To say “a star is born” isn’t a story, it’s an intro. A thousand shiny comets have streaked across the Hot 100 before disappearing into the faraway ether of where-are-they-now; only a very few turn fame into a long game. Mariah Carey is one of those rare supernovas, with the stats to prove it: 200 million-plus albums sold over nearly three decades; 18 No. 1 singles, more than any other solo artist in chart history (only the Beatles outrank her); five Grammys; and of course, a five-octave vocal range, though it’s been years since she really used the full scope of it.
At 48 (or possibly 49; a true diva never tells), Carey is no longer at the white-hot center of the zeitgeist — that place where Soundcloud rappers battle face-masked DJs for supremacy, and feuding with Nicki Minaj has been passed on to the more-than-capable hands of Cardi B. But Mariah does not go to the mountain; the mountain goes to Mariah. And on her 15th studio album, the breezy, pleasingly defiant Caution, she finds a freshness that’s been missing from her recent material.
“Just put yourself into my shoes,” she coos over crisp digital fingersnaps and
mentholated synths on airy album opener “8th Grade” — as if any of us could step into the Louboutins of the woman who infamously wore her stilettos on the StairMaster in a now-legendary 2002 episode of MTV Cribs. Whatever kooky champagne universe the Elusive Chanteuse occupies in the public consciousness, though, she’s surprisingly earthbound in her private world here. For every silky, vaguely generic ballad like the title track “Caution” (as in, Proceed With), there’s a “GTFO,” with its bruised lament: “Bulldozed my heart as if you planned it/My prince was so unjustly handsome,” and “How’ bout you get the f— out?” boomerang.
On the tender, heartbeat-syncopated “Giving Me Life,” she admits that a summertime love has her thinking back to being 17 and “feeling myself like I’m Norma Jean” — a sly allusion to her bombshell spirit animal Marilyn Monroe, whose baby grand piano she reportedly bought years ago. In its final minutes, the song dissolves into woozy, guitar-laced spaciousness, maybe the closest Carey’s ever come to psychedelia. (And yes, that’s eye-patched ’80s icon Slick Rick guesting on the breakdown.) “One Mo’ Gen,” a lilting echo of 1995’s “Always Be My Baby,” pleads sweetly with her man for a bedroom replay; the diaphanous ballad “Portrait” forsakes nearly everything but voice and piano.
Like most Mariah albums, Caution is a study in varying degrees of incline; she’s always leaned more toward the bubble bath than the dance floor. Propulsion comes from an updated Rolodex of producers (Skrillex, Drake collaborator Nineteen85) and guests (raspy Atlanta MC Gunna on “Stay Long Love You,” Ty Dolla $ign gilding her low-slung la-di-das on “The Distance.”)
The four singles floated so far haven’t broken the Top 10 domestically, which is disappointing but maybe not surprising, considering Carey’s current status as a sort of pop-star emeritus. It’s not that her jersey’s been retired, exactly, but a decade has passed since her last No. 1, “Touch My Body.” And it does take several listens to find the melodies here beneath all the trademark Mimi gauze, though the hooks feel unmissably sticky once they finally sink in. The album closes with “a No No,” which re-ups the Notorious B.I.G.’s iconic refrain from Lil Kim’s 1997 “Crush on You” remix — a callback to her own glory days no doubt, but also a tart reminder that even when the new school rules, there’s still room for classics too. B+