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Mariah Carey's 'Caution' Turns 5
Revisiting Mariah's latest studio album.
As contemporary musicians graduate to legacy acts and catalog artists, both the expectations and the returns on their new works change. Charts and radio don’t embrace them as they once did, and the public that grew up with them don’t devote their time or dollars the way they used to. However, the hardcore fans that remain are unyielding. Not only are they dedicated supporters and consumers, they yearn for the days of annual releases and big budget productions, and very vocally lament it when these things don’t come to fruition.
This leaves the artists with a choice: Do they rest on their laurels, tour their catalog, and acknowledge anniversaries? Or, do they continue to craft and promote new music, all while trying to reach audiences beyond their dedicated core?
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In some ways, Mariah Carey has become the exception to this rule. For the last few years at 12:00 am on November 1, it’s time. The words themselves are synonymous with her to the point that there’s even an official shirt with the phrase directly above a defrosting Mariah (playing into another meme about her annual takeover). Christmas season takes hold and Mariah’s powers return, as the internet likes to joke. Her seminal 1994 classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You” ascends to the summit of the charts and Mariah becomes ubiquitous: partnerships, concerts, new products, and more. Built-in, and guaranteed. She could choose to never release another non-holiday anything and simply agree to a few of the many offers she receives every holiday season rake in dough every November 1-December 25.
As that annual momentum began building in 2018 (which was not as feverish nor early onset as it is these days), she released her fifteenth studio album, Caution. The 10-song set was her shortest in over a decade, yet managed to instantly become her best-reviewed album since her 1990 debut. 28 years later.
Despite retrospectively expressing a desire to have dedicated more time to creating Caution, Mariah unflinchingly delivered a strong body of work that highlighted her best in a time period where holiday performances and mishaps overshadowed the nucleus of what’s at the nucleus of Mariah Carey: the music.
Let’s get the obvious part out of the way in a non-diminishing fashion: 2018 Mariah Carey does not sound like 1990 Mariah Carey. Or 1997 Mariah Carey. Or even 2005 Mariah Carey. 28 years of hard singing, and simple time (despite her non-acknowledgement of time aside from Christmastime), have changed Mariah Carey’s voice. Some like to dance around it. Some like to deny it. It’s not an indictment, a diminishment, or a criticism. But it’s an important truth.
It’s also important to accept that you’re not getting vocal gymnastics at the level of “Hero” or even “We Belong Together.” It does not mean that Mariah Carey can't sing anymore. It simply means that the instrument requires a different type of finesse to highlight its nuances. And on Caution, she maneuvers in such a way that hits all the right notes.
Remember, Mariah Carey was never a one-trick pony who simply got out there and sang her face off. That’s, say, Jennifer Hudson. Mariah is a craftswoman involved in every step of the process. She’s the writer, producer, arranger, and background vocalist on nearly every song in her extensive catalog. And while she’s not cold-hard belting to the levels of o’ the day, she’s not scrimping on the notes, either.
Take the album’s second single, “With You.” It’s a ballad that couples a hard beat with what would otherwise be a straight-up, sparsely-arranged ballad. It’s just a piano, some well-masked string synths, and the aforementioned bare boom-bap beat courtesy of DJ Mustard (who’s “Mustard on the beat hoe,” tag plays as the minimal beat drops, the definition of unnecessary).
The song culminates in a rush of Mariahs: left right up and down: singing the melody straight, embellishing in trademark-adjacent vocal runs, and hitting her whistle register- all at the same time. She handles the majority of the background vocals across Caution on her own, too. Only one track contains background vocals from anyone else. That’s no short order on a Mariah record. Mariah remains one of the foremost talents in stacking and layering vocals. There are vocals on Mariah tracks that aren’t even audible unless an acapella or filtered vocal track surfaces.
Caution opens with the sweet, yet brash buzz single “GTFO.” It’s audacious to open a record with “how ‘bout you get the fuck out,” but Mariah makes it feel unquestionably right. She chastises a lover for taking her love for granted, bulldozing her heart and recalls how she was blinded by “false love.” It’s a not-so-thinly veiled kiss-off to her ex-fiance James Packer, who was apparently using her for clout. It’s not the first time she’s made a serious topic sweeter than candy (see, “Dreamlover”).
“GTFO” is built around a sample of something unexpected: an EDM record. Porter Robinson’s “Goodbye To A World” is the source of the synths that repeat throughout the song. It seems like a strange choice on paper, yet on record it feels unquestionably at home with contemporary R&B & pop sounds (slide it in a playlist alongside SZA, Ariana Grande, Summer Walker, and and Ella Mai). It’s a testament to how intertwined musical genres are, even in unexpected places.
Synth-driven keyboards are a major player throughout Caution. In a similar fashion to “GTFO,” “The Distance” featuring Ty Dolla $ign also uses them, but with an organ-like setting. That adjacent production may be thanks in part to another major EDM player. Skrillex notches a co-producer credit on the track, another surprising Mariah collaboration that yields stellar results. “Said we couldn’t go the distance,” she sings, defying critics who deem her relationship (perhaps her then-current boyfriend, dancer/choreographer Bryan Tanaka) unsustainable.
