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MARIAH BREAKS OUT
CAREY ATTEMPTS TO FREE HERSELF FROM THE POP DIVA IMAGE, AND DOES A CREDIBLE JOB THANKS TO HER VOCAL GYMNASTICS

CD Review

Mariah Carey

The Emancipation of Mimi ***(out of four)

Island/Def Jam]

Fifteen years ago, Mariah Carey arrived like the wail of a siren in the dead of night, paving the way for the success of R&B-laced pop marked by virtuosic, melisma-heavy vocals.

A decade later, the sound Carey spearheaded came to be the stock-in-trade of "American Idol," and spawned a healthy portion of Mariah-imitators. This week, Carey released her latest album, "The Emancipation of Mimi," in hopes that she'll still mean something in the post-Idol, Beyonce-run pop world.

And why not?

Carey is a groundbreaking starlet. Following her arrival in 1990, few female artists in her pop-R&B field were allowed to get by merely singing with conviction or style. After Mariah, you had to be a virtuoso, and if you weren't one, well, that's what then-new recording studio devices like Pro Tools and "pitch correction" were for. But Mariah could wail, and rarely let a tune go by without making sure you knew it, sometimes three or four times per song.

The best moments on "Emancipation" find Carey sounding relaxed and confident in her startling voice. The production is clever, too, as when West manages to weave the '70s hit "Betcha By Golly Wow" rather seamlessly into "Stay the Night," and Dupri assimilates Bobby Womack's masterful "If You Think You're Lonely Now" into "We Belong Together." The ballads -- "Mine Again" being the worst offender -- are sappy and dripping with melodrama, but will probably appeal to fans of Carey's top-notch vocal aerobics.

From the start, Carey wrote the book on excess purely for its own sake -- borrowing a few parts from Patti Labelle, a bit from the coloratura of Stevie Wonder, and the rest from glitzy stage musicals, blending it all in a big-haired, curvaceous pot.

Fresh out of high school as the '80s caved in on themselves, Carey landed a spot singing backup for Brenda K. Starr, so impressing her boss that she passed on Carey's demo tape to then-Sony Music head honcho Tommy Mottola. Mottola wasted no time signing Carey to a contract with Columbia records. Then he married her. Talk about power weddings; they had the market cornered, and Carey spent most of the rest of the '90s selling in the area of 75 million records, making her the biggest-selling female artist in history.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and in the pop world, this is doubly so. Mottola and Carey didn't make the marriage cut, and soon after their split, she delivered a mega-budget train-wreck of a movie called "Glitter." At least that thing was so bad, it was almost funny. "Glitter" was just plain pathetic, and the industry wasted no time turning on Carey.

In short order, Carey began losing her stuff in public, through a series of strange postings on her Web site and a number of televised meltdowns and temper tantrums. She ended up spending some time in a hospital in Connecticut where, one imagines, she spent time "raking leaves with Liza," to borrow a line from Warren Zevon. The feather in Carey's seemingly crazy cap? Virgin records, her label, paid her 28 million big ones to go away, making her perhaps the highest-paid free agent in pop history.

Bearing all of this in mind, the "emancipation" Carey's new album speaks of isn't one involving spiritual revolution or existential rebirth, but rather, freedom from being labeled a loony-tune diva hanging onto "reality" by a thread not much bigger than a G-string. In that sense, she's hit the jackpot; "The Emancipation of Mimi" is as good as the work that earned Carey her reputation in the first place. It's overwrought, cheesy and cynical in its manipulation of Carey's strengths - which are singing really, really high, singing extremely low, exploiting the sexy space in between, and throwing a club joint or two in there for good measure. She's as able a vocal gymnast as ever, and to her credit, "Emancipation" finds her, once again, co-writing all of her songs.

In the real world, musical artists aren't judged by the clothes they wear or their specific image, but since most of us don't live in the real world, and Carey seems deeply concerned with her appearance, let's have a go at her "new look."

On the cover of "Emancipation," she presents herself as a cross between Beyonce and a towering bronze statue of a lap dancer. Inside the accompanying booklet, she frolics freely beneath a gauzy, see-through white frock of some sort. Here, she looks like . . . well, a stripper.

That's that, then. When in Rome . . .

The music reflects a Carey in touch with exactly what her public demands, and well aware of what her strengths have been in the past. With all the public display of the cracks and fissures in her facade, Carey was in danger here of coming across as a has-been, but she doesn't, employing some hipster producers of the moment - the Neptunes, West, old-schooler Dupri - and enlisting perennial favorites like Snoop Dogg, Nelly and the madcap Twista to offer her record a veneer of the here-and-now. It works.

On balance, this is Carey's strongest album since her 1990 self-titled debut.

Will this matter today, when every wannbe-diva in the world is familiar with the over-singing that Carey made popular, and Beyonce has claimed the pop-dance throne Mariah left vacant while flirting with a nervous breakdown?

Probably.

Carey, it seems, has managed to survive long enough to safely navigate the curve beyond which the old becomes new again.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com