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Mariah Carey 

The Emancipation of Mimi (Island)

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Full (and damning) disclosure: This correspondent and Mariah's publicist were the only two people to publicly claim the universally reviled Glitter soundtrack was the best thing Ms. Carey had ever done. I was the only one who meant it and still insist that collection of '80s-inspired froth and naked confessionals marked Mimi's real emancipation. But as a follow-up (discounting 2002's play-it-safe Charmbracelet, which tried to control Glitter's damage and only made things worse), her eighth release is fine indeed, offering the ideal balance of cutting-edge hip-pop and organic R&B that has so often eluded Carey.

Of course, part of Emancipation's appeal is contextual; true Mariah peers such as Whitney Houston have disappeared, replaced by a manufactured rivalry with J-Lo and lip-synching teens. Yet these songs seldom try too hard to make her case (the grating bling of "Get Your Number" is an exception) and are sometimes lovely, new Philly soul gems -- "I Wish You Knew" and "Stay the Night" being the best of a solid lot. Forget the alleged revelations: What will you learn about Mariah from brokenhearted tunes like "One and Only"? Less than what the music itself will tell you: Mimi is free of the unfortunate, partly unfair stigma of Glitter, at last.

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