By the time Mariah Carey put out her debut album, she already had a reputation among music-biz insiders as a megastar in the making. “They were saying, ‘This girl has really got it. She’s the next Aretha Franklin,’” recalls producer Rhett Lawrence (Kelly Clarkson, Black Eyed Peas). When Lawrence eventually heard Carey’s demo, he jumped at the chance to work on her first album. “Man, I was knocked out,” he says. “She was even better than the hype.”
Sony Music’s then CEO Tommy Mottola had personally signed the 20-year-old Long Island native (they would later wed and divorce), and it’s easy to see why he was so excited. Carey’s debut introduced the world to a new kind of pop diva. A gifted vocalist, she decorated slow jams like “Vision of Love” (co-produced by Lawrence) with dizzying high notes and operatic trills. Even so, her novel mix of styles didn’t immediately connect. “She went against the norm,” says producer Walter Afanasieff, who would go on to work closely with Carey throughout the ’90s. “That’s not what was on the radio in 1990.” The album debuted at a lowly No. 80.
But the world soon caught on: Mariah Carey eventually hit No. 1 and stayed there for 11 weeks. It has since been certified nine times platinum. The album also netted Carey two Grammys, including Best New Artist. And while the singer, now 41, has seen her ups and downs, her debut remains a high point. “I will always thank Mariah for my experience on that album,” says Afanasieff. “It was like a school that we all graduated from, and everybody went on to achieve massive success – Mariah especially.”
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