What advice do you suppose Mariah Carey will have for the "American Idol" contestants Wednesday when she appears on the show as a mentor, part of the media blitz launching the follow-up to her big comeback album, 2005's "The Emancipation of Mimi"?
One thing she can do is encourage vocal restraint, which would be ironic coming from a singer whose early records contributed to the uncontrolled showiness that afflicts so many "Idol" participants. But it's true: On "Mimi" and even more so on "E=MC2," out Tuesday, Carey is searching for alternatives to the glass-shattering flamboyance of her early '90s youth.
And when it comes to career counsel, the new album carries the operative message: Don't mess with success.
"E=MC2" is nearly a clone of "The Emancipation of Mimi" -- from the exotica-tinged hip-hop hybrid that kicks it off ("It's Like That" there, the T-Pain duet "Migrate" here) to a speaking appearance by her pastor, Clarence Keaton, on the finale. In between is another carefully calculated mix of mainstream R&B in its dance, pop and old-school manifestations.
This is the happily-ever-after part of Carey's fairy tale, which is more "Ugly Duckling" than "Cinderella." Perhaps because she had been so successful in the '90s, her commercial decline and emotional breakdown at the start of this decade came to be seen as a sort of cosmic retribution for her -- and the record industry's, while we're at it -- decadence and excess. She wasn't merely exiled, she was ridiculed, setting up her improbable cycle of transformation and triumph with "Mimi," which sold 6 million copies.
That redemption wasn't guaranteed, but the task of securing and extending it should be easier. It's not as if the new album's cautious nature compromises some kind of bold artistry. Amid the drama of her comeback and the hoopla over her record-breaking chart numbers, it's easy to forget that "Mimi" wasn't exactly a great album.
"E=MC2" is a little better -- the songwriting is more consistent, the feel a bit more natural -- but it too lacks a ruling temperament or artistic vision. Without that, it's a savvy sampler of mainstream commercial craft, plush aural lounges designed and furnished by such producers and writers as Jermaine Dupri, Timbaland associate Nate "Danja" Hills and hip-hop's Swizz Beatz.
That often leaves Carey sounding like an ersatz Beyoncé, and she never approaches the cathartic soulfulness of Mary J. Blige or the auteur credentials of Alicia Keys.
What's most striking about the album is the further toning down of Carey's famously powerful voice. She was always criticized as a technically gifted singer with no interpretive intelligence or instincts, but now that the instrument itself sounds physically diminished, she seems to be groping toward some kind of expressive ground. Those signature high notes pierce the stratosphere a couple of times, but she's even more reticent to wail -- there's no counterpart to "Mimi's" showy "Mine Again" or "Joyride."
Instead, Carey tests registers and dynamics. In "I'll Be Lovin' You Long Time," her singing is so direct, understated and unglamorous it's almost shocking -- like seeing a diva without makeup. The piano ballad "I Stay in Love" is similarly unadorned, and her voice is almost leathery in the lower notes. It's not flattering, but it rings true emotionally.
But this is a process rather than a realization for Carey, whose moments of discovery are products of chance rather than considered choice. Many of the songs on "E=MC2" are lightweight enough that they don't demand much revelation, but the sassy hit "Touch My Body," for one, could use more sensuality. And when lyrics are more demanding, things are hit and miss.
Carey captures the theme of self-repression and emotional damage in "Side Effects," a teaming with rapper Young Jeezy, by keeping her vocal taut and reined in. She works up some gospel grit on "I Wish You Well," but the demands of the larger-than-life anthem "Bye Bye," a salute to departed loved ones, are beyond her reach.
Of course, consistency isn't so important when an album is assembled as a series of singles rather than a cohesive work. Fortunately for Carey, the tabloid-tailored real-life back story on one side and the producer's craft on the other matter more than the art of singing in this particular fairy tale.