Mariah Carey Reminds Us Why We Love Her on ‘Caution’

R&B as we know it might have taken a decidedly different trajectory if it weren’t for a few voices along the way that stood out so sharply as to steer musical history. Mariah Carey is a figure without whose presence myriad soul singers of today would simply cease to exist. She stunned the world with her five-octave range, her charisma, and her contemporary edge, and has consistently triumphed for the span of nearly three decades, scoring more number one singles than any artist other than the Beatles. Having already sufficiently impressed the world, her music in recent years has been slightly less over the top in its dramatic excesses. Still, it would be an outrageous injustice to equate this with any lapse in quality or passion. “Caution,” Carey’s fifteenth album, and her first in four years, finds her up to her usual, and in top form.

“GTFO” starts things off with plenty attitude, You could hardly fit an angrier song to a chirpier melody.  Of course, this is is contemporary R&B, a genre in which the most vulgar subject matter presented as if romantic poetry scarcely makes one bat an eye, so it’s unclear how much of this song is intended to be humorous, but at any rate, it’s a cheeky start to the album. The DJ Mustard-produced “With You” sets a sonic template that nods to the early/mid ‘90s, like much of Carey’s music always has. The lyrics too refer to music from earlier eras, with Carey alluding to her 1997 single “Breakdown,” featuring Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and singing about “playing ‘Confessions,’” Usher’s 2004 album. For a singer known for her flashy octave-shifting theatrics, Carey is considerably modest on this song, apart from some of her usual showy adlibs toward the end. At any rate, she sounds flawless, and the song has a particularly catchy chorus.

“Proceed With Caution” picks up where “GTFO” left off, with Carey now taking a slightly softer tone than her previous bluntness, singing, “And I try to let you go but you resist and pull me back / And I try to be alone but you persist, I’ve met my match.” Her instantly infectious, clipped, cascading melody during the chorus is what makes the song. A pattern starts to emerge by the next track, “A No No,” on which Carey again takes the offensive, declaring “Off with your head” a couple lines into the song. The titular line is even more sing-songey than that of the opening track, and the threats keep coming, with lines like, “Get me Ed Shapiro on the phone,” a reference to Carey’s lawyer. This is a largely tongue-in-cheek record that’s acerbic in  the girliest way possible. There’s a sample of Notorious B.I.G.’s bit from Lil Kim’s 1996 hit “Crush On You,” with his mumbled laid-back pronouncements riding perfectly over the vaguely throwback beat.

“The Distance” is a more positive tune about a couple seeming to make it in spite of their peers’ skepticism. There’s some eighties flavor to this cut, with chunky snares, a constant synth wash, and tuned percussion touches. Ty Dolla $ign makes a brief appearance at the end, doing his usual thing, and adding some character to the song. By the time he shows up, Carey has already somewhat set the stage for him, singing partly in rapid, percussive snippets much like his usual fare. “Giving Me Life” features Carey singing in the high and low registers simultaneously, with the levels balanced so slickly that the voices seem to blend into one rich, homogenous tone. Midway through, comes the unmistakable voice of none other than the legendary Slick Rick. It’s a scant appearance, merely a few bars long, but the sound of Rick’s quirky, quasi-English drawl is so wonderfully random in 2018 that it makes the number quite magical. Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes is also featured on the track, adding ambiance and blaring guitars that make for a more colorful production than most the others on the album.

“One Mo’ Gen” adds trap hi hats to the ‘80s-informed, smooth R&B sheen that’s usually detectable at the core of a Mariah Carey track, as well as the general hip-hop / R&B hybrid style that distinctly took form in the ‘90s, and has served as the template for virtually every mainstream advance in the genre since. “8th Grade” is produced by Timbaland, although you wouldn’t know it from most of the song, apart from momentary vocal interjections peppered throughout. It’s only in the last minute that Timbaland puts his trademark stamp on the track, with his usual, crisp, hard-hitting drum sounds, and all the swag that we’ve come to expect from him. The song’s lyrics are a bit contradictory, with Carey seeming to play a cat-and-mouse game. The song title itself, however, is evocative enough, as chances are Mariah Carey was at the top of her game when you were in the 8th grade, and has never really left.

“Stay Long Love You” is a bright, upbeat number with clipped bleeps overlain on gleeful, whistled melodies, over which Carey sings a flirty, frivolous chorus. Rapper Gunna riffs off her melodies, mumbling largely inscrutable lines, and really contributing very little. However, Carey has a long history of songs that have rappers show ostensibly just to show up — remember the remix of “Fantasy,” featuring Old Dirty Bastard? At any rate, Gunna adds some contemporary hip-hop flavor to the cut, even if of the most diluted form. Finally, “Portrait” is a soft, sentimental closer. The piano-heavy instrumentation and glossy production can seem either outlandishly dated or magnificently classic, depending on your perspective.

The final lyrics of the album are “Just conceal myself and hide / This portrait of my life.” For a singer who is so expressive with her voice, such a sentiment is surely surprising. Few R&B singers of the last few decades are as iconic and influential as Mariah Carey. The way that Carey flaunts her singing chops with such gusto, indulging in melismatic hysterics and soaring to glass-shattering peaks, you wouldn’t expect her to be hiding anything. Moreover, she’s been a steady fixture in pop music for so long that the resulting portrait of her life is anything but hidden. Perhaps all of the melodramatic flair and technical virtuosity is some form of overcompensation. Whatever it is, Carey has consistently turned out tremendous releases that have inspired generations of singers. While “Caution” hardly strays from Carey’s tried and tested template, it’s a solid set of songs, and a welcome addition to her impressive catalogue.

Caution” is available Nov. 15 on Apple Music.