Behind the scenes of her busted marriage with Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola and her controversial new album ''Butterfly''

Welcome to the newly single life of Mariah Carey. It is free and entangled, exhilarating and embattled. And it never stops moving.

At a Manhattan photo studio in late August, Carey is torn between posing for shots and dealing with the prelaunch mania surrounding her fifth album, Butterfly. Cell phones ring incessantly. Carey’s new manager, Hollywood power broker Sandy Gallin, swings by to nail down details of her appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards. A stylist and hair and makeup artists commandeer the pop star’s free minutes. At one point, Carey — who, these days, oscillates between moments of infectious playfulness and emotional rawness — shoves a tape into the VCR. It’s the video for a remix of Butterfly‘s first single, ”Honey.” In it, she pinches the cheeks of rappers Sean ”Puffy” Combs and Mase — a tender gesture, but one that also conjures The Godfather. ”That freaked them out,” she says, laughing. ”They take that [gangster] stuff seriously.”

At other moments, Carey disappears to her dressing room with a cell phone. One wireless conversation with a Butterfly producer erupts into a dispute. To the chagrin of her makeup artist, tears soon streak Carey’s face. ”Being able to handle things on my own is good,” she explains later. The singer is in the midst of a complicated breakup from husband Tommy Mottola, the president and COO of Sony Music Entertainment and the man who, until this year, has overseen every aspect of her career. And behind the scenes, the split has sparked angry accusations of infidelity, abusive behavior, and artistic suppression. Carey’s tears, she says, were inevitable: ”It’s so easy to become overwhelmed during the state I’m in right now, I just couldn’t help it.”

Around midnight, the 15-hour shoot is finally over, but the 27-year-old Carey’s not ready to call it quits. Just before 1 a.m., she takes off for the Palladium nightclub with an entourage of friends. Carey throws off the day’s stress by throwing in a tape by the Jerky Boys, whose antic juvenile humor proves the perfect release. ”I love these guys,” she says, mimicking along with the pranksters’ mischievous phone voices.

At the club, Carey and party slip through a private entrance into near chaos. So many people fill every corridor that bodyguards are exercising crowd control backstage. Carey, however, makes her way through the multitude like an habitue. She kisses the night’s headliner, the manically dreadlocked Busta Rhymes. Heads swivel as she sidles on, greeting a hot record producer here, an up-and-coming hip-hopper there, before climbing upstairs to a private office, where a bucket of Cristal awaits.

Carey hangs out in this cramped hideaway for most of the night. Her two bodyguards block the door, but a few VIP rappers, like Combs and Missy ”Misdemeanor” Elliott, cameo in to say hi. ”Mariah, she listens to rap. She’s straight up just cool,” says Elliott, a friend since the two cowrote a song for Butterfly. Contrary to tabloid innuendo, it’s hardly the wild gangsta-rap atmosphere in which Carey has supposedly immersed herself. In fact, the only threatening thing is the guy blowing chunks just outside the office door. Carey — the pop diva who, in the past, has seemed so inaccessible — is experiencing it all. And as 3 a.m. approaches, it’s still four hours before the insomniac will hit the sheets. She promises to make a 3 p.m. interview scheduled for the next day. ”That’s bright and early for me,” she warns.