Let’s start with what should have been the first single off Mariah Carey’s new Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, instead of the obnoxious “Obsessed.” That would be track nine, “Up Out My Face.” It’s sassy, catchy, and youthful without being immature—when Carey repeats, “Up out my face, boi” with a little brass and oomph, she sort of sounds like Beyoncé. How cute is that?
Then there’s this: “When I break, I break, I break, and no superglue can fix it/Not even a welder and a builder can rebuild this shit/Not even a nail technician with a whole lotta gel and acrylic can fix this/If we were two Lego blocks, even the Harvard University graduating class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together again.” You can actually hear writer/producer The-Dream cackling in the background.
What Harvard has to do with Legos doesn’t matter. “Silly” and “offbeat” are exactly what Carey needs to indulge in right now. Following 2008’s uneven E=MC2, the veteran songstress had some re-growing up to do if she intended to salvage a nearly-20-year career featuring mostly excellent material (The Emancipation of Mimi), a few duds (Glitter), a real-life emotional breakdown, and the most No. 1 singles by a solo artist. Smartly, she appointed The-Dream and Tricky Stewart to mastermind the whole of Memoirs, her 12th album, and the result is spunky yet sonically subdued. If anyone can rein in present-day Mariah, it’s those two.
And where those two are involved, of course, there will be handclaps, finger-snaps, piano-driven melodies, harebrained metaphors, and R. Kelly–inspired absurdity. There will be love! And blood, too, as Carey plots vengeance from the start in the amazing, throatily delivered intro, “Betcha Gon’ Know.” Ethereal Spandau-style vocal trills abound on “H.A.T.E.U.,” wherein she ventures from monotone chants to breathy vows while dumping on a recent breakup; “Candy Bling” borrows from Ahmad’s 1994 rap throwback: “Back in the day, we were in love/We’re not in love anymore, but some days, I sit and wish we was in love again.”
Cheesy, chuckle-worthy moments ensue (“I know you wanna hit it like the Lotto”), but the songwriting is, for the most part, quirky and tongue-in-cheek, and Carey’s a good sport, cooing along with conviction to lyrics like, “Love you like a holiday Duncan Hines yellow cake.” Even the wonderful, old-school prom-esque shoo-wop joint “It’s a Wrap” follows up a pleasant “boop, boop, boop” with a Maury Povich reference.
Conversely, a little too much Dream lingers in cuts like the bossy “Standing O,” with its echoed “Oooh, oooh, ooooh” hook, while actual lead single “Obsessed” is just needless backtracking: Considered an underhanded jab at erstwhile beau Eminem (Carey denies the relationship), the song sparked a wan mini-battle between Em and Carey’s own husband, sometime-rapper Nick Cannon, who, um, blogged about it. And winding down, what is leisurely soon turns schmaltzy: the mediocre ballad “Angels Cry,” some lullaby interludes (one actually called “Languishing”!), and, bah, there she goes again, trying on that evening gown for a remake of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” The end.
Granted, Memoirs lacks a true apex—no “We Belong Together” or “Honey” to give it shape while bequeathing Carey another definitive hit. (Although, again, just putting it out there: “Up Out My Face” should be a single.) But perhaps the octave-leaping connoisseur has realized she needn’t dazzle us with oversize vocals or juvenile antics (or tight white dresses?) to halt us in our tracks. Here instead is a cool, composed effort from a vet who, at this point, is better off laying in the cut, with Dream lurking somewhere in background, laughing.