Mariah Carey is genre-less.
Of course she’s technically “pop,” in the purest sense of the word. With ten platinum studio albums, 34 Grammy Nominations, countless Billboard hits and a slew of other record-breaking achievements, she is undoubtedly one of the most popular and prolific artists of all time.
But she didn’t choose that. It was kind of inevitable, right? Her voice alone —its palpability, its singularity— primed her for a career of singing chart-topping hits. She couldn’t help it.
It’s the other connotation of “pop” that doesn’t quite fit and feels more determined —the one that makes you think of bubblegum— light, generic, lacking substance or burden. The kind of label we give to artists who can create anthems, but rarely get intimate. That’s where Mariah gets off the train.
To not define (or to not at least offer a careful disclaimer) when calling Mariah “pop” is to ignore her legacy of delivering masterfully written music that’s personal, profound and soulful —the antithesis of the typical pop music formula. While songs like “Love Takes Time” and “One Sweet Day” from her earlier albums hinted at Carey’s desire to go deeper, it was 1997’s Butterfly that solidified the rhythm and blues quotient in her music and presented her as a vulnerable and self-reflective artist ready to break free.
With Butterfly, she created a classic. More than a branding tool, the butterfly became synonymous with Carey, and for a good reason. The imagery of a vibrant, spirited thing with incomparable beauty and an unpredictable wingspan, was the perfect mascot for Carey’s unprecedented range as a musician and an artist —her dynamic voice, so striking and distinct, it could only be something crafted by the Divine. Not to mention the butterfly’s process of becoming —its life cycle, its transition while cocooning, the stages of egg, caterpillar and then butterfly— served as an idyllic symbol for a woman on the brink of emerging.
But Butterfly was more than a statement of her proverbial metamorphosis as an artist and woman. The album had tangible implications in her personal life and musical legacy. For one, it was her first album after her separation from Tommy Mottola, a divorce that afforded her the creative and personal freedom to produce music on her own terms. The album also catalyzed the pop music trend of collaborating with hip-hop artists (every other “pop diva” would soon follow suit.) And finally, Butterfly not only showcased her already-established prowess as a vocalist, who could belt out ballads or flirt over the hottest summer jams but also as one of the most versatile songwriters in contemporary music.
Here Carey and her collaborators speak on the creation of the album.
The whole butterfly theme.
Mariah: “I was never actually into butterflies, but I kept hearing this song in my head. ‘Spread your wings and prepare to fly because you have become a butterfly.’ And at the time, I was leaving the home where I lived and on the mantel there was a piece that this guy had made and it had a little butterfly in the middle. I had just written the song, [so it felt like a sign]. That was the only thing I took from that house. It burned to the ground.”
The house she is referring to is the mansion she shared with then husband and producer Tommy Mottola, which she nicknamed “sing-sing,” after the New York prison. Her and Mottola separated in 1997 and in an odd sort of poetic justice, two years later the home burned to the ground in an accidental fire. During the course of their six-year marriage, Mottola reportedly controlled Carey’s personal and professional life, and in his 2013 book, even admits that the marriage was “wrong and inappropriate.” Butterfly was Carey’s first album without Mottola’s oversight.
Stevie J: “She was just being herself [when we worked together]. She was married at a young age, so you know she had really began to find herself and the woman she wanted to be. It’s a great thing for a woman when she gains her independence, so I didn’t really see anything other than just her being a happy, spirited person. We would have our Cristal and our wine and just be writing smashes.”
Da Brat: “Once she broke away from the cocoon, she spread her wings and flew on her own. She was ready to handle her own life. The ‘Honey’ video showed her escaping from an island. ‘Butterfly’ (the song) is self-explanatory. She came into herself. The album was soulful because that’s who she was. Behind all the glam, she was hood, still a kid, knew all of the lyrics to all rap songs… and just wanted to express herself in her own way. Her words are her truth. ‘Breakdown,’ just listen to the words. She joined forces with her favorite hip-hop homies who she knew she had great creative chemistry with and soared even higher.”
Collaborating with a legend.
For Butterfly, Carey worked with Da Brat, Jermaine Durpi, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Q-Tip, Stevie J, Mase, Mobb Deep and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Although now it’s not uncommon for rap and pop artists to collaborate, Mariah was one of the first artists to popularize it with hits like “Fantasy,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Honey.”
