Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mariah Carey's "Glitter" Redux 10 Years On

In 2001, Mariah Carey unveiled her seventh album and gambled on a crossover into the movie medium. Spending the past decade defying obstacles and winning hearts, no one, least of all Carey herself saw the doom ahead.

Glitter as an album signaled a larger query of Carey's conflicts with quality over quantity. Unlike previous bouts, Glitter was Carey's first recording to offer a spotlight to her best and worst moments in one place.

The History
Capping off her golden period at Columbia Records, Carey made an energized maneuver to sign with Virgin Records in 2000. Settling in quickly, Carey began drawing on all her abilities to create her seventh album and its partner film. Under the working title of "All That Glitters," the film became Glitter. Barring the obvious allusions of Billie Frank, the film heroine, being a biracial singer and native New Yorker, the comparisons between Carey and Frank stopped there. The Vondie Curtis-Hall directed work placed Carey as Frank in a post-disco, early 1980's New York City. There, Frank/Carey struggled with romance, career aspirations, and other plot devices that amorous period pieces like this are made of. The movie featured additional acting appearances from Max Beesley, Eric Benét, Shawntae Harris (Da Brat), Terrence Howard, and Tia Texada. Carey's first movie was made grander by its soundtrack, which for all intents and purposes was an album Carey seemed destined to record since 1995.

The Record
Not the same age as Billie Frank in Glitter, Carey was a teenager in New York when it was rife with exciting changes. Black music was bravely soaring to new horizons in dance and a harsher art form known as hip-hop. These styles coalesced into the black new wave Glitter took place in, roughly 1983.

Great artists from this era heard in the film included Whodini ("Freaks Come Out At Night"), D-Train ("You're the One For Me"), Zapp ("Dance Floor"), The System ("You Are in My System"), and the S.O.S. Band ("Tell Me If You Still Care"). Carey's own music leading up to Glitter peered back to her youth. Read the liner notes to the Daydream (1995) cut "Fantasy" to see Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" sampled. The-then recent "Heartbreaker" from Rainbow (1999) styled Stacy Lattisaw's "Attack of the Name Game" into roller rink bliss. Carey's musical legitimacy was potent to record the ultimate resurrection of '80's R&B on an album. It was something many of her fans and knowing critics had pined for.

Carey ushered in assistance from three men who helped shape that span of time: Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and the late Rick James. Additional production duties fell to Walter Afanasieff, James "Big Jim" Wright, Damizza, D.J. Clue, and  Clark Kent.

Twelve songs, including a tangled, guest star riddled remix of the lead single "Loverboy," filled Glitter. The ballads, Carey's watermark, were some of her most silken. The Afanasieff number "Lead the Way" was majestic, if by-the-numbers. "Twister," a harmonious slice of soul, was written as a tribute to a friend and stylist of Carey's who passed away. "Reflections (Care Enough)" lyrically eyed the film plot and brought with it a gospel stained emotion that echoed Mariah Carey (1990). Detailing Carey's gift as a writer, it received larger notoriety on The Ballads in 2009. "Never Too Far," a massive, orchestral beauty was one of the criminally forgotten Carey songs of the last decade.

The Rick James produced and penned "All My Life" situated itself as the major player of Glitter. Surrounded by opulent flutes and florid keyboards, Carey gave her sexiest performance. "Want You," a duet with Eric Benét, (who played Rafael in the flick) was inspired by Nick Martinelli, the producer associated with the '80's U.K. soul sounds of Loose Ends. The sensual tune put the listener into the midnight skyline of New York City.

The jubilant "Loverboy" sampled Cameo's "Candy" (ironically released in 1986); both Larry Blackmon and Thomas Jenkins (of Cameo) appeared in the song (and video). Carey's layered coos, giggles, and sighs either charmed or grated. Busier than her previous sample-led singles, "Loverboy" was the last in that lane to date. The cut and paste of Carey's voice over Cherrelle's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On," from '84's Fragile, was baffling. The pressurized dance cut actually fit Carey well. It begged the question as to why Jam and Lewis, the producers of the original and repeated form here, didn't construct a new song out of the production cloth of "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On." The film used this as the song that breaks Billie Frank.

Lazy covers of InDeep's "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life" and Tom Browne's "Funkin' For Jamaica (N.Y.)," recast as "(Don't Stop) Funkin' for Jamaica" wasted the potential these songs had to move Carey closer to her '80's R&B retro nirvana. "Last Night" was clumsily mobbed by Fabulous, D.J. Clue, and Busta Rhymes; Mystikal's verses on "(Don't Stop) Funkin' for Jamaica" reduced Carey to a hook girl on her own album. "If We" furthered the hook girl dilemma by supplanting Carey to chorus status while Ja Rule and the late Nate Dogg delivered dire verses. These creative breakdowns hounded Carey throughout Glitter, its combination of good and bad on one record made the assessment of the LP arduous.

