Album Review: Mariah Carey, “Butterfly” (1997)

Say what you will about Mariah Carey, but one thing is undeniable: the woman has got an amazing voice.  Carey has been a pop music diva for years; since her debut in 1990, she’s released 10 studio albums, sold over 200 million records worldwide, won five Grammys (as well as numerous other awards), and has had 18 number one singles in the United States.  She’s not just a diva…she’s a legend.

With a talent and fame like hers, it seems that everything Carey touches should turn to gold.  1997 saw the release of Carey’s sixth studio album, Butterfly, and the disc definitely shows off her amazing talent.  Though a bit of the disc gets muddled with poor production and odd guest appearances (which seems to be a recurring theme on Carey’s latest albums), the rest of it is a sturdy representation of what makes Mariah Carey a star.

Honey
begins the album, and the opening chords are instantly recognizable- this song was the big hit of 1997.  The old school, hip-hop beat that the song features was a new transition in music for Carey- so far her career had consisted of pop ballads, so this new R&B sound was a bit unexpected, but generally well-received in the music world.  To give the sound an even more authentic vibe, one of the biggest rappers of the time, Puff Daddy, lends a verse to the song.  It’s weird to think now that this was essentially Carey’s first R&B/hip-hop hit (other than the remixes of “Fantasy”), as now it’s pretty much all she does.  Regardless, this introduction into the future of Carey’s career is still a great one.

Fans of Carey’s old music need not worry, as there are still plenty of straightforward ballads on this album.  Title track, Butterfly, is a traditional pop ballad; Carey’s vocals are highlighted beautifully on this inspirational song which was co-written by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, who also serves as the co-writer and producer for much of the album.  Whenever You Call is a pretty piano-based ballad, which is basically just used as a vehicle to highlight Carey’s vocals.  Not that I’m complaining- she sounds absolutely wonderful on this track, especially as she shifts from her lower to upper register during the verses.  Admittedly, I do enjoy the version of this song included on her first greatest hits album, which is presented as a duet with R&B balladeer, Brian McKnight, but the original is still quite pretty.

The standout ballad from the album, is My All.  Right from the latin guitar in the song’s opening, you can tell that you’re in store for something sexy, and Carey’s sultry vocals help give off a seductive vibe. The soft, R&B sound works perfectly juxtaposed with Carey’s powerful vocals and emotive delivery, making the song one of the best in her career.

While I could honestly listen to Carey sing ballads for hours  (…if only I had a voice like hers!), there’s also a nice mix of upbeat songs to give the album some variety.  Fourth of July is a midtempo track and one of my favourite songs by Carey.  I probably haven’t listened to this particular song in a couple of years, but the catchy chorus is one I can still instantly sing along with. Another hip-hop duet arrives with Breakdown, which features rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.  When I think of the music world, Marey Carey and Bone Thugs couldn’t be further away from each other, but somehow they make this collaboration work perfectly.  The song delves into the emotional turmoil after a breakup (“Well, I guess I’m trying to be nonchalant about it/And I’m going to extremes to prove I’m fine without you/But in reality I’m slowly losing my my mind/Underneath the guise of a smile gradually I’m dying inside…”), and Carey offers up a surprisingly stripped-back vocal delivery, almost doing a bit of rapping herself during the fast-paced verses.  Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone from Bone Thugs lend their vocals for two short raps during the bridge to give the song a bit more of a hip-hop feeling.  I don’t really remember this being a hit, which is a shame- I honestly think it’s one of Carey’s better R&B/urban tracks.

Mariah Carey Neighborhood Ball in downtown Washington 2009 cropped

The album isn’t all hits, however.  One low point is the highly forgettable The Roof; the R&B sound doesn’t work this time, and instead sounds like a b-side to some other R&B artist’s album.  Babydoll runs at five minutes long, but I can’t recall any of those five minutes; the washed out sound and repetitive chorus are a bit embarrassing compared to some of the better produced songs on the album. Close My Eyes is a uptempo ballad again co-written by Carey and Afanasieff, and while it’s decent enough, they’ve already had far better collaborations on the album.  The title track gets a reprise titled Fly Away, which is, oddly enough, a fast-paced house song.  An ambient introduction (with Carey singing in her trademark whistle register in the background) leads into a song filled with busy synth, booming bass, and a beat perfect for the dance floor.  It’s not as much of a trainwreck as you’d imagine, but itisa weird addition to what’s mostly been an R&B/pop album, and really, it just ends up sounding like some club remix you’d hear on a Friday night out, not something you’d really want to listen to on an album.

The worst offender of all, however, is Carey’s remake of Prince’s classic The Beautiful Ones.  Prince made this song a hit when he released it on his iconic Purple Rain album, and I’ve always loved his original; his truly heart wrenching, emotional delivery gives me chills.  Carey’s version can’t be further from the original.  She duets with late-90’s R&B group, Dru Hill, and lead-singer Sisqo (yes, “Thong Song” Sisqo- remember him?), yelps his way through the entire first verse, sounding like a rejected contestant from American Idol.  Carey’s verse is a lot better, but she sounds emotionless- like she’s just singing the words without  feeling any of the heartbreak in the lyrics (“Don’t make me waste my time/Don’t make me lose my mind, baby…/You make me so confused/The beautiful ones/You seem always to lose”).  The song gets even worse as it progresses; there’s a weird musical break wherein Sisqo and the other Dru Hill guys read out the words of the song like it’s a spoken word piece or something, and then Carey and Sisqo engage in a two-minute long sing off, which is really just the two of them singing in runs, unnecessarily yelling words and holding notes for insanely long periods of time for no real reason.  It’s just a disaster, and even more so when I think of how beautiful the original song is.  Let’s just leave this to Prince for now on, shall we?

The album comes to a close with one last ballad, Outside.  This track is another forgettable one, in fact, I didn’t even remember it being on the album.  The understated melody and quiet sound are a nice reprieve from all the screaming that went on in The Beautiful Ones, but the hushed tones don’t help the song stand out at all.  Even Carey’s vocals seem like they’re on autopilot at this point, and so the song ends the album on a disappointingly lacklustre note.

Butterfly 
is a classic entry in Mariah Carey’s discography, and it’s easy to see why: Carey’s gorgeous vocals, impressive production, and catchy hip-hop tracks make the album a great one.  Even the filler tracks are still listenable (save The Beautiful Ones, of course), and the result is a highly enjoyable album.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track List
1. Honey
2. Butterfly
3. My All
4. The Roof
5. Fourth Of July
6. Breakdown (Featuring Krayzie Bone & Wish Bone)
7. Babydoll
8. Close My Eyes
9. Whenever You Call
10. Fly Away (Butterfly Reprise)
11. The Beautiful Ones (Featuring Dru Hill)
12. Outside

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIhI23gBBPQ]
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