"This wasn't even going to be an album."
It's just past 6 on an October Saturday evening, and Mariah Carey is in a room in Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel, doing what she's been doing all day: Talking about her soon-to-be-released new album, "Rainbow" (arriving in stores Tuesday). Her ninth album in less than 10 years, it's sure to be one of the season's biggest sellers, as well as one of the most significant albums of the 29-year-old singer's career.
But, as Carey explains, a new CD wasn't even on the drawing board a few months ago. Originally, she had hoped to spend the latter part of the year shooting "All That Glitters" -- "my long-awaited movie" -- and had started the summer writing songs for specific scenes in the film.
"Then they pushed back the date of the movie," she says. With several soundtrack-bound songs ready to go anyway, Carey decided to use the free time constructively, and headed into the studio.
One of those tunes was a deceptively upbeat soul/pop romp called "Heartbreaker." Built around a sample from the Stacy Lattisaw oldie "Attack of the Name Game," the track had a bouncy, good-time groove harking back to the roller-disco craze of the early '80s. "The movie is set in the '80s," says Carey. "That's why it was kind of retro, cutesy."
To lend that old-school groove a more contemporary feel, Carey and co-producer DJ Clue brought rapper Jay-Z in to lay down some rhymes. But Jay-Z did more than rap. "Jay-Z and all those guys were in the studio going, 'This [song] is hot. You should put this out now,'" recalls Carey. "I was like, 'They're right. I have to get it out. It's a summer record. I should, I should, I should.' "
She did, she did, she did. And Jay-Z was right -- "Heartbreaker" was hot. Not only did the single go straight to No. 1, it stayed there for two weeks, a feat that pushed Carey's cumulative time at the top to 60 weeks, breaking the Beatles' old record. It's an amazing feat, but one Carey declines to crow about. "I don't even like to talk about that," she says, sounding almost embarrassed about having upstaged the Fab Four.
Having such a big hit was a mixed blessing, though. These days, nobody settles for just a single -- there has to be an album somewhere along the way. The question facing Carey was: What kind of album?
"I was like, OK, if I'm going to do this, I'm either going to use some of the songs from the soundtrack, or do a completely different album," says the singer. "I just did a completely different album. But it's the quickest album I've ever done."
It's also, in many ways, her most personal album to date. From the domestic drama of "X-Girlfriend" to the romantic ecstasy of "Bliss," to the soul- baring honesty of "Petals," "Rainbow" takes the listener deep into the heart of Carey's inner life. Yet for all its personal revelations, the album manages to retain the pop savvy of her previous releases, thanks to chart-bound tracks ranging from the joyous, gospel-schooled "Thank God I Found You" to her roof-rattling remake of the Phil Collins oldie "Against All Odds."
Of course, for Carey to have a hit on her hands is hardly stop-the-presses news. She's one of the most popular recording artists in the world, having amassed global sales in excess of 120 million albums and singles. And her success is largely the result of her own ideas and effort, as Carey has co-written or co-produced (in most cases, both) every one of her 14 chart-toppers.
Even so, the young woman curled into a hotel chair with a plate of Chinese food hardly looks like the world-conquering diva her stats would suggest. Instead of designer duds and chilled Cristal, she's sporting a baby blue tank top, and jeans with the waistband cut off; the beverage bubbling in her glass is just mineral water.
But even dressed down, with her hair up and only the slightest-traces of makeup on her freshly scrubbed face, she exudes the sort of beauty and presence that would make heads swivel almost anywhere. Make no mistake -- Mariah Carey is genuine superstar material.
Not that she thinks so. Carey used to be "really insecure" about her looks, and even now seems less-than-convinced about her beauty.
Still, things aren't as bad as they once were. "I used to feel like I had to cover one side of my face," she says of earlier insecurities. "I didn't show my forehead for the first six years [of my career]." It wasn't that Carey thought she was ugly; she just wasn't convinced she was beautiful, and so depended on others for feedback.
Unfortunately, what she got wasn't always the best advice. "A lot of people played into the insecurities that I had as a kid," she says.