The Impact
The film and its album were preceded by "Loverboy" on 7/17/01. "Loverboy" topped the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart and landed at a comfortable #2 position on the Billboard Hot 100. As the single certified gold, more was made over the David LaChapelle directed video that portrayed Carey as a race track girl to the chagrin of critics. Internationally, the single was met with lukewarm or fair receptions: Canada (#3), Australia (#7), U.K. (#12), Japan (#52).

Later, Carey's behavior began to lean toward the erratic during the press blitz for the film and album. It culminated in an unscheduled appearance on the Carson Daly hosted MTV Total Request Live program. Carey had a brief respite from public appearances at which time the film and album were pushed back. The movie hit cinemas on 9/21/01 while disastrously the companion record dropped on 9/11/01. Characterized as "mental exhaustion," Carey emerged from her break refreshed to finish plugging her projects.

The film was slammed by poor sales and reviews, whereas the album was met with mixed thoughts.

All Music Guide hard nose Stephen Thomas Erlewine stated:

...this album shows that Mariah needs some guiding force, something to keep her on track. Otherwise, she sinks into gormless ballads, covers of early-'80s funk tunes that sound exactly like the originals, hip-hop funk that plays plastic and stiff. This touches on everything Mariah tried before, but nothing works, not the oversinging, not the sentimental, not the desperate attempts for street cred.

His thoughts were furthered by David Browne of Entertainment Weekly:'s Mariah, business as usual: a few overemoted ballads, a few doses of lite-FM hip-hop, all of it as gauzy and shapeless as her previous work.

Though, there were critics that championed the areas of Glitter that showed growth. Sal Cinquemani, of Slant Magazine, reflected:

"All My Life," a collaboration with Rick James, would make a daring yet commercially viable single. Its Studio 54-era synth-flutes and sultry vocal could, at the very least, rub up against the boundaries of pop radio like no other Carey tune has since 1995's "Fantasy." "Want You," a duet with "Glitter" co-star Eric Benét is another retro gem, featuring grinding bass and Carey's distinctive vocal phrasing (she uncurls seemingly verbose adjectives like "painstakingly" with unrivaled ease).

The most fair and accurate review came from Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield in the 8/30/01 issue of the magazine. Sheffield captured the ethos of this album as thus:

The vintage-flavored music evokes classic R&B groups like Ready for the World, Atlantic Starr, Skyy and even my beloved KlymaxxWith Glitter, Mariah takes a step toward staking her claim as a grown-up.

"Never Too Far"
Directed By: Vondie Curtis-Hall

Commercially, the record continued the downward arc started with Rainbow, moving just 100,000 its first week of release. Glitter garnered respectable positions on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Album Chart (#7) and the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Album Chart (#6). It claimed platinum status quickly in America. The worldwide audiences received Glitter better: Japan (#1), Spain (#3), France (#5) U.K. (#10), Australia (#13).

As such, a plethora of promotional singles were pulled from Glitter to keep the album afloat in the international territories. These singles included "(Don't Stop) Funkin' for Jamaica," "Reflections (Care Enough)," and "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life." A video for "(Don't Stop)..." can be currently seen on Youtube, but received no push. The major follow-up to "Loverboy" in the United States was "Never Too Far," promoted with a performance segment of the song taken from the movie. The single missed the U.S. Pop and R&B charts altogether, but performed at U.S. Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks (#17). Currently, Glitter has shifted 3 million units worldwide.

The fallout from this caused Virgin Records to buy-out the $100 million dollar contract they had given Carey, effectively paying her to leave the label. Carey inked a deal with Island/Def Jam Records who released Charmbracelet (2002), The Emancipation of Mimi (2005), E=MC² (2008), Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009), and Merry Christmas II You (2010).

Mimi returned Carey to commercial and critical favor, its creative slant not nearly as interesting as Glitter's best sides. That honor went to 2009's Memoirs, which had Carey in her best voice since Glitter, but like that album it staged Carey's constant musical schism. This is, and may always be, Carey's battle. Carey's unwillingness to balance or explore a particular artistic path has left her discography ravaged with holes. Glitter was a tool that easily might have broadened her sound. Without the risk, there is no reward and for Carey it's not too late to grasp the risk. In the meantime, one can look at the erroneous ends of Glitter and forgive them.The songs that do it right do it well. Three stars out of five.

[Editor's Note-Glitter is still readily in print and can be located in most music retailers. For current news on Mariah Carey, visit Mariah Carey Official.-QH]