What's in a name? Mariah Carey is calling her 10th studio CD The Emancipation of Mimi. It's the sort of bold title that promises big changes, exciting sounds, a fresh outlook. Both the word emancipation and the sobriquet Mimi (a nickname used by friends and family) imply that Carey's latest will be soaringly free and intensely personal. Could those words also signal that this is the disc on which Carey throws caution to the wind and explores alien genres? Is this where her previously unsuspected love for artists like, say, Jimi Hendrix, the Smiths, or Pere Ubu finally rears its head?
Of course not. (Ah, but it's fun to dream, isn't it?) Our girl is attempting to extricate herself from the prolonged career slump that began with the abysmal failure of the Glitter soundtrack in 2001 and continued through 2002's Charmbracelet, and neither she nor her handlers are likely to take any crazy chances. (She's probably never heard of Pere Ubu anyway.) In fact, the superstar producers and guest artists on Emancipation (the Neptunes, Kanye West, Twista, Snoop Dogg, Nelly) are no less than the hottest and most over-exposed names in urban music.
If such a stacking of the deck seems predictable, it gets the job done: Every song on Emancipation showcases Carey's undeniable vocal strengths. Heavy on ballads and midtempo love songs, it always keeps at least one foot (more often both feet) planted firmly in comforting old-school diva soul. This is an R&B record for folks who think there hasn't been any good R&B since Minnie Riperton died.
Even the rappers are on their best behavior, with Snoop playing an amiable around-the-way lothario on ''Say Somethin''' and Twista motormouthing his way through ''One and Only'' (''Twista and Mariah/Together like a grip on a tire,'' he raps, and it must be admitted that Carey does a fair job of trying to keep up with him).
''It's Like That'' isn't the old Run-DMC song, but it's almost as cool, with Carey fantasizing about easing into a nightclub buzzed on Bacardi. ''No stress, no fights,'' she sings, making it sound like a trip to a vacation spa. ''To the Floor'' is another hooky dance-floor anthem that ought to get a party started (although it does sound like Nelly phoned his part in).
But the crux of the album is to be found in its heart-on-my-sleeve numbers. Perhaps the best of these is ''Fly Like a Bird,'' a veritable prayer that explicitly references God. ''Sometimes this life can be so cold/I pray you'll come and carry me home,'' Carey sings melismatically. ''Carry me higher, higher, higher.'' It's so moving that we'll resist the temptation to be crass and interpret the song as a plea for heightened record sales. Help from above is always welcome, but Emancipation sounds like it just might do fine all on its own.