The title track uses them too. Here the synths tip-toe around the hard beat with a slightly Carribean feel. On “Caution” she encourages intimacy, but reveals her fragility. There are no shortage of good hooks and melodies across the album, but the title track hits different. “Proceed with caution, don’t be dishonest,” she coos. It’s a wrestling match between feelings of attraction and the wounds of past relationships.
On Timbaland’s contribution “8th Grade,” the keyboard warbles like thick, soapy bubbles popping in front of a lavender sky at sunset. It epitomizes effervescence as Mariah daydreams about a middle school crush. Melancholic memories of attraction and fear of the world coming crashing down if the feelings aren’t mutual.
3/4 of the way through “8th Grade,” Mariah hits a whistle note run amongst a cacophony of other whistles that instantly recall the sprawling Minnie Ripperton-inspired “Bliss” off 1999’s Rainbow. It’s another subtle, yet stellar self-referential moment from someone who has a catalog long enough to do so without even tipping off the casual listeners. She and Timbaland trade lines in a refreshing, free-flowing fashion for the rest of the track.
It’s not the only spot she goes on a welcomed tangent. A similar thing happens on “Giving My Life,” a collaboration with Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange. Mariah reminisces on being 17, feeling herself like Norma Jean (her idol, Marilyn Monroe), and living evergreen like Barbra Streisand sings in ‘A Star Is Born.’ The song eventually flows into a freestyle between Mariah and Hynes’ guitar, but not before the legendary Slick Rick slides through for a brief but memorable guest verse, marking their first musical union. The trio even brought the song to life just once at Radio City Music Hall during the Caution World Tour in 2019.
Mariah presents herself as adoring and very much in attraction. It comes across as effortlessly as she did in the 90’s across cuts like the Gunna-assisted “Stay Long Love You” and the effectively disjointed “One Mo’ Gen.” It’s also worth noting that this far into the game, she can still converge with a contemporary act such as Gunna and not sound even slightly out of step or on a trend-chasing mission. His pre-chorus and verse feel as fresh as ODB’s did in 1995 on “Fantasy.”
The biggest misstep of the project was the handling of the album’s third single “A No No.” The record is instantly familiar, constructed on a sample of Lil’ Kim’s classic “Crush On You.” Though the samples don’t include any of Kim’s vocals, vocal samples from both Lil’ Cease and The Notorious B.I.G. recur throughout the track. Over the now-vintage sample, Mariah issues searing decline after dismissal. She name-checks her lawyer, while decrying snakes in the grass that have infiltrated her life. The song is rumored to at least in-part be about her ex-manager Stella Bulochnikov (who, interestingly, seems to have adopted Mariah’s “good side” in all her photos. I’m not linking to her Instagram, but it’s easy enough to take a peek if you’re so inclined). It’s a killer Mariah record, and certainly landed well, currently standing as the most-streamed cut from Caution.
From the lead-up to the release, the song was one of the highest anticipated parts of Caution. In the wake of the release, there was immediate conversation across social media expressing desire for a remix that at a minimum, featured Lil’ Kim. Shortly thereafter, Cardi B’s name was thrown in too. Jermaine Dupri, who produced “A No No,” fanned the flames on Twitter and inferred that both Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott were in communication with him regarding a remix.
And then… nothing happened, although it’s said that Lil’ Kim did lay down a verse. Fans waited with baited breath as two other remixes and videos were released (including one with a rapper named Shawni who hasn’t been seen or heard from since, and hadn’t been heard of prior), and the one that could have actually elevated the record simply went up like smoke. Ultimately it’s said that label politics prevented the true remix from happening and a tremendous opportunity was squandered to the detriment of no one but Mariah.
Most versions of Caution culminate in something of a Mariah tradition. On numerous Mariah albums, one ballad stands out from the rest as a gut-wrenching, open-chested diary entry. These include “Vanishing,” “Looking In,” “Outside,” “Petals,” and “Camouflage.” Caution’s addition, “Portrait” joins these ranks with ease. “Where do I go from here? How do I disappear?” Mariah reflects in the song’s opening lines. She pours out her trauma, pain, and insecurity in this rhythmless ballad that paints a very different Mariah than the over-the-top diva sitting in a golden tower, as she’s often depicted in the media. It serves as a reminder that she hasn’t fully disconnected from her rotted roots, poisoned with instability and chaos. She does some real good singing here, and again, while it isn’t at the level of say, 1997’s “Outside,” it’s Mariah giving her all today, and shouldn’t that be good enough?
As is tradition in music, Japan gets a bonus cut, “Runway,” which opens with an acapella sample of the climax from 1997’s seminal “Butterfly.” It’s one of Mariah’s most inspirational non-gospel cuts in years. “Let love be your runway,” she urges on the hook. Sure, Mariah has a penchant for shade, but when push comes to shove, love leads. She even doubles the sample at song’s end, completing the connection as this butterfly continues to soar. “If you want to touch the sky and fly you’ve got to have no fear,” she presses. It pairs stunningly with the standard album’s closer, and serves as a message to carry forth as, half a decade later, the wait for her next volume of work continues.