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Calling the Shots, Solo

In her first album since she separated from her husband and champion, Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola, Mariah Carey says she's devised a strong statement of who she is now.

September 07, 1997|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — In the video for Mariah Carey's new single, "Honey," the pop star plays a secret agent who has been kidnapped and is being held in a sprawling mansion in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Our beleaguered heroine is tied to a chair, clad in a skimpy black dress and four-inch stiletto heels.

Carey escapes, and is next spotted emerging from a swimming pool, this time wearing a skin-colored bikini that leaves even less to the imagination than her previous outfit. In the final reel, we see her cavorting with a hunk on a deserted beach. The screen reads: "Mission accomplished."

While riding to the midtown Manhattan recording studio the Hit Factory, where she'll put the finishing touches on her upcoming "Butterfly" album, the singer can't help but grin as she imagines how her fans will react to these provocative scenarios.

"I don't really think the video is overtly sexual," she insists, stretching out her long legs as if to touch the opposite end of the limousine with her toes. "But for me--I mean, people used to think I was the '90s version of Mary Poppins!"

To be sure, Carey has never gone to great lengths to camouflage her voluptuous figure or her exotic good looks, for which she can thank a blond, Irish American mom and a black Venezuelan dad.

But the singer's overall image since soaring to fame seven years ago has been one of a bubbly, G-rated crooner of fluffy, G-rated pop-soul songs--more glamorous than Mary Poppins, perhaps, but just as wholesome and nonthreatening.

At 27, though, Carey seems to be tiring of that role. In the tradition of Janet Jackson's 1993 album "janet.," on which pop music's other all-American sweetheart declared herself a strong-willed, sexually mature woman, Carey's new album--due in stores Sept. 16--mixes candid romantic ballads with hormonally charged dance numbers, sending a clear message that the ingenue with the multi-octave range has grown up.

"I feel really close to this album," Carey says. "I've come into my own as an artist, and at this point I feel free enough to express what I'm really feeling, without using a smoke screen. This may sound strange, but I listen to the album every night before I go to sleep--it calms me. Not because it's boring, but because I feel good about it--because there are so many things that are real on it. It's definitely an evolution for me."

Carey certainly appears to be in good spirits as she saunters into the Hit Factory complex. After warmly greeting her mom, the singer enters a studio and excitedly pops a just-mastered tape of songs from "Butterfly" into a cassette deck.

She seems downright giddy as she introduces the first few songs, twirling her long hair and affecting a playful English accent that could have been lifted straight out of a Monty Python flick.

But as she settles onto a sofa to listen to "Outside," a ballad that describes how being multiracial made her feel insecure and alienated as a child, Carey suddenly grows pensive. The lyrics in many of these songs, she says, draw on "everything I've been through in my life," from pre-adolescent angst to obsessive love.

For the album's more upbeat tracks, Carey collaborated with some of the biggest writers and producers in hip-hop--much as she did on 1995's 7-million seller "Daydream," her last and most critically well-received album. They include Sean "Puffy" Combs, the Track Masters and Missy Misdemeanor Elliott. Members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony lend their unique rhythmic vocal style to one track.

But, one senses, Carey is also relishing a new sense of autonomy in her personal life--brought about, ironically, by her separation from Sony Music Entertainment President and CEO Tommy Mottola, the man who signed Carey to Columbia in 1989 and married her four years later.

It was widely assumed--particularly among those who were critical of Carey's music--that Mottola played a Svengali-like role in Carey's career, from dictating her artistic choices to assembling her career advisors.

When Carey hired a new manager, attorney and independent publicist in July, many industry insiders saw the changes as an attempt to distance herself as much as possible from her estranged husband.

But Carey insists that her personal split from Mottola, announced in June, was an amicable one, and that it was not the sole basis for her decision to cut her professional ties to such Mottola pals as manager Randy Hoffman and entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman.

"I love Tommy, and he will always be a part of my family," Carey stresses, seemingly at ease with the topic. "There's absolutely no bitterness between us. The best thing I could hope for would be to have a great friendship with him, because he is someone I respect and admire and look up to in many ways. But right now, it's my time to grow as an independent woman.

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