The titular "Mimi" of The Emancipation of Mimi is, by all accounts, an alter ego of Mariah, a persona that captures Carey's true feelings and emotions. In case you didn't know what "emancipation" means, Mariah helpfully provides a dictionary definition of the word in the opening pages of the liner notes for her eighth proper album: it means "to free from restraint, control, oppression, or the power of another" or "to free from any controlling influence" or "to free somebody from restrictions or conventions." So, on The Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah frees herself from the constraints of being herself, revealing herself to be -- well, somebody that looks startlingly like Beyoncé, if the cover art is any indication. Mimi, or at least the sound of her emancipation, sounds remarkably like Beyoncé, too, working a similarly sultry, low-key, polished club groove. And that's the main story of The Emancipation of Mimi: since the reserved, tasteful adult contemporary pop of 2002's Charmbracelet failed to revive her career, she's done a 180 and returned to R&B, in hopes that maybe this will create some excitement. It's not a bad idea, particularly because Mariah could use any change at this point, and it's not executed all that badly either, as all 14 tracks -- heavy on mid-tempo cuts and big ballads, with a few harder dance tunes featuring big-name guest rappers scattered along the way -- all follow the same deliberately smoky, late-night template. While the Neptunes provide the best dance cut here with "Say Somethin'" (featuring a cameo by Snoop Dogg), especially welcome are some nice old-school '70s smooth soul flourishes, best heard on James Poyser's deliciously sleek "Mine Again" and such "Big Jim" Wright productions as "I Wish You Knew" and "Fly Like a Bird." As good as those Wright-helmed cuts are, they are also the times that the mixes slip and don't hide the flaws in Mariah's voice, and it sounds as airy, thin, and damaged as it did on Charmbracelet, where her ragged vocals dealt a fatal blow to an already weak album. Here, apart from those Wright tracks, the producers camouflage her voice in a number of ways, usually involving putting the groove and the sound of the production in front of the vocals. While the tunes aren't always memorable, it does make for a consistent album, one that's head and shoulders above the other LPs she's released in the 2000s, even if it doesn't compare with her glory days of the '90s. Ironically enough, a big reason why The Emancipation of Mimi doesn't sound as good as those '90s albums is that Mariah never sounds like herself on this record. When she's not sounding like Beyoncé, she sounds desperate to be part of the waning bling era, dropping product placements for Bacardi, Calgon, and Louis Vuitton, or bragging about her house in Capri and her own G4, all of which sounds a little tired and awkward coming from a 35-year-old woman in her 15th year of superstardom. Disregarding these two rather sizeable problems, The Emancipation of Mimi still works, at least as a slick, highly crafted piece of dance-pop -- it might not be as hip as it thinks it is, nor is it as catchy as it should be, but it's smooth and listenable, which is enough to have it qualify as a relative comeback for "Mimi" Carey.
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