Home Music Anatomy of a Tracklist: Mariah Carey: Emotion

Anatomy of a Tracklist: Mariah Carey: Emotion

It seemed like Mariah Carey skyrocketed to the top of the charts within moments of her 1990 debut. The album held the number one spot for 11 weeks and secured four number one singles, cementing her place as one of the top performing artists of the new decade. The following year, on September 17, 1991, she released her sophomore effort Emotions, which turns 30 this week. Though not as commercially successful as her debut or even her following releases, the album secured her another number one song and sold close to 10 million copies worldwide. As we revisit the album, we’ll take a look at each track to understand the ways in which this was a necessary next step forward for Carey–and how it contributed to her future of worldwide music domination.


The title track opens the album and immediately distinguishes itself from the debut. Carey’s voice sounds smoother, her throat even more open and versatile as she plays with the whistle range to a shocking degree, a skill that would come to define her style. She makes her voice do exactly what she explains that love does, digging “deeper than I’ve ever dreamed of” and launching to the “heavens above.” For perhaps the most impressive note in her discography, listen to the final “high” during the bridge where she pushes her voice up through so many octaves it sounds like she’s blended instruments in to support her.

“And You Don’t Remember”
With softer instrumentals to elevate her vocal work, this mellow follow-up channels the same deep seeded feelings as the opener but with a more melancholic tone. “Trustingly, I gave my soul to you/ I let you inside/ Believing your lies,” she sings during the first pre-chorus, demonstrating her songwriting chops to boot. The chorus is backed by smooth echoes and vocalizing from a choir that plays prominently into the album’s structure moving forward.

“Can’t Let Go”
The first ballad of the album is clouded in an aura of sadness compared to most other tracks. Starting with an ambient swirl of music, background vocalizing and a faint whistle range, the track builds with piano and synthesizers as Carey describes watching her lover with a new woman. Peaking at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, it was Carey’s sixth career single but the first not to hit number one. Still, this beautiful track made its way onto the selective compilation The Ballads nearly two decades later.

“Make It Happen”
One of her most autobiographical songs in her discography, this wholesome song, the album’s final single, tells of Carey’s dedication from an extremely young age. Discussed in depth in her memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey, lyrics like “No proper shoes beneath my feet/ Sometimes I couldn’t even eat,” work well with the theme of keeping faith in God and your raw talents, but they are also true stories from Carey’s early recording years. After leaving her mother’s home to move to Manhattan in pursuit of a record deal, she worked various jobs in music and at small stores. Sometimes she was so poor she walked through bitter winters in just worn-out shoes and a plain black dress.

“If It’s Over”
With music composed by Carey and the legendary Carole King, this effortlessly fuses the two women’s styles. The song follows the simple concept, “If it’s over, let me go” and goes on to prove that Carey can keep her voice within a smaller range and create something just as impressive. Though later released in a shortened form as a single from her live album MTV Unplugged where it generated the most buzz, look to her 1991 Saturday Night Live appearance, where she performs the track in its entirety. This is Carey at her most modest, with loose wavy curls and wearing all black, far before diamonds and butterflies began to dominate her looks.

“You’re So Cold”
Though not a weak song, this falls midway between some of Carey’s most impressive work and collaborations, and sometimes fails to hit. Opening with a string of vocal runs that span four octaves, the first verse then dissolves into an upbeat and poppy track. Carey is in fine form but doesn’t chart new territory or channel new feelings, and in a 2020 video, even she expressed distaste for it.

“So Blessed”
The heaviest ballad of the album features another chorus of belting that few would dare attempt on their own. It should be noted that Carey penned all the album’s lyrics and her songwriting deserves as much attention as her voice. She sings of deep, endless love that’s “Adrift in a moment/ So sacred and pure/ Alive for you only/ I am yours.

“To Be Around You”
Easily one of the album’s most energetic tracks, Carey’s voice soars here alongside a prominent piano and a backing choir, and its blend of disco, R&B and gospel is executed to perfection. It’s a wonder how this track didn’t get released as a single, particularly after the success of “Emotions.” Revisit the last minute and a half to hear her really dig in as the choir sings the chorus one last time and Carey adds flawless vocalizing and improvisations.

“Till The End of Time”

Another ballad that feels like the ending to a tragic romantic film, here she sings of giving everything she can for all of eternity. Though written to describe a single person, decades later the meaning could easily be reinterpreted as a call to her family for their support. Carey’s relationships with her siblings and parents are strained, if existent at all, yet she’s described how she continued to support them. Though this would have been a suitable closer, there’s one more track that slows things down.

“The Wind”
Carey concludes Emotions with its slowest track, a song of memories and loss. With lyrics by Carey, the song samples “The Wind,” a 1954 instrumental jazz piece originally performed by Chet Baker and written by Russell Freeman. Sonically quite different from the rest of the pop and gospel influenced songs, this once again proves Carey’s musical versatility, though this is one to listen to in the calmest of settings. After soaring effortlessly across five octaves throughout the album, the final piece finds her dabbling in something new, indicating Carey had no intentions of ever being restrained by a single style or genre.

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