Mariah Carey's "Emotions" at 30

Friday 17 September 2021

Mariah Carey's Emotions at 30 |
In September 1991, Mariah Carey's sophomore effort, Emotions, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. It was a respectable achievement by most standards - except, of course, the one the rising superstar set with her self-titled debut, which spent 11 consecutive weeks at the top of the chart just a few months earlier.

The title track from Emotions hadn't yet reached the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 either - that would happen a couple of weeks later, making Mariah the first (and, to date, only) artist to reach No. 1 with their first five singles. But there was no doubt that she was experiencing a touch of the so-called "sophomore slump". Emotions would go on to sell significantly less than Mariah Carey or either of her blockbuster follow-ups, 1993's Music Box and 1995's Daydream; still, the set has sold 3.61 million in the U.S. to date, according to MRC Data.

Like Mariah's seminal 1997 album Butterfly, however, Emotions is a truly special entry in the singer's catalog, not just because it produced three of her absolute best singles - "Emotions", "Can't Let Go", and "Make It Happen" - but also due to the strength of its deep cuts. In the span of just 10 songs, Mariah effortlessly traverses R&B, disco, gospel and jazz, and does it all with the same keen pop sensibility that would inform her forays into hip-hop and house music.

In honor of the album's 30th anniversary, Emotions will be released on limited edition pink vinyl on October 16 in the U.K., where, like in the U.S., the album originally peaked at No. 4. The release is part of National Album Day, a partnership with BBC Sounds to celebrate both the LP format and women in music. To commemorate three decades of Emotions, we took a look back at Mariah's too-often overlooked early gem and ranked each of the album's 10 songs.

10. "To Be Around You"
"To Be Around You" is one of four tracks on Emotions co-written and produced by Robert Clivillés and David Cole, who were hot off of a string of hits with C+C Music Factory, including the No. 1 smash "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)". The song is a bouncy, keyboard-driven throwback inspired by Cheryl Lynn's 1978 hit "Got to Be Real", but it pales in comparison to Clivillés and Cole's other contributions to the album, including the similar-sounding title track, making "To Be Around You" the only song on Emotions that can be genuinely categorized as "filler".

9. "And You Don't Remember"
A solid ballad in its own right, "And You Don't Remember" is a lush, soulful breakup song that, like "To Be Around You", suffers only by virtue of being on the same album as a superior track: the similarly gospel-infused "If It's Over".

8. "So Blessed"
"So Blessed" is a '60s-style torch song in the vein of the Righteous Brothers' 1965 hit "Unchained Melody", which had re-entered the top 20 of the Hot 100 one year earlier thanks to the film Ghost. Mariah's song boasts a similarly timeless pop quality, punctuated by co-writer and producer Walter Afanasieff's sweeping strings and sparsely plucked electric guitar - not to mention the singer's heart-rending vocal performance. It's a template Mariah would return to on songs such as her 1996 radio hit "Forever".

7. "You're So Cold"
In 2020, Mariah threw shade at "You're So Cold", telling Elle magazine that it's "not worth listening to really", but we respectfully disagree. Reportedly in mind as the album's lead single before Mariah, Clivillés, and Cole cooked up "Emotions", "You're So Cold" is playful, self-indulgent, and over the top - all the things we love about MC. The singer's voice was arguably at its peak in 1991, and though she would tone down the vocal acrobatics over the course of the next several years, this bombastic bop is an unapologetic lesson in extravagance.

6. "Till the End of Time"
Supremely understated by Mariah's standards at the time, and thus easy to overlook, "Till the End of Time" is an elegant, atmospheric ballad that takes its sweet time unfurling over the course of five-and-a-half minutes. Likewise, Mariah's hushed vocals grow increasingly fervent, reaching a fever pitch during the song's dramatic bridge.

5. "The Wind"
Set to a composition by jazz pianist Russell Freeman that was originally made popular by Chet Baker in the 1950s, the closing track on Emotions tells the tragic story of a friend who died in a drunk-driving accident. Mariah and Afanasieff spin Freeman's already plaintive melody into something altogether mournful, introducing the world to the confessional storytelling and breathy vocal style that would become staples in the singer's music for years to come.

4. "If It's Over"
The story goes that Carole King encouraged Mariah to record a cover of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", a song King co-wrote for Aretha Franklin in 1967. But Mariah had a better idea, and the pair sat down to compose an original song for Emotions together. Backed by a live rhythm section, Hammond organ and gospel harmonies that nod directly to Franklin's iconic hit, Mariah delivers one of her most textured and nuanced vocals, putting to rest any speculation at the time about her soul bona fides.

3. "Make It Happen"
The third and final single from Emotions is an autobiographical anthem that finds Mariah recounting her rise from lowly backup singer, when she supposedly had "no proper shoes" on her feet, to multiplatinum superstar with an entire wardrobe designed solely for her high heels. Based on a groove lifted from Alicia Myers's 1981 single "I Want to Thank You", "Make It Happen" (which peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100) incorporates subtle gospel flourishes and inspirational lyrics that transform what could have been a run-of-the-mill rag-to-riches tale into something universal, galvanizing and irresistibly danceable.

2. "Can't Let Go"
The second single from Emotions, "Can't Let Go", stalled at No. 2 on the Hot 100, breaking Mariah's streak of chart-toppers, and it ranks as runner-up on this list, too. The song's ascending melodic hook is a variation on Keith Sweat's 1988 single "Make It Last Forever", but make no mistake - "Can't Let Go" is very much a Mariah Carey song, and it's one of her best slow jams in a career full of them. The synth-heavy ballad's minor chords and despondent verses lend it a moody atmosphere, with Mariah's airy, textured vocals breathtakingly paired with Afanasieff's minimalist collage of Synclavier drum programming.

1. "Emotions"
With Mariah taking more creative control than she had on her debut, Emotions makes plentiful nods to her early influences. So it's no coincidence that the album's three best tracks, all wisely released as singles, feature prominently placed musical references to the past. In fact, "Emotions" took such obvious inspiration from The Emotions' "Best of My Love", which topped both the Hot 100 and R&B singles chart in 1977, that Billboard's then-editor Larry Flick name-checked the disco classic in his review in 1991.

Like "Best of My Love", "Emotions" is deliriously joyous, riding a wave of dopamine so potent that Mariah can barely articulate how she feels, settling for ecstatic sighs, sultry moans and, of course, those euphoric whistle notes. When she does find the words to say how she feels, it's simple and direct - she feels "good" and "nice" and "satisfied". Whatever her emotions, though, it's impossible for the listener not to feel them, too.


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