Happy 20th Anniversary to Mariah Carey’s sixth studio album Butterfly, originally released September 16, 1997.
To solely view the legacy of Mariah Carey’s sixth album Butterfly (1997) through any sort of visual aid overshadows its musical aptitude. But, the Paul Hunter directed clip for the album’s first single “Honey” summarizes Butterfly’s succinct idea of “the reveal.” Just as the “Honey” music video had Carey liberating her physical self, Butterfly did the same for Carey musically.
However, the best art doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
It started with Mariah Carey (1990), Carey’s breakthrough self-titled debut. Fashioned from classic soul cut with tasteful amounts of pop, black and white, all of it was written (and sung uncannily) by Carey. This blueprint was used again for Emotions (1991), but with a precise application of the urban-pop of the time. In comparison, the creatively chaste Music Box (1993) was regressive, but Carey found bankable returns with its adult contemporary pop. Following 1994’s Merry Christmas LP, Carey’s fifth record Daydream (1995) held conflicting interests with her AC fare and mainstream hip-hop/R&B curiosities vying for her affection. “Fantasy” was only a portent of Carey’s revolution―and renaissance―much to the chagrin of Columbia Records and its magnate, her husband at the time, Tommy Mottola.
At an impasse at the outset of 1997 as she embarked upon recording sessions for Butterfly, Carey and Mottola separated. Carey turned her private pain into an emboldening source for Butterfly wherein she could create, unfiltered. Walter Afanasieff, a central Carey collaborator on her first five projects stayed on, but Carey also looked to connect with the artists whose music she had long admired. A manifold collective wrote and produced with Carey on Butterfly, including Sean Combs, Cory Rooney, Missy Elliott, Trackmasters, David Morales, and The Ummah, the production team comprised of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad alongside a fresh, young talent who went by the alias of J Dilla.
Black music was core for Carey on Butterfly. But, she expunged any of the safe, pre-Sugar Hill Gang retro-R&B sensibilities from past works. The long player situated Carey in the post-New Jack Swing, late ‘90s overlap between modern R&B and hip-hop.
Carey’s sample savviness, first heard on “Fantasy,” was cannily active on Butterfly. “Honey,” an enthralling merger of “Hey DJ” (by World Famous Supreme Team) and “The Body Rock” (by Treacherous Three), was, like “Fantasy,” geared to satisfy both urban and pop radio. “The Roof,” spiked with an interpolation of Mobb Deep’s 1995 hit “The Shook Ones (Part II),” went on to become one of Carey’s personal favorite recordings. In all, whether sample-derived or original (see “Babydoll”), beats and grooves were sticky, buoyant and heady on Butterfly.
Carey’s womanhood unfolds over the record’s expanse, lyrically and vocally. The title piece is a riveting gospel-pop stunner, recast later as a brief, but ascendant dance jam “Fly Away (Butterfly Reprise).” Many of the downtempo tracks on Butterfly borrow from devotional/non-secular music mechanisms―with exceptions for the ephemeral jazz of “Fourth of July” and the Spanish flecked “My All”―as it relates to Carey’s vocal intermix of power and nuance. But, she explores new vocal techniques too. Her rapid-fire delivery of lines from the album’s centerpiece, “Breakdown,” sting and soothe―a picture-perfect conveyance of resilience and heartbreak. Her guests on the track, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, complement Carey and do not subvert or subtract from her or the song.
The only “swing and a miss” moment on Butterfly is an ill-conceived duet with Dru Hill frontman Sisqó on the Prince chestnut “The Beautiful Ones.”
Released on September 16, 1997, Butterfly went on to collect five platinum certifications in America. Globally, the record tallied silver, gold and platinum marks in Australia, England, Japan and Canada, among others. Beginning in the autumn 1997 and concluding in the spring of 1998, Butterfly produced five singles: “Honey” (US #1, US R&B #2, US Dance #1), “Butterfly” (US AC #11), “The Roof,” “Breakdown” (US R&B #4), “My All” (US #1, US R&B #4, US AC#18). Continuing tension between Carey and Columbia caused the mishandling of format and market specificity for these singles. Subsequently, their respective impacts were strong, but scattered in multiple territories.
Critically, Butterfly received mostly unanimous praise, amassing industry nominations, honors and awards, but its biggest gift to Carey? It distilled her gifts of songwriting, singing and that impeccable ear on one album. Even with the peaks and valleys Carey has endured―artistically, professionally and personally―Butterfly is remembered for its delicacy and strength.