It must be nice to be Mariah Carey. After all, the woman is one of the most successful recording artists of all time. Every studio album she's released since her 1990 debut has gone Platinum. As of this writing, she is only three songs away from tying The Beatles as the artist with the most #1 singles in history (and only a couple of days away from moving one closer to that record). In. History. Aside from a brief period when she decided she wanted to be an actress and then went nutso, she's had a successful and consistent run.
While I certainly have no shame in admitting that I enjoy Mariah's work, I can also say that she's never made that one classic album that turns mere success stories into legends. Her debut and 1995's Daydream come close, but on the whole, her albums are maddeningly inconsistent.
1997's Butterfly found Mariah in a transitional period. In the process of divorcing her husband Tommy Mottola (who also happened to be the president of her label), she was also in the process of slowly shedding her goody-two-shoes pop diva image. Although previous albums had shown elements of a grittier hip-hop/R&B sound, Butterfly was really the first album that really favored a more youthful, urban energy. Unfortunately, the album is quite the mixed bag.
Two years before, Mariah experienced great success with the song Fantasy, the remix of which featured production (and by production, I mean wholesale thievery of a popular song-"Genius of Love" by Tom Tom Club, as was his way...) by Sean "Puffy" Combs. It's hard to see Butterfly's opening track, Honey, as anything other than a baldfaced attempt to replicate the sound of Fantasy. Puffy's back, sharing production duties with The Ummah (the team behind latter-day A Tribe Called Quest), the obvious samples return (at least to hardcore hip-hop heads. Most of the folks in Iowa wouldn't recognize the Treacherous Three and World Famous Supreme Team records that were jacked), and the result sounds way more like a "production" than an actual song. It barely has a melody, Mariah sounds like she's fighting for space with all the other voices on the song (in addition to Combs, proteges Ma$e and The Lox appear), and the result is the hip-hop influenced hot mess that we've come to expect at least once on a Mariah album.
Thankfully, she fares better with songs that have street appeal but downplay the overt hip-hop influence. The Roof is a dusky, mysterious track that makes great use of the eerie guitar-and-drum sample from Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones Part II", while Babydoll is a seductive track that finds Mariah downplaying her tendency to over-emote in favor of a sexier, lower-key vocal. The stuttering percussion that marked early Timbaland productions is here, although the production is handled, again, by Combs and the Bad Boy camp. 4th of July is a nice attempt at a Seventies style soul ballad. It definitely gives you a Minnie Riperton vibe, even if it was a retread of Underneath The Stars, a song that appeared on Mariah's previous album.
Butterfly's two best tracks couldn't be more opposite. The majestic title track appears at first glance to be a Mariah-by-the-numbers power ballad. However, the lyrics, which can quite easily be traced back to Mottola's stifling relationship with Carey, have a personal touch that makes the theatrics go down easier-or at least gives Mariah an excuse for the theatrics. Using the analogy of a butterfly emerging from it's cocoon to describe her relationship, Mariah is at her best, crooning lines like "But I will stand and say goodbye/For you'll never be mine/Until you know the way it feels to fly". It is truly an emotionally affecting song.
Completely switching gears, Mariah takes on a fairly adventurous cover-The Beautiful Ones, which was an album track from Prince's 1984 masterpiece "Purple Rain". Joined by vocal group Dru Hill on this song, I think that part of it's enjoyment just comes from the audacity it took to cover that particular song. Neither Mariah nor the Dru Hill guys really add anything, but it's still pretty enjoyable, and in Dru Hill's Sisqo, Mariah finally met her match when it came to excessively emotive vocalizing.
And...that's about it when it comes to this album's highlights, to be honest with you. Breakdown is a fairly lame jack of Bone Thugs 'n Harmony's "Tha Crossroads" that's notable only because it was Mariah's first of several attempts at speed-singing, and Whenever You Call and My All find Mariah drifting into Celine Dion snooze-fest territory. It's like in order to counterbalance the more aggressive hip-hop numbers, she felt the need to write some of the most colorless, bland love songs in the history of colorless, bland love songs.
Butterfly really marked the end of Adult Contemporary Mariah and ushered in the age of near-naked Party Girl Mariah. It's hard to say which of the two made better music, especially since the four studio albums that followed Butterfly have been various shades of mediocre despite their success (and the outlook for her new album doesn't look good, if the first two singles are any indication). Although this is one of Mariah's better albums, I can really only recommend it by the slightest of hairs. That fact alone should give you an idea of the overall mediocrity of Mariah's catalog-proof that a fantastic voice (and tons of success) doesn't always equal great records.
"Butterfly" by Mariah Carey
Released 1997 on Columbia Records
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars (rounded down)
Track Listing: Honey/Butterfly/My All/The Roof/4th of July/Breakdown/Babydoll/Close My Eyes/Whenever You Call/The Beautiful Ones (feat. Dru Hill)/Butterfly (Fly Away Reprise)/Outside