Caution never gets ambiguous about Carey’s sense of heartbreak or triumph.
At the start of 2017, the New York Times ran a piece wondering if Mariah Carey’s performance on ABC’s New Year special permanently damaged her career. Nearly two years later, that story hardly lies at the forefront of anyone’s minds when they think of Carey. Since that failed 2017 appearance, she broke off an engagement (making millions in the process), performed on NYE again to much acclaim, saw the soundtrack to her 2001 disaster Glitter miraculously top the iTunes charts and released her 15th studio album just in time for her annual seasonal resurrection.
Caution rebukes the sentiments of the Times piece as well as those of any who doubt her power as an artist, woman or icon. Three decades into her career, Carey is firmly planted in pop culture, though in a different position than before. She herself is a spectacle as awe-inspiring as the melismatic runs of her early career, and she does it all in constant recline, not decline. Her latest album feels just as relaxed as Carey. Its restrained and intimate blend of hip-hop and R&B suits today’s musical climate, one you cannot argue Carey helped construct. Within it, she may not be the larger-than-life chanteuse one expects; instead, her musicianship, her humor and her legacy take the center stage for a different but no less triumphant experience.
The album proves Carey’s instincts remains as sharp as ever, able to pull from and influence trends as she sees fit. As much a maestro as a singer, Carey enlists collaborators ranging from today’s fresh talents to fellow legends like herself. Hitmaker Bibi Bourelly offers her vocals to “GTFO” while Timbaland assists with the outro of “8th Grade”–and those aren’t even the featured guests. These cameos, as well as productions provided by Blood Orange and Skrillex, are discovered as repeated listens reveal the various layers of this album.
Clever nods to contemporaries (“I need you closer/ To love me harder”) precede echoes of the past (the “Crush on You” sample in “A No No”), both of which would be much different in a world without Carey’s influence. A lyric such as, “Livin’ like Babs ‘cause we’re evergreen” showcases Carey the songwriter, while “Maybe the lyrics are too heavy in my songs” highlights Carey the superstar, whose eloquence implies any number of interpretations. Is it about an ex, an ex-manager or tabloids? Half the fun is figuring it out, because Carey, the shade savant that she is, prefers to stay elusive, if you will.
What Caution never gets ambiguous about is Carey’s sense of heartbreak or triumph. The Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “The Distance” sees her driving off into the sunset with the windows down and spirits raised. The closer, the piano-driven “Portrait,” grows from a simple ballad to a cathartic release. During the key shift in the last minute, she enunciates her hopes and fears with a raw but strong belt in one of the least polished parts of the album. As much as Caution refers to Carey’s power, it also calls for caution when comes to speaking about, imitating or judging her. Few artists, be they in their prime today or legends like Carey, can do what she does. She wanted to let you know that before you try.