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In the beginning, Mariah Carey’s abilities as a songwriter and producer gave considerable weight to her initial accomplishments. But, even then Carey was dogged by the perception that she was nothing more than a commercial construct for Columbia Records. An exaggerated claim, it did hint at a growing power struggle between Carey and her record label that was fast becoming public. Carey’s sixth studio album Butterfly (1997) was a hard reset that gave the singer-songwriter an opportunity to do things her way. Post-Butterfly—invigorated with the creative, critical and commercial freedom now afforded to her—Carey began eagerly reconstructing her public persona.
In that time (and much to Carey’s frustration) the same harsh criticism toward her did not abate, instead it metastasized. Unquestionably, much of the opprobrium Carey faced in a music journalism context was systemically fueled by sexism, racism and more recently, ageism. However, Carey was not totally blameless.
Abdicating her craft, even in jest, for what many took as an “image first” adage made her an easy target for press punditry and vitriol. Then there was Carey’s own musical discipline or lack thereof. Years of fixating on chart trends not only eroded her formerly broad listening base, but led to a multitude of uneven albums overrun with subpar material. These issues left Carey facing down a looming existential quandary as a recording artist. It was almost implied that Carey’s next project would be a “fight or flight” offering, creatively speaking.
So, the sense of purpose that reverberates off the taut ten-track song cycle Caution is surprising. Unlike the naked sales-oriented ambition of The Emancipation of Mimi (2005), Carey’s Epic Records debut situates itself as a calm, cool and collected showcase of her powers as a singer, writer and producer. As such, Carey installs herself at the axis of Caution, keeping firm control of the record’s tone, temperature and tempo. Though she has a breadth of supplemental writing/production aid from Paul “Nineteen85” Jefferies, Devon “Blood Orange” Hynes, Timothy “Timbaland” Mosely, Ernest “No I.D.” Wilson and Shea Taylor, among others, she keeps them on task to assist her in realizing her vision.
The sonics of Caution are diaphanous and sleek, primarily sourced from a “track-based” rhythm and blues principle that combines digital and live instrumentation; with this musical blend Carey balances her classicist, contemporaneous and feminine aims. In relation to the classicist aspect, “A No No” finds Carey affectionately reworking Lil’ Kim’s 1996 hit “Crush on You,” which in turn is itself based around an interpolation of the jazz-fusion disciple Jeff Lorber’s 1979 piece “Rain Dance.”
Rarely does Carey’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of black music receive any critical adulation, but “A No No,” like “Fantasy,” “Honey,” and her other preceding sample-led jams, demonstrates how Carey reverently revises existing song works for her own use. Hip-hop aficionados will also have further reason to rejoice when they catch Slick Rick’s cameo on “Giving Me Life,” sure to endear her to that very specific “throwback audience.”
Caution’s contemporaneous pace is indebted to the seamless union between the elements of groove and beat. Entries like “GTFO” and “Caution” have a steady pulse sure to appeal to various adult R&B and club airplay formats. Further, given Carey’s tendency to solicit remix commissions for her singles, “GTFO” is likely to realize additional potential.
The record’s femininity is drawn from Carey’s vocal and lyrical presentation throughout. Gliding between her chest and head voice, Carey applies her instrument with the utmost care to each composition. This ensures that each performance is appropriately colored to coordinate with the narrative driven songwriting when its moods switch (as they do here often) from sensual (“One Mo’ Gen”) to personal (“Portrait”).
Now, despite its seductively full sound and execution, Caution isn’t without its shortcomings. The lead-off single “GTFO” is laid low by an immature hook that opposes its developed verse structure. This same “underwriting” tendency rears its head again on “Stay Long Love You” and short circuits the voluptuary ambiance of the arrangement with lazy lyrics. Excusing Slick Rick and Blood Orange’s sterling appearances, Ty Dolla $ign and Gunna don’t have anything to contribute to the already winning compositions upon which they feature, which leaves them idly marooned on the tracks.
These missteps aside, Caution still casts a wicked spell as a modern R&B record emboldened with intent. The long player isn’t a return to the far-flung reaches of Carey’s earlier, open-ended soul-pop nor does it come close to eclipsing Butterfly. What Caution does do is reestablish Mariah Carey as someone in complete command of her artistic faculties and richly deserving of her just critical due. It has been a long time coming for this “elusive chanteuse.”
Notable Tracks: "A No No" | “Caution” | "Giving Me Life" | “Portrait”