Mariah Carey has never been famous for conveying calculated attitude (a la Janet Jackson and Madonna) or writing songs that reflect intense personal drama (Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige). Rather, she has connected with fans via an astonishing vocal prowess—despite near-prosaic material. She’s cleaned up by belting out sweeping ballads (”Vision of Love,” ”Hero”) that conceal even as they appeal. In this sense, Rainbow, her seventh album, is a revelation.

With 1997’s vibrant Butterfly, Carey went from mannered and awkward to relaxed and bold. Her voice was in top form, and she risked losing older pop fans by going for a slick, timely hip-hop and R&B sound. With help from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (famous for producing 10 years’ worth of Janet Jackson hits), and underground hip-hop maestros like DJ Clue, Rainbow keeps the promise made on Butterfly, setting a new musical standard for unifying hip-hop and R&B. Lyrically — and more importantly for the 29-year-old songwriter — Rainbow brims with a richness and vulnerability only hinted at before.

A song cycle about love and its permutations, the album plays coy with its autobiographical clues while withholding little emotionally. The whispery, heartbreaking ”Petals” alludes to Carey’s shattered family life and marriage to Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola. Listeners with an eye on the tabloids could read her close, ringing interpretation of Phil Collins’ 1984 hit, ”Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” as a postmortem on her bittersweet affair with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and a poignant evocation of the couple’s shared mixed-race heritage (”You’re the only one who really knew me at all”). ”Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme),” the emotional center of the album, casts Carey as a survivor of these and other disappointments. ”There’s a light in me/That shines brightly,” she sings. The song (cowritten with Diane Warren and coproduced with Jam and Lewis) resonates with new life experience—a kind of truth and uplift.

Rainbow‘s confidence is not merely in its subject matter. Musically, Carey’s new collaborations display a gutsy composure. The singer cannily pairs up with Snoop Dogg on the sexy ”Crybaby,” the rapper’s words tumbling like dice across her velvety vocals. On the delectable confection ”Heartbreaker” (which has taken its knocks for recycling the hits ”Fantasy” and ”Dreamlover”), she smartly uses Jay-Z’s droll rap about a bratty girlfriend as tart counterpoint to her creamy tones.

Like all of Carey’s albums, this one is occasionally overblown and prone to miscalculation (Missy Elliott’s and Da Brat’s bad sexual politics sink the tired ”Heartbreaker [Remix]”). But what began on Butterfly as a departure ends up on Rainbow a progression — perhaps the first compelling proof of Carey’s true colors as an artist. B+

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