Daydream. Butterfly. Rainbow. Glitter. No, those aren't the names of Barbie's pet ponies, they're the ridiculously saccharine titles of Mariah Carey's albums from 1995 to 2001. So when she called her 10th studio CD The Emancipation of Mimi three years ago, it was clear that she intended to drop the cutesy shtick, let down her weave, and start getting real. It was a clever move. Emancipation was the lucky strike that updated Carey's sound with bass-heavy flavor and reversed the downward spiral of her sales. Now, with E=MC2 another bold title she's out to prove that her comeback was no fluke.
Of course, it's doubtful that Carey is a secret admirer of Einstein's theory of relativity, but one thing's for sure: The golden-throated diva has discovered a formula that works. Not unlike Emancipation, E=MC2 finds Carey stacking the deck with the hottest producers and guest artists in urban music (Jermaine Dupri, StarGate, T-Pain, Damian Marley, Young Jeezy). The result is a largely enjoyable mix of flirtatious club jams, midtempo love songs, and emotional ballads anchored by hip-hop beats that handsomely showcase the singer's powerful vocal chops.
Ever the party girl, Carey opens the album with the sleek and seductive ''Migrate,'' where she imagines getting buzzed on pinot grigio during a night out with the ladies. Other dance-floor anthems include ''I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time'' and ''O.O.C.,'' which, for all of their pop polish, never lose their soulful spirit. But it's not all about velvet ropes and playful come-ons; notably, Carey suffers from a major love hangover on ''Side Effects,'' a synthy cautionary tale about an abusive relationship. ''Wakin' up scared some nights still dreaming 'bout the violent times,'' she sings with outspoken intensity.
And yet Carey remains a romantic at heart. With the ballads ''Love Story'' and ''Last Kiss,'' she reunites with Dupri to recapture the passionate splendor of 2005's ''We Belong Together.'' It's unfortunate, then, that E=MC2 closes with its only missteps, the somber elegy ''Bye Bye'' an odd choice for the follow-up single to the cheeky hit ''Touch My Body'' and the preachy gospel hymn ''I Wish You Well'' (this CD's version of Emancipation's ''Fly Like a Bird''). Still, for an artist whose career was all but dead four years ago, Carey is wise to play it safe by building on the finest elements of her last CD. Were it not for the final two tracks, she could've gotten away with calling this album Treasure. A-
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear a preview of ''I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time'' at barnesandnoble.com
It's Mariah night on American Idol! On EW.com's Idolatry, our experts leaf through the Carey songbook and suggest how the contenders can each hit a high note:
Mariah Carey: The Music Videos