100. (Bobby Womack’s highest-charting single is 1974’s “Lookin’ For A Love,” a cover of a song that he first recorded in 1962 with his group the Valentinos. “Lookin’ For A Love” peaked at #10; it’s an 8.)

Mariah sings that “If You’re Lonely Now” is “too deep,” so she switches the station, only to be confronted by another ’80s R&B heart-ripper. This time, it’s “Two Occasions,” the 1988 hit from Babyface and LA Reid’s old band the Deele. (“Two Occasions” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.) It’s a fleeting moment, Mariah Carey singing along with these two breakup songs. The songs themselves are specific, but the feeling is universal — that thing where you’re sad and the universe seems to intentionally remind you, again and again, that you’re sad. Because of those two lines, the writers of “If You’re Lonely Now” and “Two Occasions” — Bobby Womack, Patrick Moten, Sandra Sully, Babyface, Darnell “Dee” Bristol — got songwriting credits on “We Belong Together.” I wonder if Mariah threw that “Two Occasions” line in there as a kind of salute to her new label boss LA Reid.

But the real sharp thing about “We Belong Together” is the way that Mariah Carey sings it. The song has none of the syrupy bombast of her ’90s ballads, and she rarely goes heavy on the melisma that she helped introduce to the pop charts in the first place. Instead, Mariah skates over those 808s like a rapper. Where she might’ve once stretched out a single syllable to 14 different notes, she uses a single note to cram in a whole lot of syllables. Younger R&B stars like Usher and Beyoncé had mastered that hybrid sing-rap style, but that style hadn’t existed when Mariah arrived. On “We Belong Together,” she makes it sound easy.

There’s no big key change on “We Belong Together,” and the beat remains static throughout. But Mariah makes the song dramatic by cranking up the fire in her delivery. She sings her own backups, and those backups are calm and placid throughout the track. By the end, though, her lead vocal has become fiery and desperate, and you can hear the contrast between the softly sighing backups and the intensity of that lead: “When you left, I lost a part of me! It’s still so hard to be-lieve! Come back, baby, please!” Mariah recorded the whole track in a single overnight session before flying back to New York in the morning. Years later, she told Andy Cohen that she sang so hard on the outro because LA Reid was on his way to the studio and she was urgently trying to finish the track before he got there.

Mariah Carey filmed the “We Belong Together” video with director Brett Ratner, who’d already made her videos for “Heartbreaker” and “Thank God I Found You” and who was in between After The Sunset and X-Men: The Last Stand. Ratner had also done Mariah’s “It’s Like That” clip, and the “We Belong Together” video finishes the story introduced in “It’s Like That” — one of the few times that we got a payoff to one of those videos that ends in a “to be continued…” teaser.

As the “We Belong Together” clip opens, Mariah Carey is about to marry Eric Roberts, the skeezy ’80s character actor who had a weirdly prolific run as a villain in ’00s music videos. As a rich older white guy who’s about to marry Mariah Carey, Roberts is clearly supposed to remind us of Tommy Mottola. Making that connection all the more explicit, Mariah’s wedding dress in the “We Belong Together” clip is the one that she wore when she actually married Mottola 12 years earlier.

Instead of marrying Eric Roberts, though, Mariah escapes with brooding Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, who shows up to the wedding in a black suit and sneakers. At the time, Miller was pretty much unknown; Prison Break actually had its series premiere — also directed by Brett Ratner — while “We Belong Together” was sitting at #1. As the video ends, Mariah and Miller drive off together, with Mariah’s long-ass train dragging behind their fancy just-married convertible.

Naturally, “We Belong Together” also got a rap remix. Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” collaborator DJ Clue used the pianos from the original track on a harder beat, and Mariah re-recorded her vocals, switching the lyrics up slightly. DJ Clue does his headache-inducing echo-drenched ad-libs all over the remix, while the Lox’s Jadakiss and Styles P give a couple of their back-and-forth tag-team verses. (The Lox’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “Money, Power & Respect,” peaked at #17. Jadakiss and Styles also rapped on Jennifer Lopez’s #3 hit “Jenny From The Block” in 2003. Mariah Carey doesn’t know her, but that song is a 7.)

Mariah Carey released “We Belong Together” as a single in March of 2005, and her album The Emancipation Of Mimi followed a month later. The single built slowly, but it rose to #1 in June. Other than a quick one-week break for a song that’ll appear in this column soon, “We Belong Together” held the #1 spot until mid-September. “We Belong Together” isn’t a hugely resonant song for me personally, but the single’s long stretch at #1 was an important time in my life. While “We Belong Together” was sitting atop the charts, I moved to New York and started pulling down $400 a week writing a music blog for the Village Voice website. It was a freelance gig, but I treated it like it was a full-time job, and it eventually became one. That means that I started making my living as a music critic when “We Belong Together” was the #1 song in America. As I saw it, part of my mission as a critic was to pay attention to songs like “We Belong Together,” to take them seriously.

In terms of pure statistics, “We Belong Together” was a leviathan. Thanks to the Boyz II Men collab “One Sweet Day,” Mariah Carey already held the record for the longest-reigning #1 hit in history, but “We Belong Together” threatened that record. Mariah Carey even blocked herself from the #1 spot. In July, Mariah followed “We Belong Together” with “Shake It Off,” another song that she recorded with Jermaine Dupri. “Shake It Off” ultimately peaked at #2 behind “We Belong Together.” (It’s a 6.)

“We Belong Together” rose to #1 during the era when Billboard was factoring in iTunes single sales, but the song kept the top spot for so long because radio kept it in heavy, heavy rotation. The song never seemed to dominate the conversation the way other unstoppable hits had done, possibly because it was so unassuming. But “We Belong Together” was an absolute juggernaut at radio. It stayed at #1 on the Billboard airplay chart for longer than any song since No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” At the end of the ’00s, Billboard named “We Belong Together” the #1 song of the decade. By the time “We Belong Together” finally fell out of the #1 spot, The Emancipation Of Mimi was triple platinum. Mariah Carey’s comeback wasn’t done yet, either. She’ll return to this column soon.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Saint Pepsi using Mariah Carey’s vocals on a 2013 disco-house remix of “We Belong Together”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith sampling Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” vocals on “Tin,” a 2017 track released under Snaith’s dance-music alter-ego Daphni:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late Juice WRLD’s unreleased leak “My Gang (Together),” which is built from a “We Belong Together” sample:

(Juice WRLD’s two highest-charting singles, 2018’s “Lucid Dreams” and 2020’s posthumous Marshmello collab “Come & Go,” both peaked at #2. “Lucid Dreams” is a 7, and “Come & Go” is a 6.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Future legend Rihanna’s debut single, the Diwali Riddim-flipping dancehall-pop glide “Pon De Replay,” peaked at #2 behind “We Belong Together.” It’s a 9.

THE 10S: The Killers’ ecstatically jealous fireworks-exploding synth-rock standard “Mr. Brightside” — another song where a smoothly malevolent Eric Roberts stars in the video — peaked at #10 behind “We Belong Together.” Open up my eager eyes: It’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. You need it, need it back in your life, baby. Buy it here.

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