CD: Mariah Carey, E=MC2

(Def Jam/Mercury)

It is worth pondering what the title of Mariah Carey's 11th studio album could refer to. Emancipation, maybe, in a nod to her 2005 comeback album, The Emancipation of Mimi; or perhaps the energy of the original equation, a statement that Carey still has what it takes to party all night at the age of 38, even as she describes herself as "eternally 12". Then again, she could just be identifying herself alongside Einstein as a fellow genius. Either way, E=MC2 finds Carey loopier than ever, embracing her own larger-than-life image with gusto: Mariah Carey Squared indeed.

On its cover, Carey is naked but for the world's largest feather boa, an accessory for which flocks of birds have surely given their lives (this image comes hot on the heels of the cover for the single Touch My Body, on which she is naked and hiding behind an enormous hat, and its accompanying video, which features a pet unicorn). The ludicrous, campy excess of the Mariah myth is clearly still in full flight. It has not always been thus: the woman may be "crazy" in a good way these days, but 2001 saw her hospitalised following a nervous breakdown and a rumoured attempted suicide, and suffering the first commercial failures of her career. The triumph of both The Emancipation of Mimi and E=MC2 is the way in which the two sides of her character have been used as launching pads for magnificent pop.

Endearingly ditzy high-camp abounds on E=MC2. The very first notes of the album find Carey swooping around her famed whistle register, revelling in how high her voice can go, before metamorphosing into a synth whistle riff. Over the course of the album, Carey compares herself to ice cream, the lottery, a chandelier, Biggie and 2Pac, weed and her favourite jeans. On the glorious disco bounce of OOC, she breaks into Italian, Spanish and French in the space of one verse for no discernible reason other than that she can (surely the very essence of divadom). There are references to YouTube, a bizarre attempt at Jamaican patois and the lyric "Nah, you ain't seeing things/ Or hallucinating/ I brings that levity."

Brilliantly, the music more than matches Carey's flights of fancy. E=MC2 finds Carey continuing down the hip-hop-inflected path she has pursued for the past decade - but in that time, hip-hop has come back to meet her. The sweet, gliding I'm That Chick hitches itself to R&B's current vogue for 4/4 beats, but takes more cues from pure disco than any other exponent of the trend: it could almost be a track from Carey's own early days. (It is surely no coincidence that E=MC2 shares its title with the Giorgio Moroder classic.) Elsewhere, Migrate is a sinister Danja-produced grind; by contrast, Touch My Body is an ultra-girly luxury cushion of a track, all tactile bass bumps and tinkling music box motifs. "I will hunt you down," she trills, simultaneously sugary and menacing.

Carey's gift, though, is not just that she manages to balance embracing her silliest excesses with sincere displays of emotion, but that the two are inextricably linked. Her trademark high notes, for instance: the album opens with Carey parodying them, but when she rolls them out at the climax of the stunning closer I Wish You Well, backed only by gospel choir and solo piano, their emotional impact is undeniable. Never one to miss an opportunity to gild the lily, Carey also beatifically quotes biblical chapter and verse - not once, but four times. Kissing off an ex-lover has never sounded so divinely ordained.

Carey's voice has been mocked, bizarrely, as being a triumph of technique over soul - an argument that fails to comprehend that technique and soul are intertwined, that technique primarily exists as a means to convey emotion - but she is on fine vocal form throughout E=MC2, whether belting out massive ballads (Thanx 4 Nothin') or layering her voice into a swooning bank of a hundred Mariahs (I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time). There are perhaps fewer dramatic vocal splashes than in her early days, and more nuanced brushstrokes, but that is no bad thing, and the magnificent Side Effects finds Carey at the height of her powers. Over synths as slow as molasses, she intones some of the darkest lyrics of her career, a meditation on the long-term effects of an abusive relationship. Verbose to the point of opulence, she crams syllables into the verses, races against her own emotions and perfectly conveys the song's claustrophobic intensity.

When she sings elsewhere, "Them other regularities, they can't compare with MC," it is hard not to agree.


Alex Macpherson

The GuardianTramp

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