‘Caution’– Mariah Carey’s New Record is an Unexpected Masterpiece
Almost five years after the mild success that was Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, the Queen of R&B has released her executively self-produced fifteenth studio album Caution and it is everything her fans could have hoped for and more.
Featuring collaborations with Timbaland, Blood Orange and Skrillex, the record is easily her most impressive venture of the century and speaks with the cool ease of an artist who has truly done it all and has nothing left to prove. As with almost all of her material, Carey has lead writing credits on every track, demonstrating her enduring songwriting talent rivalled only by her unparalleled vocal range, which she only makes use of, however, when the situation calls for it, drifting effortlessly between sultry croons and her signature melismatic belting. Caution is an album that uses Mariah’s voice to its advantage but doesn’t rely on it to carry the listener through. At a modest ten tracks, the runtime sits at just under forty minutes, marking a return to the style of her earliest albums which featured notably fewer songs, and notably fewer duds.
The album opens with the first promotional single released over two months before the LP, ‘GTFO.’ The track serves as a more lyrically frivolous introduction to what is to come but has a note of finality as she bids farewell to a lover, signalling that this is going to be a story of reincarnation for Mariah, and for us. Melodically, it pretty much sets the tone for the next nine songs – relaxed and inviting, but subtly incandescent. Written and produced with, among others, Nineteen85, producer of Drake’s ‘One Dance’ and ‘Hotline Bling,’ influences can be felt on this track in its somewhat ethereal feel. There is where the similarities end as this track is undoubtedly signature Mariah. Moving into the main body of the album, track two 'With You' is the first and, currently, only single so far. With its catchy, warm melody it’s easy to see why this song was chosen for commercial release. Underneath what seems to be a simple tune, however, is a series of expertly chosen piano chords that kept listeners revisiting this song in the lead up to the main release. DJ Mustard brings his west coast magic that can make any song a hit and infuses a timeless beat into this classic sounding track.
After the title track, a 90s style foray that could have passed for a Babyface produced album opener, comes the third promotional single, ‘A No No.’ An instant hit among fans, it lyrically harks back to the irreverent rejection of GTFO, but, being more upbeat, this is the ambitious Mariah that characterised a lot of her more recognisable material last decade. A collaboration with Def Jam’s Shea Taylor, 'A No No' is cheeky, fun and a little risky but easily a highlight. The second promotional single, ‘The Distance,’ marks the approaching midpoint of the record. Featuring production from Skrillex, though you wouldn’t know it, this is the first song to feature a vocal guest, Ty Dolla $ign, who provides a smooth verse and some backing vocals toward the end, complementing the mix without overshadowing the star for a moment.
As the B side begins, we hear the opening tones of arguably the best track on the album, ‘Giving Me Life,’ another collaboration, this time with Blood Orange and Slick Rick, though, as before, this really is all Mariah. More than any other single track, this extended cut encapsulates the album’s soft flow, its understatement, its tonal optimism and its quiet confidence. The song closes out with a short instrumental which completely changes the emotional tone and takes the listener to an even calmer place, if that’s possible, before being brought straight back in with ‘One Mo’ Gen,’ amping up the sensuality and the stakes simultaneously, keeping us hooked to the point where one might, understandably, expect the record to taper off. The crisp clicks and snares recall the first half of the album and remind us where we began, as we transition into another high point, the Timbaland produced ‘8th Grade,’ whose artistic maturity compared with his most famous works make the reasons for this collaboration quickly apparent. Here, we are immersed into the narrative more than any other song, as Mariah’s appeals for her lover to be present serve concomitantly as an entreaty for the listener to remain on board as we move over the thirty-minute mark.
‘Stay Long Love You’ proves that no matter what is going on, including Gunna’s background vocals, high-pitched flute effects and a noticeably faster beat, Mariah will never lose her sangfroid, as she shows her attitude one last time before moving into what is easily the most beautiful ballad Mariah has done in years, ‘Portrait.’ This song is on par with early masterpieces such as ‘Can’t Let Go’ and ‘Vanishing’. Somewhere between a torch song and a swan song, Carey chooses to close us out with something vastly different than what has come before, and yet it doesn’t feel shoehorned or anticlimactic. Instead, the song is so hauntingly beautiful that you can’t imagine any other finish to this work than the sombre strings that abate just a moment after Mariah’s last note. What we’re left with is a feeling of tranquillity, of each part working in harmony to complement but not overshadow the others in a way that seems to personify Mariah; the first thing you want to do is start the album all over again.
That feeling is Mariah’s best album in two decades, Caution.
[Photo Credits: SKS2K6, CC BY-SA 3.0.]