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Album review: Mariah Carey's 'Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel'*

September 25, 2009 | 10:32 am

She shows off her talent by coming off as just another girl at the nail salon.


On her recently leaked and soon-to-be-released 12th studio album, Mariah Carey and her latest producers, Terius "The-Dream" Nash and Tricky Stewart, attempt to get at something by distilling it. They're seeking the Essence of Mimi, the liquor in the oyster of Carey's famously luscious voice.But instead of showcasing this musical Olympian's dazzling way with a vocal run or her nearly unmatchable whistle register -- obvious choices when it comes to Carey's talent -- she and her team tune into a particular tone, the one that earned her another nickname, Honey.

There's a breathiness to this album that's not only sexy but emotionally intimate. Heavy on slow jams, quiet confessions and kiss-offs closer to the work of the rappers she admires than to Carey's soul sisters, "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" capitalizes on an underrated aspect of the singer's talent: Her ability, even when she's scaling vocal heights, to still come off as just another girl at the nail salon.

Carey's lyrics -- she co-writes everything here, except for her fairly unremarkable cover of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" -- make this point most obviously. Even when fully dressed in the armor of her glamour, as when she advises an ex (Eminem? More likely it's Latin pop star Luis Miguel) to "pretend you on a sofa, and I'm on MTV" when he spies her walking by.

Carey still compulsively shares details about her runny mascara and her appetite for Duncan Hines yellow cake. "Bubble baths on the jet" might be a ridiculous fantasy, but it's not at all elitist. Any real housewife or career girl has been in that daydream.
What The-Dream and Stewart help Carey realize is that her vocal style also communicates this accessibility. Even at its most extravagant, Carey's singing has a warmth, a sensuality and openness to it that sets her apart from peers like Whitney Houston and younger pretenders like Leona Lewis. When she tones down her singing, those qualities dominate.

Not incidentally for a big-ballad singer who's hit 40, stressing her more endearing small voice keeps Carey from any embarrassing shortfalls.

Throughout "Memoirs" she locates that mode of expression in whispers, murmurs and late-night lovers' quarrels. (She tosses off some amusing zingers in the latter.) The tempos here lean back slowly, and the sound is thick, a little heavy, inevitably responding to the sonic shift that occurred in R&B in the wake of Nash and Stewart's first female foil, Rihanna, and their smash "Umbrella."

Even the more aggressive songs on this album -- "Obsessed," Carey's volley in that silly Eminem feud, and "Up Out My Face," in which she recovers via her now-husband Nick Cannon's specialty, the drumline -- proceed with a laid-back nod instead of a disco spin. After a while, the approach is too much of a mildly interesting thing, and Carey's restraint stops serving her agenda.

As every long-married couple knows, intimacy loses its power when the gestures that define it get repetitive. That happens about halfway through "Memoirs," when Carey's soft outpourings start to melt into each other, and it ceases to matter whether she's mourning a broken heart or celebrating a new start.

Nash and Stewart have settled into their own groove as producers; their unctuous, Caribbean-inflected, R. Kelly-inspired tracks work well song by song (especially on the sad ones, like "Languishing" and "Angels Cry," and the sex ones, like "The Impossible"), but there's a point where a trademark sound starts to be a cage, not a calling card.

"Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" will stand out in Carey's catalog as an experiment that illuminates her place in the pantheon without either boosting it or damaging it. I wouldn't be surprised if, a decade from now, Carey cites this effort as a personal favorite. It's that kind of wholly decent effort: a self-exploration that settles on its unpretentious insights by not pushing too hard.

--Ann Powers

Mariah Carey
"Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel"
Island Records
Three stars (Out of four)

Update: An earlier version of this post had the incorrect star rating. "Memoirs of an imperfect Angel" received three stars and not two and a half.