Album Review: Mariah Carey commands respect on ‘Caution’

Proceed with Caution

Mariah Carey has HAD IT, and she’s making it crystal clear before even one listen to her fifteenth studio album, aptly titled, Caution. Returning to a tradition of early albums, Caution clocks in at just 10 tracks, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in width. It’s, interestingly, one of the most cohesive bodies of work from Mariah Carey in recent memory despite the revolving door of collaborators throughout. The variety of collaborators speaks to Mariah Carey’s ability as an artist and executive producer, to unleash an album with so many collaborators that all fit together so well.

Lyrically, her pen is as sharp as ever and she has laced those words through some fantastic melodies. Her voice sounds confident yet comfortably in its sweet spot; her tone is as rich and warm as ever. For the most part, the vocals are a lot tamer than the usual Mariah album, allowing the listener to focus on the lyrics and vocal production which often get overlooked. An album as much for the Lambily as it is for the casual listener, Caution answers why the Queen of Christmas doesn’t just sit back and collect royalty checks every December: she still has so much more to give.

After having spent a week with the album, a few members of our staff (Mario, Reece, Andrew and Vincent) collaborated to walk you through each of the album’s tracks.

Without further adieu, let’s proceed with Caution:

The Kick-Off

The album kicks off with an unconventional, post “Hotline Bling” production (from the same producer) that was certainly not an expectation for Mariah Carey in 2018. The moody and meme-able music video for “GTFO” made it clear that Mariah wasn’t the legacy pop act that some tried to write her off as. Yet this uncensored, sparse kiss-off is oh so Mariah. Over a decade after she was censoring “fuck” on “Clown,” she’s ready to be Mariah: Uncensored, to a point. “GTFO” was well suited as the opener for the album, and the era. Caution, indeed. Mariah did not come to play, and she is not having the games. Don’t like it? #GTFO.

Next is “With You,” the album’s incredibly understated first single. It gives off the perception of being another album cut at first listen, but melodically it is incredibly sticky. With an allusion to her classic “Breakdown” in tow, it’s a brilliant Mariah moment. From the casual use of “trepidation” to the self referential pre-chorus, “With You” is the Mariah ballad that 2018 didn’t know it needed. Only she can weave such complex lyrics together over such a beautiful melody.

Not to mention, not many artists can so effortlessly refer back to the wealth of their own self-penned catalogue to elevate the meaning of a lyric in the way that her “Breakdown” allusion does. Fittingly, the song has become a slow burning success at AC radio. Not only that, but it’s a raw and honest depiction of where she is in her love life.

The Title Track

One might assume that “Caution,” the album’s title track, would be a sassy showcase of braggadocio, but in fact it is an introspective, self-aware love song with an ominous ambiance. With a seductive yet haunting beat and pristine vocals, it immediately engages the listener. The song has clear tropical influences allowing it to sound current without overdoing it to sound trendy, a line Mariah has always been able to tread well.

Her buttery vocals effortlessly slide atop the slick and cutting No I.D. produced beat. Its chorus might just be the best on the album, it just sticks. “Caution” is fresh, yet reminiscent of late 90s and early 2000s R&B such as Brandy’s Never Say Never (1998) and Aaliyah’s self-titled final album (2001), which is also probably why it sounds like something Drake would cook up. Without any specific promotion, the song has managed to become one of the album’s most streamed tracks, speaking volumes to its sheer greatness.

Single-Worthy Bops

A No No” is the BOP of the album that is only bound to be elevated to the next level if the rumors of a Cardi B + Lil’ Kim remix are true. The sample is perfect and timeless, Mariah’s lyrics are as genius as they are scathing and showcase that fun (and shady) side of her that everyone loves. Only Mariah can make an obviously pointed diss track sound as if it’s just another love song about an imaginary man. She’s not fooling us, though – she’s happily paired with Bryan. We know she’s dragging She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. And is there anything more Mariah than her saying “no” in a few different languages during the song’s outro?

Mariah is in full romance mode on “The Distance,” tackling the naysayers who doubted her relationship with her lover, not dissimilar to how the media portrayed her current relationship with Bryan Tanaka. On the Skrillex production Mariah somehow manages to sound youthful yet mature, weaving current hip-hop sensibilities atop an 80s beat inspired beat. It almost sounds like something Solange would’ve put on her True EP.

The song achieves certified bop status with the help of a guest verse by Ty Dolla $ign who reiterates the loved up, us against the world vibe of the song, “we kissing in public, you like it I love it, You lit it I’m with it, we going the distance.” We love the honest yet relatable “in your face” lyrics about her and Bryan. The message is simple: they’re here to stay. “The Distance” proves that Mariah and her pen are here to stay, too. As per usual, she has crafted a beautiful pop song with a diverse cast of collaborators. It’s no surprise this one is shaping up to potentially be the next single.

Life Received

Shout out to Jay-Z, head of Mariah’s new management home Roc Nation, for bringing Mariah and Dev Hynes together. The pairing was a surprise, but at the same time, is everything we didn’t know we needed. But we should have known. Just take a listen to Dev’s catalog as Blood Orange, or his work producing for Solange (a self-professed lamb) and you’d realize he is perfect for Queen. The aptly titled “Giving Me Life” does just that; issa mood.

Mariah is known for her impressive upper register and vocal acrobatics so it’s great to hear her use her lower register to create this haunting groove. It’s nearly seven minutes of blissful Mariah slow jam goodness. Some may hear a “The Roof” moment on this one, but it’s more like Lauryn Hill meets the early 2000s with the full drum and the electric guitar. Then of course, there’s the fact that it features hip-hop legend Slick Rick, which is great to hear after sampling “La Di Da” on The Elusive Chanteuse. “I mean, come on,” as Mariah would say. What more could we ask for?

