Released: November 16, 2018
Mariah Carey’s new album Caution is great. Fantastic. There are thirty-eight minutes of hits which are well produced and hold strong tonal consistency from song to song. If you’re a diehard Mariah fan, it’s worth noting that she takes a step on the chiller side for this album, but it’s definitely still her.
Caution, unsurprisingly, still plays host to the things that make Mariah Mariah. There are whistle notes, silky harmonies, and sassy lyrics. In O No No, the fourth track of the album, Mariah sings:
“I ain’t even mad, no not like before
Off with your head, now slither out the door
Snakes in the grass it’s time to cut the lawn
Answers the hands a.k.a I cut you off”
The chorus slips into her repeating “I said no,” over again, with the song being layered with backing vocals, vocal runs, and whistle notes quietly mixed in. These are all the ingredients you’d expect to make a Mariah song, but they’re thrown together in a nuanced way. They’re backed with hip-hop high hats and four chords on a synth dictating rhythm. The vocal runs and whistle notes are placed as an addition to the overall form of the song, rather than the main attraction. She’s proving she can use her singing ability as a careful songwriting tool, not just as the song’s driving force. It’s not the most exciting aspect of her songs anymore. Some people would argue that this is because, at forty-eight, her singing ability isn’t what it used to be, but I’m not sure that’s it. I think she’s just becoming more nuanced with the way she uses her brand to construct songs. She’s using her voice, which is clearly still strong, in a fresh way.
And with Caution, there is definitely a freshness to it. Contributors include Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange), Nineteen85, and Skrillex, different artists playing to the ears of very different audiences, but Carey manages to tie her contributors into her aesthetic, using them to freshen it up rather than straining to fit their respective sounds. The album’s opening track GTFO has a crisp, slick and simple vibe to it. A floaty breakup song with the line “How about you get the fuck out,” that slips out smoothly, over and over. It reminds me of something 2015 Drake would come up with. The only attempt at freshness that doesn’t pay off, to me, is the ringtone and vibration samples in One Mo’ Gen. It’s really hard to pay attention to a song when you’re glancing at your phone every eight bars.
Caution is steady in tone and full of hits. Every song is fantastic as a standalone piece of glossy soul/pop, but maybe that leads to a problem with the overall journey of the album. The aesthetic uniformity of Caution can cause it to sag around the twenty-five-minute mark, not because the song 8th Grade isn’t good, but because I want to hear some more variation.
Mariah Carey’s sound is slowly evolving but within a structure you’d expect from her. Carey’s latest album Caution is cementing her status as an essential musician, proving that not only can she define the sound of the naughties, but she can also develop that sound with the tools and people at her disposal to be relevant and powerful today. Mariah Carey is unmovable.