With her extravagant gowns, lavish lifestyle, and insistence on permanently perfect lighting, Mariah Carey earned her status as a pop diva a long time ago. Her mainstream credibility aligns just as easily with the likes of Madonna as it does with Beyoncé. But neither of these associations honor one of Carey’s strongest musical influences. Mariah Carey is actually a hip-hop legend in disguise. For those of us old enough to know, her new record with YG, “I Don’t,” is a return to an old Mimi, not an introduction to a new one. Let’s look at the receipts. Carey’s early discography helped to solidify her place as one of the most talented voices of an entire generation. There is no denying that. But that body of work — including her self-titled album, Emotions, Music Box, and Merry Christmas — was created during a time when Carey had minimal control over her own sound. It wasn’t until 1995’s Daydream that audiences saw the singer take a sharp turn toward hip-hop. But that doesn’t mean it was capricious. Over the course of her career, Carey has collaborated with hip-hop giants like Notorious B.I.G., Sean “Diddy” Combs (back when he was still known as Puff Daddy), and a pre-Beyoncé Jay Z, for “Heartbreaker.” In case you didn’t know how he became famous before Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, Stevie J was one of the producers of her 1997 hit “Honey,” with Mase and The Lox. She infamously feuded with Ol’ Dirty Bastard while they tried to put “Fantasy” together. She maintains a close relationships with Jermaine Dupri, Nas, Young Jeezy, Missy Elliott, Gucci Mane, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, the list goes on. Mimi has done more hip-hop collaborations that most of your favorite rappers, easy.
But even outside of the music, Carey lives hip-hop. Who will wear sunglasses at midnight without a second thought? Mariah Carey and a rapper. Who always seems to be more bedazzled than necessary? Mariah Carey and a rapper. Who gives the least amount of fucks at any given moment? Mariah Carey and a rapper. And then there are her feuds. When a butt-hurt Eminem slammed her for denying that they were in a relationship, Mimi didn’t take the PR high road and brush it off. She made a dis track. Even today, she isn’t known to keep her opinion of other artists a secret. What if her dismissive "I don’t know hers" toward other pop stars isn’t trivial cattiness, but the same kind of competitive challenge that undergirds hip-hop? Public beef was perfected by hip-hop a long time ago, with emcees asking their peers to prove it when they claimed to be the best. Carey has picked up on all of it. For the most recent example, I’ll again redirect you to “I Don’t.”
It’s worth noting that the ambiguity around the type of music that inspires Mariah Carey runs parallel to early conversations about her race. When Carey’s career took off in 1990, several publications and critics assumed that she was white, as documented by Billboard. She took no time correcting them. Carey is the mixed-race child of an Irish mom and a biracial Black and Venezuelan father. But the quickness with which she was categorized as white and the tendency to ignore her connections to hip-hop serve the same purpose. Unfortunately, mainstream credibility is still contingent on wetting the musical palates of a pop audience that is read as white. It’s the reason Nicki Minaj had to go through that horrible “Super Bass” phase after her mixtape success. Despite the politics of popularity, Mimi has made her love affair with hip-hop clear since the '90s. In an oft-cited Newsweek interview from 1999 she said, “[Critics] don’t understand that I’m someone who grew up with this music.” And late last year, while everyone was all worked up about Carey telling Andy Cohen that she still doesn’t know Ariana Grande, they missed the part when she said, “I listen to hip-hop more than I listen to pop music.” So I retract my earlier statement, she has never been in disguise. Mariah Carey’s heart has always belonged to hip-hop.