Mariah Carey’s ‘Caution’: Track-By-Track Album Review

Mimi's Stunning 'With You' Video
Mariah Carey serves looks, glamor and luxury in ravishing 'With You' video.

Staying relevant long enough to release 15 studio albums is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself. Just like landing a number one hit, it’s “difficult to get… not everybody has that.” To be in the game for 28 years and deliver the tightest, filler-free opus of your career is a whole different story. That’s the miracle Mariah Carey pulls off with Caution. This is the new blueprint for legacy acts. Mimi’s ability to walk the notoriously fine like between current beats and nostalgia is breathtaking.

After all, legendary divas have a tendency to retreat to the sound of their glory days (Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable) or try a little too hard to remain current (Madonna’s MDNA). How does the Lamb Whisperer avoid these pitfalls? By freshening up the lineup of producers, while still holding on to trusted collaborators like Jermaine Dupri. That mix gives the album a palpable energy that clearly rubbed off on Mariah’s golden pen (we love a Songwriters Hall Of Fame nominee) and vocal approach.

While Caution largely lacks vocal acrobatics, Mimi’s 5-octave range gets a real workout — adding unexpected flourishes in the most unexpected places. There’s nothing showy here, the hitmaker’s angelic voice flickers like a flame, casting shadow and light at will. That restraint is also apparent in the lean, mean tracklist. There’s a tendency in the streaming age to pack in as much content as possible to boost sales numbers (I’m looking at you, Drake and Chris Brown), but the Cribs MVP grew up in an era when people made albums instead of lumping four singles with 18 forgettable demos.

And that’s what Caution is. A listening experience from beginning to end. In some ways, it’s a concept album about relationships. There are songs about them falling apart, bops about new love and others that celebrate something more lasting. It’s also a love letter to ’90s R&B. There’s a Lil Kim sample, retro beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on Butterfly and a deep understanding that songs can evoke a mood or an emotion without beating you over the head with hooks. As demanded by The Lambily, here’s my track-by-track breakdown.

1. GTFO

Launching an era with a song called “Get The Fuck Out” is a bold move. In Mimi’s ageless Lamb hands, those words are almost seductive. She pulls the plug on a relationship and immediately casts her mind to the next lucky dude over forward-thinking beats courtesy of Nineteen85. (To underline how nuanced and unexpected the production is, there’s also a Porter Robinson sample). As expected, “GTFO” went viral on social media. But it’s more than a meme. This is a multi-layered bop that becomes more addictive with each listen. I can’t help but feel it could have been a big hit with the proper rollout.

2. With You

The tonal shift from “GTFO” to “With You” is one of the few missteps on Caution for me. I feel like the songs should have been at opposite ends of the album to illustrate that our beloved heroine has come full circle in her love life. “GTFO” is a raised middle-finger, while this is a celebration of lasting love. That quibble aside, “With You” is an unusually adult love song that gently washes over you, slowly seeping into your senses with quirky, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a deceptively catchy chorus.

3. Caution

Caution really hits its stride on the title track. Produced by frequent Jay-Z collaborator No I.D., this is arguably the album’s most instant and radio-friendly song. A sleek, pop-R&B hybrid about the tentative first steps of a new relationship, “Caution” finds Mariah at her most direct and vulnerable. “Proceed with caution, don’t be dishonest,” she demands on the chorus over beats that sound equal parts futuristic and nostalgic. “I need you closer to love me harder.” If Destiny’s Child was still making music, they might be making bops like this. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

4. A No No

Speaking of highlights, “A No No” is that song. Generally considered to be a diss track about ex-manager Stella Bulochnikov (the woman who thought Mariah’s World was a good idea), this catchy anthem is jam-packed with quotable lyrics like “snakes in the grass, it’s time to cut the lawn” and the kind of chorus that refuses to leave your head. It’s also a deceptively difficult song to sing. Mariah rides the beat courtesy of Shea Taylor and Jermaine Dupri with the skill of a rapper. Fuck-you tracks don’t come much classier than this.

5. The Distance

The album’s first feature comes on “The Distance.” Once a criticism raised at the vocal goddess, Mimi has obviously made a point of keeping the cameos to a minimum this time around. That has the bonus effect of making Ty Dolla $ign’s contribution to the song stand out even more than it otherwise would. Which is a good thing because he makes a surprisingly effective foil for the 18-time chart-topper. “The Distance” is a solid bet for the next single. While it’s not as punchy as “Caution” or as devious as “A No No,” the theme of trying to make love work is so universal that it makes sense. Skrillex, Lido and Poo Bear also do a good job creating a feel-good, throwback vibe.

6. Giving Me Life

And the award for the most experimental track on Caution goes to the sublime “Giving Me Life.” A six-minute opus produced by Blood Orange, the sultry groove takes a weird and wonderful turn at the four-minute mark. That languid guitar line and Mariah’s otherworldly freestyle is one of the most exciting and unexpected things to happen in 2018. Instead of waving a metaphorical banner to remind us that she’s still got it, the 48-year-old is gently pushing boundaries. The fact that “Giving Me Life” fits perfectly within the context of the album is, however, its biggest achievement. This is so effortlessly cool.

7. One Mo’ Gen

It wouldn’t be a concept album about love if there wasn’t at least one bedroom anthem. And that’s exactly what the Benjamin Button of Pop delivers on “One Mo’ Gen.” Co-produced by Norway’s Fred Ball (his fingerprints were all over Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love album), this evokes ’90s R&B without sounding dated. “Did you like when I put my lips there?” Mariah coos on the chorus. “‘Cause I like when you’re kissin’ me everywhere.” Again, the song is risqué without being outré. Which is how Mimi likes it.

8. 8th Grade

You can’t have an album dedicated to old-school R&B without at least one Timbaland production. The great man adds a little spice to Caution via “8th Grade,” a song that has nothing to do with the education system. “The title reflects on the melancholic feeling I used to have as a kid,” Mariah explained on Twitter and that really comes through on this mellow slow jam that will have you knee-deep in feelings. Which aspect of a relationship does it represent? Those moments when you feel like the feeling isn’t mutual. “I’m not your world,” Mimi laments on the chorus. “No, I’m not your life.” Who can’t relate?

9. Stay Long Love You

Mimi is back in a happier place on “Stay Long Love You.” A bleep and beep-filled bop featuring Gunna, this is the most current sounding track on the album. However, it’s not a jarring change of pace. The Stereotypes know a thing or two about weaving retro influences into a modern sound palette (see their work with Bruno Mars for proof) and this brightens things up with its slightly quicker tempo and party vibe. Something about this reminds me of Rainbow-era Mariah. Yes, it’s that good.

10. Portrait

Mimi knows that the Lambs would revolt if there wasn’t at least one ballad on Caution and “Portrait” fills that void. It’s also the album’s most introspective track. After analyzing her relationships with other people on the rest of the album, this tackles the one with herself. “Look the other way as I bottle myself up inside, I won’t let the teardrops spill tonight,” the chaise-lounge enthusiast sings over a simple piano arrangement. “Just conceal myself and hide, a portrait of my life.” The genius of “Portrait” is the slow build. It really begins to take flight on the bridge, before Mariah pulls the vocal trigger on the final rendition of the chorus. It’s the perfect ending to a remarkable album.

Score: 5/5

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