Sex and Melancholy

One Mo’ Gen” is like the raunchy sister of “Make It Look Good” with a splash of “Ribbon” in the production, which conjures up a feeling of a hip hop sample, yet it’s completely original. A slow-jam with frantic hi-hats in the background, #OMG is playful and seductive, yet edgy. In fact, it’s striking. “Did you like when I put my lips there?” should be on a shirt immediately. We love a nasty moment, and it’s been years since Mariah has been this suggestive in her lyrics. Not only are its lyrics sexy, but it just feels sexy, too. From the vocals to the production, she is really serving sex appeal – without it seeming forced at all.

Miss Eternally 12 takes us back to the year when she turned from 12 to… 12 again on “8th Grade.” A self-described melancholic moment about “falling in love” in your teenage years and wondering if it’s really true, “8th Grade” is uniquely Mariah. She rebukes the typical, hyperbolic exclamations of teenage love “I’m not your world, no, I’m not your life, tell me what that means to you.” Mariah, who “grew up too soon” was wise beyond her years even then. She even recants the fact that she began songwriting at that age, singing, “Maybe the lyrics are too heavy, in my song.” Simple minds, exit stage right.

There’s a little bit of “Candy Bling” mixed with the hard percussion of “One and Only” here. Timbaland’s production lays under Mariah’s voice impeccably. Most notably, the breakdown where Mariah reaches into her whistle register while Timbaland encourages her is a moment that recalls “Bliss” vocally and “Babydoll” musically.

More Bops

With its strange, grammatically confusing title, unique production, and feature from newcomer Gunna, “Stay Long Love You” definitely makes an impression. After the brief yet beautiful detour that is “8th Grade,” this playful bop has Mariah on the prowl again, telling her lover she wants to “uh uh, yeah.” Somewhat jarring at first, the Stereotypes produced track becomes infectious with its earworm of a hook that is sure to stick in your head. Reminiscent of the more experimental moments of the Mimi album, it feels simultaneously futuristic, nostalgic and current.

The Japanese version of Caution has a bonus track entitled “Runway,” that would have served as an excellent bridge between “Stay Long Love You” and the album closer to follow. This uplifting uptempo actually samples her own classic “Butterfly,” which Mariah explained came about because her collaborator Skrillex had a special connection to the song. The song is inspirational in nature, with an emanating essence of empowerment. After 28 years in the spotlight and several celebrations of being “Eternally 12,” the Songbird Supreme has canonized her experiences into a motivational anthem for all. “To fly,” she says, you’ve “gotta have no fear.”

The Closer

In the tradition of so many Mariah Carey albums, Caution ends with an incredibly raw and open ballad. “Portrait” doesn’t just visualize where Mariah Carey the person is in 2018, but also vocally defines her changing instrument. She pushes at a few moments, but there’s weathering and control unlike in previous songs like this. Its gorgeous, subdued melody grabs you and makes for the perfect album closer.

Compared to Mariah’s previous introspective moments, which are usually darker, “Portrait” is more hopeful in its message. The verses are very somber, but then the chorus alludes to looking at the future with a positive attitude despite retaining one’s secret sadness inside. In that sense, it’s like listening to “Petals” combined with the more inspirational “Rainbow Interlude” to help sort things out. After the last few years Mariah has had, it’s nice to see her in such a playful mood on Caution but also acknowledge that she is just human and she hurts too. 

Written with her new musical director and pianist Daniel Moore, “Portrait” proves that no matter who her writing partner is for her piano ballad moments, her unique signature sound will remain intact. However, with Moore it feels more genuine than it has ever been. It’s an endearing listen, and a welcome closer to a stellar album.

Quintessentially Mariah

Twenty eight years into her career, Mariah Carey has crafted an album that manages to seat itself amongst her best work. Caution is further proof that she is an undeniable musical genius. In the face of all the negativity that has surrounded her career in recent years, she arrived in a positive headspace, focused and ready to deliver this phenomenal album. Somehow, Caution manages to sound current yet still quintessentially Mariah; expert lyricism and background giggles included. She worked with an (almost) entirely new cast of producers, yet the output has her unmistakable stamp. True to form, the album is cohesive despite its diverse mix of collaborators, something that has always been essential to her greatest albums.

At this stage in her career, some may call Mariah Carey a “legacy” artist. Typically, that means an artist that is past their prime, struggles to sell albums, but sustains reliant upon the laurels of their back catalogue, legendary status, and lucrative tours. However, for Mariah, Caution cements her status as a “legacy” artist for a different reason. In this era, her team has managed to ensure she gets the respect she has deserved for so long. Caution has become her most critically-acclaimed album, ever.

Give Her What She Deserves

It’s true, Mariah Carey had never been a critical darling despite releasing such a profound body of work. For years, the fact that she is first and foremost a songwriter and producer had been overlooked. Mariah has written 17 #1 singles and plenty more hits, yet she has just five GRAMMY awards. Her often imitated, yet often denied impact on modern pop music by melding Hip-Hop, Pop and R&B into one had long gone overlooked. If you search for influential Hip-Hop artists, or Pop’s greatest songwriters, you’d be hard-pressed to find Mariah’s name. The list of injustices goes on and on, and for a while there was no end in sight.

Somehow, with Caution, it has all come to light. It’s almost as if the warning that we must heed with Caution is that Mariah Carey will no longer accept being underrated and disrespected; she has returned to claim the notoriety and respect that she had been denied for so long. She has done so by releasing an album that, despite whatever it ends up selling, will stand the test of time as one of her best albums because it is both timely and timeless. Mariah has long held a reputation of being fashionably late, in “Diva” fashion, but Caution proves she is just in time, and ever present.

Grade:

90/97

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