Review Summary: don't go gentle into that good night
Mariah Carey isn't cool. Her intensely dramatic style and extreme personality haven't fit into the zeitgeist for at least a decade, and slow R&B ballads haven't really been in since the 90s. "One Sweet Day," a tender, mourning duet which topped the charts sixteen weeks at the time of release, feels dated now. Filled with key changes, finales, vocal riffs and hopeful gospel references, songs like it made up the bulk of Mariah's career during her commercial peak, and clearly come from a different era disconnected from 2018, when the charts are on a mission to reveal as little and as much emotion as possible at the same time. She's struggled to come back in the 2010s, continuing to release hour-plus albums with long promo campaigns while streaming's rise has made that arguably the least lucrative method for an artist declining in popularity. Caution
learns from these mistakes.
Dropping 24 minutes from the last album to a skinny 38, Caution
is the shortest record Mariah has dropped since Merry Christmas
. This modern attitude stretches to other aspects as well, with an additional emphasis on production and featured artists. Blood Orange doesn't so much put his footprint on "Giving You Life" as make it completely his own, and the Porter Robinson sample Nineteen85 uses on "GTFO" is a bit off-putting at first, but fits into the sparse overall sound. It takes until "8th Grade" (the eighth of ten tracks) for the producer list to not be someone who came into popularity in the 2010s, but the beat is still cloudy enough that Drake could use it. Jermaine Dupri, one of her primary musical partners of the 21st century, is only around for one track, "A No No," which showcases a rare gender role reversal with Biggie's refrain of "he's a ho, he's a slut, he's a freak, got a different girl every day of the week." That song, along with "Stay Long Love You," bubble up quickly enough to keep the album going when its overall chill mood could easily bore. Tracks like "Caution" and "One Mo' Gen" are the weakest because they're basically just trap we've all heard before, although hearing Mariah over them is certainly more of a treat than you'd expect. "The Distance" is the highlight overall, emblematic of all the strengths and weaknesses. Bright, sparkly synths and dim basslines by Skrillex, Poo Bear and Lido work alongside a typically superb Ty Dolla $ign feature to create one of Mariah's best songs in years, only brought down by her lack of stretching - it could be someone else on the vocals, it wouldn't be as good, but it could be, and that replaceability is absolutely not one of her trademarks.
Her last hit single was "Obsessed," almost ten years ago, popular because it sounded like the radio, but iconic because it was so extra it hurt - an Eminem diss track at a time when the rapper still made most top 5s, with the line "will the real MC please stand up," frosting the passive-aggressive cake with whistle notes in the fadeout just to show off. This part of Mariah is not marketable anymore, so it's vanishing, and that's a tragic loss in a time that needs passion above all else. "Where do I go from here, how do I disappear," Mariah asks on the final track, "Portrait," the only song that really focuses on her voice as the primary instrument. It's unfortunate that the person whose primary attribute was that she was there
wants to vanish, especially because it seems like that's only happening is because it's cool to do the least now, instead of doing the most like she used to. Thankfully for us, she's enough of a presence that she shines through no matter how muddled the world is. She fits in with artists certainly influenced by her like Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug (Gunna even features) in using the impersonal, dark feeling that rules the charts to contrast with a voice brighter than even the most shadowed room, a voice that makes your head an arena, a voice that overpowers all attempts to silence it.