In the long tradition of pop singers whose connection to rock is incidental if not superfluous, Mariah Carey is the sort of performer about whom rock critics rarely wax enthusiastic. Which does not mean she doesn’t make good albums: Daydream is one. In fact, it’s easily the best collection Carey has put out since her self-titled 1990 debut, the album Daydream most resembles in its emphasis on R&B grooves. In one sense, her latest is exactly what you’d expect from a star in Carey’s position. Having sold multimillions of albums, she intends to continue her commercial success while also building a consensus about her talent. Put simply, with Daydream Mariah Carey wants respect.

To that end, Daydream contains a number of grandiose ballads with elaborate orchestrations drenching the gospel-derived melodies — ”When I Saw You,” ”Looking In,” and ”I Am Free” being the most overblown examples. (”Free,” its stately piano crescendo strongly reminiscent of ”Bridge Over Troubled Water,” will doubtless become Carey’s new concert showstopper.) On these monuments to assiduous good taste, the singer demonstrates just how strong her deceptively thin-sounding voice can be.

I’d argue, however, that the stuff that’s really valuable here — the songs that prove her worth — is the less dignified tunes. ”One Sweet Day,” her collaboration with Boyz II Men, radiates a breezy sexiness that Carey, for all the brazen hussiness of her public persona, rarely permits herself to reveal in song. I like the relaxed swing of ”Always Be My Baby,” and the brisk waltz tempo of ”Forever.” But it’s on what many Carey fans will probably find the most throwaway cut, ”Daydream Interlude (Fantasy Sweet Dub Mix),” that the singer really defines herself. At her best, as she is on this clipped, spunky track, Carey is a disco diva for the ’90s, a worthy successor to trailblazing women like Donna Summer and Vicki Sue Robinson, R&B singers with an affinity for the endless groove. Disco? No wonder most rock critics can’t get behind her. Party on, Mariah. B

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