1999, Music

Rainbow (1999) by Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey might be the best female pop singer of all time, if we go by technical ability. (I say ‘female’ not to perpetuate gender divisions but only to distinguish her from the man I consider the greatest popular music vocalist in history, who is not female.) It’s this record that has brought me to this conclusion, though I am very open to the idea that I am wrong. (I am very interested in learning of women who have better voices, so please let me know.) Rainbow has convinced me of this because of Carey’s performance on it, which is so virtuoso as to leave me flabbergasted.

It feels to me as if someone heard Butterfly or some other earlier record and then told Mariah “You don’t have the best voice in [pop/R&B]”. And then she set out to prove everyone wrong. Because she is in just incredible form here, and I’ll pick a few examples.

Even more so than on the other record I’ve heard of hers, Mariah and her co-producers seem to have taken the “guitar orchestra” approach to her voice, where there are multiple vocal tracks, including a main melody line and all sorts of supporting parts, some of which are pretty generic for ’90s R&B and some of which are most decidedly not.

On at least two songs on this record, she sings wordlessly at the very top of her range, so high I wasn’t convinced it was her on first listen. She does this to some extent on “Heartbreaker” but she does it more obviously on “Bliss”, which features an utterly incredible accompaniment that might be the highest human voice I think I’ve ever heard (sustained for more than a couple of notes.) It’s incredible.

On the other end, she delivers main melody performances so low for her that a couple times I thought there was a guest singer (say Toni Braxton) because it sure didn’t sound like Mariah’s normal range. She doesn’t just sing at the extreme lower end of her range, but she carries whole songs down there. The ability to do this is extremely impressive.

This kind of dexterity was on display on Butterfly but not to this extent, as far as I can remember. (I was so annoyed with the record that I might have ignored it.)

And this brings us to the problem with the album, for me: the material, save the most famous track, is mostly pretty weak. There are moments in some of the other songs which make an impression but, especially on the ballads, the predominant impression is “forgettable”; this despite her incredible voice, which I am just in complete awe of.

“Heartbreaker” is obviously the best thing here. I don’t want to like it but it’s gotten stuck in my head multiple times. (And it features some of that extremely high singing.) It’s so much better, inf act, that they decided they needed to include the remix to pad out the album to get it closer to an hour. For me, that’s a pretty good indication that the material just wasn’t there.

This record makes me imagine an alternative universe where Mariah didn’t grow up to aspire to be an R&B balladeer, but instead listened to more interesting music and aspired to do more interesting things with her incredible voice. (Imagine her as a jazz singer!) Alas, that is not the world we live in, and instead she sings generic, toothless R&B better than anyone else. Sigh.

6/10 because the vocal acrobatics are out of control

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