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Mariah Carey - Caution Music Album Reviews

On her 15th album, the R&B singer celebrates her ultimate-diva status by sticking to her core pop-soul aesthetic, despite collaborators like Poo Bear, Dev Hynes, and Skrillex.

Mariah Carey is synonymous with grandiosity, whether she’s showing off her five-octave vocal range, arriving on the stage of Caesar’s Palace via Jet Ski, strenuously denying her knowledge of Jennifer Lopez, or simply sighing “dah-ling” in a way that only a diva could. That penchant for over-the-topness can be a blessing or a curse, but it’s always been there, whether it was used to propel “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to holiday-season ubiquity or to drag the 12th season of “American Idol” into a morass of Nicki Minaj-directed snippiness.

But Caution, Carey’s 15th album and first in four years, takes a different tack; instead, it derives its power from its central figure’s chilled-out attitude. It opens with plush synth tones before Mariah’s purr floats in from the heavens, ready to scratch out a former “knight in shining armor” using poison-pen lyrics. It’s the sweetest-sounding “please take your things and go” track since Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” using Carey’s breathy head voice and robust belt in tandem as a way of underscoring the lyrics’ take-no-shit stance—a no-nonsense attitude that gives much of Caution its lightness.

The roster of producers on Caution is varied, and at times surprising—“Hold On, We’re Going Home” producer Nineteen85 helps make “GTFO” sound similarly plush; Timbaland assists behind the boards and at the end of the sparkling “8th Grade,” engaging in a playful back-and-forth that recalls a gentler version of his “Promiscuous” parrying; and Skrillex and Poo Bear, who collaborated on tracks for Justin Bieber, are partially behind the calmly celebratory Ty Dolla $ign feature “The Distance,” a gorgeous addition to the anniversary-celebration canon that isn’t even dinged by Ty’s call-out of online commenters.

Of course, Carey has a producer credit on every track. Those credits on pop albums can feel like the music-business equivalent of vanity license plates, but the Caution’s cohesion does speak to an overall guiding ideal. It’s so strong that it persists through the closing ballad, “Portrait,” which frames Carey’s passionate description of her inner struggles in emphatic piano and glossy strings, as well as the dreamy, guitar-god coda appended to the simmering “Giving Me Life,” a bittersweet look back that glides through Barbra Streisand references and an extended face-off between Carey and hip-hop demigod Slick Rick before entering its final phase. Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange), a student of slow jams, is Carey’s co-producer here, and his ability to sustain a sumptuous groove then explode it into something completely unexpected clashes with Carey’s controlled charm in a spectacular way.

Moments like that help Caution, despite its relatively downtempo vibe, sound like Carey’s celebration of her ultimate-diva status—and of R&B coming back around to her aesthetic. Pop-R&B has rebounded from the commercial trough it fell into during the turn of the decade, which Carey experienced firsthand when the later singles from E=MC2, the 2008 follow-up to her 2005 career rebirth, The Emancipation of Mimi, flailed at radio. (She hasn’t had a new top-10 single since 2009’s “Obsessed,” despite the quality of releases like the sun-dappled Miguel collaboration “#Beautiful” and the sparkling yet regimented ballad “You’re Mine (Eternal)”; other singers straddling the line between pop and soul, like Beyoncé, have experienced similar discrepancies between their superstardom and their pop-chart fortunes.) Carey is 48 now, and her self-titled debut turns 30 in less than two years. She’s seen generations of singers follow in her stiletto steps as they attempt to reach her level of pop megastardom; the first “American Idol” era showcased her early career’s influence on 21st-century up-and-comers, while 2018 hits like Ella Mai’s fizzy “Boo’d Up” and Camila Cabello’s breathy “Never Be the Same” cribbed their breathy vocals and burbling beats from pages of Emancipation’s playbook.

Because of the hard youth focus of the Hot 100 in the streaming era, Carey may not add another chart-topping single to her entries in the record books. But Caution seems to signal that she’s okay with that fact—her music will find a healthy audience, chart positions be damned. She’ll employ of-the-moment producers to add current touches to her tracks, but the way she uses them on Caution results in her fine-tuning her aesthetic, not bending to current playlist-friendly trends; she’ll wink at her public persona during interviews, but approach her vocals on tracks like “The Distance” and “Portrait” with the same steely-eyed seriousness that fueled her meteoric rise nearly three decades ago. Those who don’t want to listen? They can, as she coos on Caution’s opener, “get the fuck out.”

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