The girl — in this case, Mariah Carey — can’t help it. She yearns to be a funky, Jeep-cruising hip-hop queen, but her lifestyle and financial trappings constantly remind us that she’ll never really be one of them — or us. On ”Babydoll,” the creamy-smooth come-on at the center of Butterfly, she positions herself as just another lovesick homegirl waiting for the object of her affections to call. ”Zoning out thinking about/ You and me between the sheets,” she purrs over a comforter-soft slow groove — imagine En Vogue just waking up. This homegirl, however, is hanging out in her ”hotel suite” and calling her service for messages.
Taking a sip of wine, presumably delivered by the hotel restaurant, she sings breathlessly that tonight she’s going to ”leave my cell phone turned on.”
Whether or not her fans will be able to relate to such a penthouse-culture setting, the song nonetheless epitomizes the complex creature that is Butterfly. From its phalanx of R&B and rap guest stars to its I-will-survive lyrics (which allude to her recent separation from her husband, Sony CEO Tommy Mottola), the album is clearly intended as Carey’s declaration of independence, musically and personally. She’s recently been spotted nightclubbing with rappers, and ”Honey,” the album’s mildly fatback first single, was coproduced by current R&B hitmaker Sean ”Puffy” Combs. You’re prepared for a collection on which Carey finally breaks free of her adult-contemporary chains and gets down. Instead, she sounds like anyone striking out on his or her own — caught between old and new habits and taking cautious baby steps into the future.
Much like Janet Jackson’s even more libidinous janet,, Butterfly aims to present its maker as a fully grown woman dipping into a new, sexually liberated lifestyle. The title song, a slice of florid pop gospel, explores the old if-you-love-someone-set-her-free theme; in ”Close My Eyes,” Carey paints herself as ”a wayward child/with the weight of the world” who worries ”maybe I grew up/a little too soon.” It isn’t a reach to interpret these songs as describing life with the reportedly controlling Mottola.
As if flaunting her newfound independence, Carey then spends other songs flirting and reveling: ”Cover me with velvet kisses/Rock me on and on,” she salivates in ”Babydoll,” while ”Fourth of July” describes a romantic walk in the park (and rain) straight out of a Hallmark-card photo. She sings these songs not in her trademark belting style but in a soft, girlish coo. Carey is still a vocal grandstander capable of turning all into a six-syllable word. Yet for most of the album she keeps her notorious octave-climbing chops at bay. Showing some admirable restraint, she nestles herself into the downy-soft beats of ”The Roof” and ”Honey.” In ”Breakdown,” she demonstrates she can match the staccato, lite-reggae phrasing of her guests, two members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
So far, so good (unless you’re Mottola, that is — between those lyrics and the album’s sex-kitten cover photo, Butterfly actually succeeds in making you feel sorry for him). Butterfly paints a semi-clear portrait of Carey’s new life, but has she truly started anew musically? Piano-fronted ballads still dominate, and even when she’s working with producers like Combs, the results are mild, mid-tempo grooves that simmer but never boil over. Tracks burble along, verses indistinguishable from choruses, like one big watercolor painting. Others are simply derivative: Prince’s ”The Beautiful Ones” is reduced to a slushy vocal showcase for Carey and new-jack crooners Dru Hill, and ”My All,” with its gently plucked guitars, is the best Babyface track Babyface never produced.
Oddly, Carey’s attempt at musical maturity ends up backfiring. The very-slow-jam grooves have an intimacy lacking in her previous work. But the arrangements — especially the oozing vocal harmonies on many tracks — mute the impact of her lyrics. How are we supposed to connect with Carey’s renewal when we can barely understand what she’s singing? The softer Carey sings, the less singular her phrasing becomes — it’s as if she’s so accustomed to power singing that she has to relearn nuance. Butterfly is undeniably pleasant, with little of the all-conquering bombast usually associated with Carey. But it’s also the last thing anyone would have expected from her: blandly self-effacing.
As sincere as Carey may be about her appreciation of urban music and culture, some things never change. The most distinctive tracks on Butterfly are still its gushy, sky-high ballads, like the you’ve-got-a-friend placebo ”Whenever You Call.” One of them, ”Close My Eyes” (written with her longtime collaborator, Walter Afanasieff), has a late-night moodiness that effortlessly attains the aural sophistication she clearly wants. It isn’t the best song for post-party cruising, but sometimes, the girl can’t help that, either. B-