2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi was Mariah Carey’s 10th studio album. Barred from the number one spot in the US by ‘We Belong Together’, the very song that preceded it on this album, ‘Shake It Off’ is not really Mariah Carey in any traditional understanding of the pop star. While famed for her alleged five-octave range (not going to verify, narrowly missed out on tickets), Carey, at least in the popular imagination, is better known for her heart-rending ballads (see, particularly, aforementioned ‘We Belong Together’) and her astounding use of her upper register (a bird-like whistle that ushers in this track) on tunes dealing with love than with her gangster qualities. But in a career spanning over two decades and having sold 200 million albums since her 1990 eponymous debut, Mariah Carey was always well-placed to try something different. With Jermaine Dupri, the man I had for so long associated with the catch-phrase ‘So So Def’ and not much else, Mimi chose the right producer to transport her clean image into rougher, feistier territory.
Dupri, founder of So So Def music and the voice who, as on ‘Shake It Off’, you might have heard throwing up inconsequential ‘uhhs’ and ‘yeahs’ across much of late 90s/early 2000s rap and R&B, is in fact the guy behind much more than just babbling. Across Usher’s 8701 (most notably ‘U-Turn’) and Confessions, Alicia Keys’ ‘Girlfriend’ and most of Jagged Edge’s discography, Dupri had a hand in crafting the sound of the turn of the millenium like not many others did. On ‘Shake It Off’, he brings those well-learned lessons in how to satisfy both pop and hood consumers to bear but is also aware of his client, stripping away almost everything to leave a bare bones beat that leaves ample room for Mimi to lazily exercise her pipes over. At first listen, it seems like there is much more to ‘Shake It Off’ than a simple drum beat and one-second grabs of piano chords. On closer inspection, it’s the character in Mariah’s voice, effortlessly gliding across complex melodies, that engenders that false sense of intricacy. The match is perfect and comes only as the result of a studied, long-term collaboration between the two.
Keeping a vital Mariah in check – this coming from only the second studio album since her precipitous fall from grave after 2001’s Glitter debacle – Dupri’s gentle coaxing throughout, random ‘ohs’ and ‘whatitdos’ that punctuate her pretty vocals, might seem arbitrary but are more probably calculated. As a great production steward for much of Carey’s career, Dupri recognised that a sassy kiss-off track, established as a message left on a now-ex’s voicemail, mightn’t have been enough to win her praise outside the empowered-female circles. His presence on the track (although as collaborator not saboteur), lends some gravity to the sentiment expressed and anchors the song where it might otherwise have floundered in a pool of amorphous resentment. That is not to take away from Carey who, after all, is the main event yet again. What I like about ‘Shake It Off’ is that it is not unnecessarily flamboyant, or pointlessly aggressive. Instead, it is a dynamic package of vulnerability, autonomy and sex. The chorus is flawless, the diva factor always apparent but aptly toned down and Mimi, emancipated, soars.
Mariah Carey – ‘Shake It Off’