Critic's Notebook: Mariah Carey's 'Caution' Is Defiant Proof That She’s Still Relevant

Mariah Carey-Getty-H 2018
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The diva’s new album provides ample evidence of her vocal and songwriting skills, but impresses most by feeling fresh and current.

We all know Mariah Carey absolutely lives for the holiday season, so you can be sure when she’s releasing music come fall, you’re going to get the full experience. Caution, her first record in four years, finds Carey calm and strong, restrained when she needs to be yet unpredictable enough to experiment and effervescent without coming off as too try-hard.

Caution comes after her fans — the so-called “Lambily” — as a goof and/or show of power flexed their muscle to get her 2001 Glitter soundtrack to the top of the charts. Glitter — a play off of the Star Is Born mythos set in the venn diagram of disco and freestyle — was released around 9/11 and flopped. Happily, Mariah’s Lambs, the Glitter-atti, now have another classic album to look forward to.

Carey had a somewhat turbulent last year. Her former manager and bodyguard are suing her in unrelated lawsuits alleging harassment. She also has been public about her mental health issues. This album definitely registers in patches as a reflection on these matters. Like she has something to prove. Like she has folks she’s highly wary of.

Throughout, Carey is in control in ways she maybe hasn’t been with her life this century. She’s confident and defiant, coming out swinging from the gates with “GTFO.” She rhetorically smacks, “How 'bout you get the fuck out?” before “Take your tings and be on your merry way,” providing the perfect blend of incivility and faux-respect that this album nails and difficult times often require.

Carey has always embodied this sort of youthful defiance. On Caution, she is captured in ember in the ’90s, from the Timbaland-produced tracks to the juicy synth curlicues adorning these (mostly) tight, radio-friendly but not generic jams. Her legendary range and vocal acrobatics are used with enough restraint to not come off as super noodly, but are still employed effectively in all sorts of exquisitely layered harmonies when necessary — to remind you who you’re dealing with.

Caution is a cohesive 10-song amusement park trip where no moment sags. It’s fun on a very basic level, but it’s not disposable and it’s not a record we’ve heard before. It’s got its fair share of guest spots (a lovable cameo by Slick Rick, Gunna, production credits by Skrillex of all people), but it doesn’t come off as messy or incongruous. There’s an 8-bit, Candyland soft-synth aesthetic, but it doesn’t sound flimsy or, for the most part, like everything else on the radio, except perhaps DJ Mustard’s contribution. At the same time, it also doesn’t come off like simple ’90s pastiche. It’s weird, baroque and contemporary in a very 2018 way.

Carey also sounds more mature, like she has less time for your bullshit than ever. (Despite her obsession with youth, she is, of course, approaching 50.) The album’s closer, “Portrait,” also produced by Timbaland, is its largest, most melodramatic moment, a very direct inventory session that feels like a lost Stevie Wonder confection. It puts a sort of theatrical, adult-by-way-of-Disney bow on a record that is mostly more down-to-earth. Her Las Vegas show is still running, and this feels like a fitting dessert to a record with a little bit for everyone.

“GTFO,” “With You” and “Caution” are a strong opening trio of R&B bangers. But it’s in the middle of the record where it gets the most unpredictable and Carey shines brightest. “No No No” features a slinky flip of a Lil Kim beat, and “The Distance,” using cheerleader chants as a refrain, really hammers in the motif of childhood threaded throughout Caution. Whether it’s the Bubble Bobble/bleepy ringtone sounds of “8th Grade” and “Stay Long Love You” or the unexpected sampling of Trading Places, we’re constantly looking back to the last century. Again, it doesn’t feel like a nostalgia-for-nostalgia’s-sake exercise like, say, Stranger Things or Ready Player One; it feels like this is Carey reckoning with her life, her evolving aesthetic, revisiting and remythologizing herself. It’s the work of a diva who is — despite the odds — still relevant. It’s heavy shit, but also fluffy and light, which is her ultimate signature.

The crown jewel of the album is the Prince-like opus “Giving Me Life” with a feature from Slick Rick and Blood Orange, the latter of whom also produced it. “Thinkin' 'bout when we were seventeen / Feelin' myself like I'm Norma Jean,” she sings before twisting it later in the song’s six-plus minutes with “Livin' like Babs 'cause it's evergreen.” Carey has always been obsessed with Marilyn Monroe; she even owns her old piano. She packs a lot into this song; we even get a guitar solo, proving she’s still capable of all sorts of surprises.

Carey perhaps is not given enough credit for her writing contributions. Her singing credentials are unquestionable, but so is her ability to pen solid pop records that can chart without coming off like some out-of-touch dinosaur. She’s forever young. Evergreen.