Catching her breath Mariah Carey: She could always belt out a song, but now the pop vocalist is using an airier, more private voice. And her slick, lush sound is getting funkier.

October 12, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Mariah Carey is losing her voice.

Well, one of them, anyway. She has two. One is a full-throated, octave-spanning powerhouse, the kind of voice that can bring an audience to its feet. That's her public voice -- the one she used to power her way through hits like "Vision of Love" and "Hero," the one that built her reputation.

Her other voice is more private. Airy and intimate, it's the sort a mother would use to soothe her children. Until recently, it has been the voice Carey has kept for herself. "This is me," she says of it. "I sit around all day and hum to the radio in my airy voice. I've always been really comfortable doing that.

"But somehow, it always seemed like everybody liked me to do the belting thing more."

It's not hard to see how Carey would get that impression, given the number of belt-it-out singles her fans have sent to the top of the charts. But that seems to be changing. "Honey," her current single, is sung almost entirely in that airy voice, and it entered at No. 1.

But if her audience has no problem with that airy voice, Carey does. "Right now, I'm dealing with these allergies," she says, sounding slightly hoarse over the phone. "[The pollen] attacks my breathy voice first, and my belting voice stays with me." To demonstrate, she tries to whisper a bit of melody, but all that emerges is air.

"It's so depressing," she says, disheartened. "But it'll be all right."

Of course it will. Despite the effects of pollen at the moment, Carey has the comfort of having found her true voice, and it comes through loud and clear on her latest album, "Butterfly."

Instead of the slick pop and lush, dramatic balladry that were the staples of her early albums, "Butterfly" offers a funkier, more street-wise Carey, one whose musical playmates include such hip-hop stars as Q-Tip, Missy Elliot and Sean "Puffy" Combs. One track finds her trading rapid-fire phrases with members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; another has her working through the Prince oldie "The Beautiful Ones" with Dru Hill.

While it's not hard-core R&B, it's worlds away from the Journey and Harry Nilsson covers she once did.

This new direction had some in the music industry worried. As they saw it, Carey's core audience was a pop crowd, listeners who couldn't care less about "def" rhymes and "dope" beats.

On top of pop

They had good reason to worry. At 27, Carey is the decade's most successful pop star. Since her 1990 debut, she has seen a dozen singles go to No. 1, while her album sales have topped 80 million worldwide. All told, her recordings earn an estimated $200 million a year for Sony Music, a sum that puts her at the very top of the pop music heap.

"Everybody sort of puts her up there with Whitney [Houston]," says Alan Light, editor-at-large for Vibe magazine. "But Whitney hasn't put out a record since '90. It's been only soundtracks and singles since then. In the meantime, Mariah has put out seven albums.

"This really is a pretty serious juggernaut," he adds. "I don't think that she's perceived as nearly the force that she is."

Nor is she given much credit for creativity. In contrast to fellow divas like Houston and Celine Dion, Carey composed the bulk of her hits, and shares production credits on her last two albums. She takes an active role in cutting backing tracks, and handles the vocal production by herself. She's no producer's pet; in the studio, even hit-machines like "Puffy" Combs defer to her judgment.

In that sense, she's more like Madonna than any other pop diva, a singer whose success reflects a genuinely individual vision. Granted, Carey has yet to produce a hit with the kind of cultural resonance Madonna achieved with "Like a Virgin," "Material Girl" or "Papa Don't Preach," but that probably says more about the difference between the two singers' ambition than their ability.

Madonna's background was in rock and in the theater, and from the beginning she wanted her music to make a statement. Carey, by contrast, is first and foremost a singer, and tends to focus more on melody and emotion. Indeed, the most impressive thing about her artistic growth has been the way she has increased the emotional subtext to her songs without oversinging (the musical equivalent of chewing the scenery) or losing sight of the melody.

Perhaps that's why she's so confident when she says, "I don't feel like I alienated any audience doing this record."

"Certainly, hearing about this record before it was out, I was prepared for a much more radical departure," says Light, who points out that Carey's first single, "Vision of You," topped both the pop and R&B charts. "Mariah already exists as an R&B phenomenon. That's nothing this album is trying to create."

Maybe not, but its hip-hop content is clearly a point of pride with the singer. Take the way she talks about "The Roof," a dreamy number built around a sample from a little-known Mobb Deep rap, "Shook Ones."

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