Mariah Carey’s last album, 2008’s E=MCÁ‚², marked the spot where she broke Elvis Presley’s record for Number One singles by a solo artist — and it also boasted the biggest opening-week sales of her career — but it also ran out of steam pretty quickly, petering out after being certified double platinum, a pretty steep comedown after selling 10 million copies of 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. Carey has, in other words, a thing or two to prove with Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel — which is the situation she’s been in pretty much since 2001’s Glitter imploded in what seemed at the time to be a career-destroying cloud of ice cream and cleavage. She has, to her credit, done an outstanding job of staying relevant in the post-Top 40, post-TRL, and largely post-record industry world, even at the much-ballyhooed expense of everything that made her music special in the first place; she has, in fact, reached the point where the splash surrounding every new album is just as important as its musical contents. She’s an artist who’s famous largely because she’s famous — sort of the MTV equivalent of Charo, albeit with a much stronger set of pipes, not that you’d really know it from listening to anything on Memoirs.
From the outside, it’s easy to dismiss everything Carey has done since Butterfly as vapid, cynical catering to the hip-hop generation, and to an extent, that’s more or less true — but each of her albums has its own somewhat self-contained aesthetic, too. E=MCÁ‚², for instance, put Carey across as the R&B equivalent of the slutty, insane aunt you wanted to have in high school, nattering on about what’s happening in the clubs and dropping embarrassing “hip” references to the things the kids like. That persona has thankfully been retired for Memoirs, but in its place we get a pretty middle-of-the-road Mariah — one who wants to have her trendy cake (the Auto-Tune frosted “Obsessed”) and eat at the Adult Contemporary table, too (the treacly cover of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”). It’s all very polished and calculated, but those are qualities that have been hallmarks of great R&B for more than 50 years; hell, even “Vision of Love” was a Brill Building-worthy piece of airtight songcraft. No one buys Mariah Carey records looking for wild inspiration — but what many of them do want to hear is a reflection of Carey’s singular, once awe-inspiring vocal talent, and that’s what’s missing from Memoirs. It’s a perfectly entertaining modern R&B album, and one not without its eyebrow-raising wrinkles (chief among them the drumline that takes over the beat for the “Up Out My Face” reprise), but one that, ultimately, could have been performed by almost any anonymous singer.
Oh, sure, Mariah wheels out her usual tricks here and there, but instead of showing off that tremendous range, she throws in a few dolphin calls behind another obnoxiously breathy lead vocal (“H.A.T.E.U.”) and calls it even. To be fair, Mariah’s in a tight corner at this point; she’s long since alienated the listeners who expected great things from her after her debut, and her endless trendjacking over the last decade has made her an artist with a record-setting commercial legacy, but no real artistic identity. About the best anyone can hope for at this point is an album like Memoirs — one that’ll make enough small dents in the R&B charts to extend her cultural relevancy for another release cycle while throwing a bone to AC program directors with a song like “I Want to Know What Love Is,” practically guaranteed to linger near the top of the recurrent charts for at least a year. At some point, Mariah will have to stop flaunting her ta-tas and get back to the business of making timeless music, either because she’s no longer got the physical goods or because Aretha Franklin will finally get fed up with her shit and go slap her into being a real diva again. I only hope that, when that moment comes, she still remembers how to, you know, sing.