How Mariah Carey Staged the Diva Comeback of the Century

Fifteen years ago, "The Emancipation of Mimi" cemented the elusive chanteuse as the preeminent hitmaker of her, or any, lifetime.

Can We Talk About?… is a weekly series that was stuffing its face into jockstraps before it was cool.

This should come as a surprise to no one, but we tend to count out women pretty easily. Mediocre men get endless chances to fail to impress, but women, particularly women of color? God forbid if their foot slips even a little. For the world-class diva, this pressure is even more acute.

By 2005, Mariah Carey had been dismissed as something of a joke. In truth, the early-2000s were a rough period for all divas, despite the fact that in the previous decade they had soared to unbelievable heights. Whitney Houston was deep in the throes of drug addiction, Janet Jackson had been sacrificed to the FCC after a flashy debacle that took place during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Madonna decided to rap on American Life… It was a pretty bleak time.

If anyone had been the poster child for ’90s mega-success, it was Mariah Carey. She debuted at the start of the decade and ruled it with an impressive string of hit albums and No. 1 singles, becoming the first artist to have her first five songs reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and shattering records with her five-octave vocal range. Then she hit a snag around the turn of the millennium.

Following the spectacular failure of her semi-autobiographical 2001 film, Glitter, and its accompanying soundtrack, as well as a well-publicized meltdown on MTV’s TRL that same year, Mariah was tasked with rebuilding the hit factory she had worked so hard to construct. First she checked herself into the hospital for a physical and mental breakdown, but, ever the work horse, she was back in the studio in no time for her 2002 album, Charmbracelet. It was a minor success, but not the resounding comeback she had hoped for and depended on.

So Mariah went back to the drawing board, working with L.A. Reid and Jermaine Dupri to craft the songs for her 10th studio album, which she decided to call The Emancipation of Mimi. Mimi was a nickname used only by members of Carey’s inner circle, but Reid thought it would be perfect for the record’s title.

“I feel your spirit on this record,” Reid told Carey. “You should use that name in the title, because that’s the fun side of you that people don’t get to see—the side that can laugh at the diva jokes, laugh at the breakdown jokes, laugh at whatever they want to say about you and just live life and enjoy it.”

Carey agreed. She felt the album, which dropped April 12 in 2005, showed her letting her guard down and allowing her fans to get to know the woman behind the diva. Carey also decided to strip down her sound, as she thought her previous albums were overproduced, and recorded most of the album accompanied by a live band. The gamble paid off.

“It’s Like That,” the first single from The Emancipation of Mimi, marked a return to form—and to the charts—for Carey, but it was the second single, “We Belong Together,” that firmly established her place near the top of the diva pantheon. Spending 14 weeks at the top of the Hot 100, “We Belong Together” became Mariah’s 16th No. 1 hit, and was declared Billboard’s “song of the decade.” The next single, “Shake It Off,” peaked at No. 2, but only because it was blocked by “We Belong Together.”

Carey had a run of singles, seven in total, lasting from January 2005 through mid-2006, propelling sales of The Emancipation of Mimi to 10 million units worldwide. The record became her best-selling album since 1995’s Daydream and earned her 10 Grammy nominations—eight in 2006 and two more in 2007 for the “Ultra Platinum” rerelease—including Album, Record, and Song of the Year.

Following a triumphant performance of “We Belong Together” and “Fly Like a Bird” at the 2006 Grammys, Carey walked away with three trophies, including Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

There have been better albums this century. Hell, there may have been better Mariah Carey albums this century—I’m personally still stanning Caution—but the hallmark of a true diva is the ability to return from the brink, to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and burn all in your wake to the goddamn ground. While she’s had her fair share of ups and downs since emancipating Mimi, she is now an undisputed cultural institution.

For further proof, consider her 1994 classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which became the last No. 1 song of the 2010s, the first No. 1 song of the 2020s, and her 19th No. 1 single overall. It’s fitting, and oddly poetic, that an artist as consistent and resilient as Mariah Carey would close out the last decade and open the new one, because true divas never go away.

They just come back.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat