With a career as massive and influential as Mariah Carey’s, it can be difficult to keep up with all of the monumental anniversaries—for all the Lambs out there, we’re usually celebrating something on a weekly basis. On the agenda for November, there’s the obvious commemoration of the release of the classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and the “Merry Christmas” album, but as Carey says to people who want to listen to her festive music before Thanksgiving, “Not yet.” As we await the holiday season, we should give just as much love to Carey’s seventh studio album “Rainbow”—celebrating 20 years this month.
In 1999, Carey was coming off of the success of the Oscar winning Whitney Houston duet “When You Believe,” which was intended for the animated feature “The Prince of Egypt” and was also featured in the greatest hits compilation album “#1’s.” Her last studio album, 1997’s “Butterfly,” became her magnum opus—taking advantage of her new found artistic freedom as she delved more into her never-ending love for R&B and hip-hop. Through and through, it was evident that “Butterfly” became her ultimate musical diary.
To continue the momentum of her artistic choices in “Butterfly,” “Rainbow” further showcases her encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop music in addition to her trademark vulnerable storytelling and immaculate ballads.
The album kicks off with the infectious first single “Heartbreaker.” Produced alongside DJ Clue, the song’s hook is built around a sample of Stacy Lattisaw’s “Attack of the Name Game.” Being the first lead single of hers to feature a rapper, bringing in Jay-Z seemed to be the obvious choice as it soon became her 14th number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The music video sees Carey playing as herself and a brunette alter ego named Bianca—being one of the first times the general public witnessed her fun sense of humor. Don’t be fooled by the catchiness of this carefree pop song because her grandiose vocabulary sneaks in there as she sings, “But I just keep on coming back incessantly”—scientifically proving that listening to Carey will instantly boost your SAT scores.
Usually, remixes aren’t always included within an album’s official track listing, but with one as huge as “Heartbreaker (Remix),” it’s too good to leave out. Featuring Da Brat and Missy Elliott, the remix incorporates lyrics and an instrumental sample from Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).” For those who have followed Carey’s career, it’s safe to say that remixes are one of her favorite artistic ventures. It’s rare to see someone in music today who completely reimagines a song. With most of the remixes today, you often hear the same instrumentation of a song with a quick rap verse, but Carey creates a new home for the song by rearranging vocals and adding in extra ad libs on top of a hip-hop feature.
The Snoop Dogg sample from the “Heartbreaker (Remix)” is no coincidence because the rapper caters his cool demeanored voice to “Crybaby.” The blatant usage of background vocals goes right along with the theme of struggling with insomnia—resulting in the swirling of thoughts about a past love. Carey has often expressed her difficulty to sleep due to her hectic schedule and creative mind in interviews—making the song extra relatable to her.
“Rainbow” was the first time Carey worked with legendary producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The sensuality of the track “Bliss” represents a similar essence of Jam & Lewis’ longtime collaborative relationship with Janet Jackson, but Carey executes it in a way that only she can—intermixing the distinction between her glass shattering whistle tone and honey-glazed lower register.
There are a couple of songs on the album that are very of its time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Similar to the Latin influence of “My All” on her previous project and Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” in 1996, the David Foster assisted “After Tonight” is simply gorgeous. It’s no coincidence that the fast-paced, rap singing style of “X-Girlfriend” could’ve easily been a Destiny’s Child or NSYNC* record because Carey co-wrote this alongside Xscape’s Kandi Burruss—responsible for co-writing a plethora of the era’s greatest hits including “Bills Bills Bills,” “Makes Me Ill” and TLC’s “No Scrubs.”
People who enjoy Carey’s emotive ballads won’t be disappointed because she is truly at her greatest when she writes from an introspective, vulnerable standpoint. Co-written with revered songwriter Diane Warren, the therapeutic, inspiring “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme)” helped her get through the rough moments with her label’s management at the time. She speaks of self-reassurance and strength as she sings, “There’s an inner peace I own/Something in my soul that they cannot possess.”
On most of her projects, Carey has the tendency to incorporate a classic cover. This time, she took on Phil Collins’ 1984 hit “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now), which is arguably her most underrated cover—packing the commanding resonance that previous covers of Journey’s “Open Arms” and Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” had.
Within the similar realm of the heart shattering vulnerability of 1995’s “Looking In” and 1997’s “Outside,” Carey continues this trajectory of honesty with “Petals.” Backed by a simple piano, the song journeys listeners to her rocky upbringing and early adult life as she begins singing, “I’ve often wondered if there’s ever been a perfect family/I’ve always longed for undividedness/And sought stability.” Without naming names, the song involves different characters—Dandelion and Valentine—representing instrumental people in her life who hurt her deeply. The song is very specific to her story, yet at the same time, keeps the identity of the references to herself—a difficult balance to achieve for a song as hauntingly vulnerable as this one.
Jam & Lewis’ influence is evident in the sequencing of the album due to the usage of interludes as a way to gracefully transition between the songs. The interlude, “Rainbow,” calls for an uplifting outcome to the melancholy themes of “Petals” as she sings, “I will be alright/If I can find that/Rainbow’s end.” The sounds of birds chirping follow the album’s lovely concluding track “Thank God I Found You,” which features the male vocals of Joe and 98°—representing Carey’s hope for the future.
If the “Butterfly” album spearheaded her newfound creative independence, “Rainbow” reinforced this breath of fresh air and further showcased Carey’s immense musical knowledge and wide-ranging capabilities—refusing to let others pinpoint herself to one lane.
Rylee Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @rybyjackson.