Stevie J: “When I got with Puff, he was like, ‘Imma introduce you to Mariah and you gone work on an album.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, right. Yeah right. Get the f-ck out of here.’ But he made it happen. And she was so f-ckin cool and it’s crazy because she’s one of our legends. Nobody can say she didn’t pay her dues —she sold a lot of records… and she still looks good.”
Da Brat: “’Always Be My Baby’ was the very first time I met MC. I went with JD to her and Tommy Mottola’s home. They lived right next door to Ralph Lauren. I felt like royalty. I was blown away. We hung out, she stole a car (she had twenty and had never driven them) and drove me to McDonald’s. We got in trouble and were typical Aries. I was a kid that wanted to scream like a true fan but I had to keep it together and maintain my So So Def swag.”
Stevie J: “Even though I was nervous in the studio, she just always made me feel comfortable with my talents and abilities. She would let me sing background vocals, and just vibe. When we first met, we did ‘Honey.’ It was me, Puff and Q Tip. Q-Tip came up with the sample and after I had the sample looped, I put the chords, music, and drums on and she was just like, ‘Yo, your bounce is crazy. Where did you learn how to do all these instruments?’ From there, we just developed this great rapport.”
Krayzie Bone: “We got to the studio and you know how people say they laid it out on a silver platter… She literally had a silver platter with Hennessy and marijuana for us. So we were like ‘Ah sh-t. Ah man. Mariah cool as hell.’ So we are so excited. We feeling the atmosphere now. We meet Stevie J., Puff even stopped by for a minute. So we indulged on the Hennessey and marijuana and then we actually passed out in the studio. And she came in and asked our manager ‘Is this normal?’ And he was like, ‘Yea, yea they’ll be up in a minute. Trust me.’ So he came and woke us up. And we woke right up, she played the beat for us and as soon as she played it, we were like ‘Oh this is our lane right here. Like, this is perfect for us.’So me and Wish [Bone] just got to collabing… That was one of our first big collaborations, so we were like, ‘What if she give us some kind of beat we can’t rap to?’ We were shocked that she had so much knowledge of who we were. She was like, ‘I had to meet the guys who were blocking me on the charts.’ She was very laidback and like one of the homies.”
An unexpected, expected hit.
Mariah: “’Breakdown’ really is one of my favorite songs on the album. One day… I’ll tell the full story behind that song. I definitely knew I wanted to work with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony going into it.”
Krayzie Bone: “We didn’t have any idea it was going to be a classic, because it was in the earlier stage of our career too. We were still living in Cleveland, partying. We were just so caught up in living this new life but our manager was like, ‘Yall should really do this. This is Mariah Carey.’ When we got to the studio, Mariah had already her parts on there. So we listened to it, so we could grasp the concept of the song. She was very impressed with what we did and we were just impressed being in the studio with Mariah Carey. And all of our fans—when we do that song to this day they go crazy.”
Stevie J: “I had just done a Bone Thugs and Biggie joint, when we began to do the song ‘Breakdown,’ which is one of my favorite songs. She was like, ‘I wanna work with Bone Thugs’ and then we started listening to their songs. And she was like, ‘Let’s take the chords from here and do this and that. And do your little bounce that you do.’ It took us literally no time to create the track for ‘Breakdown.’ It was so easy. And I left the writing up to her. Then when she put Bone on it, it just made it like a ten-course meal.”
Mariah, the writer.
With the exception of “The Beautiful Ones,” a remake of Prince’s song, Mariah wrote or co-wrote each track on Butterfly. Carey’s former manager and American Idol judge, Randy Jackson reportedly stated that out of the “Big 3” (Whitney, Celine and Mariah) Mariah is the only one who also writes her own music. And according to her collaborators she really, really writes.
Stevie J: “When you have someone with that type of writing ability… Her pen game is lethal.”
Da Brat: “When MC works, she likes to write together with the producer or artist she’s collaborating with. She starts humming melodies, we throw ideas in the pot, different scenarios, rhymes, ad-libs, harmonies and then a masterpiece is crafted.”
Mariah: “I love writing, sometimes more than singing. There’s something about it. I love poetry. I love writing melodies. I love collaborating with other writers. When I’m not doing it, I don’t feel like myself.”