If Stephen Hawking can use multiverse theory—the concept that there are infinite parallel universes existing alongside ours — to comfort a One Direction fan upset over Zayn Malik’s departure from the band, then it seems fair to invoke that theory to imagine a realm where “Infinity” is Mariah Carey’s latest chart-topping single. Unfortunately, we’re stuck reckoning with the realities of this one for now, and reality is a place where “Infinity” landed with a thud in the bottom fifth of the Hot 100 upon its release, just the most recent in a string of singles that have failed to recapture the glory of Carey’s insane commercial peak.
It’s a peak that’s currently being celebrated across several mediums, even as it seems more distant than ever. There are oral histories covering the tenth anniversary of the song that launched her mid-career renaissance a decade ago; a Las Vegas residency lasting until the end of July designed to celebrate her greatest hits; and an updated version of #1’s, her 1998 compilation of her biggest (and only her biggest) hits to match. Carey already had 13 #1 hits to her name at that point; in the near-two decades since, she’s added another 5, all of which are collected on #1 to Infinity. As a document of commercial dominance, it’s comprehensive by definition; as a career-spanning encapsulation of a complicated, constantly shifting grand dame, it can’t help but fall short, and its omissions—whether they just missed the top spot or hopelessly flopped—tell just as interesting a story as its tracklist.
Let’s start with the 18 songs that made the cut by hitting the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. If you needed a reminder of just how thoroughly Mariah Carey dominated the 1990s, or a refresher on the staggering force of the numbers she’s put up throughout her career, #1 to Infinity will do just fine. Carey still has the most #1 singles of any solo artist in history, and she’s second all-time behind The Beatles. Looking at the various artists scattered below her, it’s hard to see how anyone could pose a serious threat to those designations in this era of chart fragmentation save maybe Rihanna, who has 13 to her name. Eleven of Carey’s 18 #1s were released between 1990 and 1995, an astounding hit rate over a period that now constitutes just 20% of her recording career. Put this way, it’s easy to understand why Carey may not be particularly fond of this strict, numbers-based framing of her career. Imagine someone was releasing a collection of the greatest moments in your adult life—perhaps the time spanning ages 20 and 70. Now imagine over 60% of those moments came from your 20s. Perhaps you would feel like the bulk of your life—years where you were more mature and thoughtful, where you did many things worthy of recognition — was not being given the credit it deserved. (I know I would.) Time, like pop, can be cruel.
Regardless, #1 to Infinity highlights the sheer athleticism and skill that propelled Carey’s early work. She took very simple songs—both in terms of arrangements and theme—rooted in pop, gospel, and R&B and turned them into feats of strength, granting them dynamism and drama with a voice that juggled power, clarity, and agility with ease. “Vision of Love” doubled as a mission statement and a sizzle reel; “Emotions” was a giddy gallop that captured the dizzying rush of infatuation with stunning leaps between Carey’s low end and whistle register. As the decade continued, she took greater control of her career amid personal turmoil, embracing hip-hop and soul and becoming a more gifted interpreter and songwriter. Where once she would blow through songs with sheer strength, she learned to grasp their curves, to save her heavy ammunition for the biggest possible moments. And when the industry (and many of her fans) had left her for commercially near-dead, she came with one of the biggest hits of her career, one colored by hard-earned wisdom and experience.
Here in 2015, we’re as far away from “We Belong Together” as that song was from “Fantasy,” and that lost decade is the root of this compilation’s greatest tragedy. Judging by its stringent standards, the great majority of the fine work Carey’s done in the last decade might as well not exist. This is the consequence of having your career defined by the idea of “dominance”: anything less is open to, and even invites, ridicule. That’s been the story of Carey’s last ten years: attempts to recapture her phenomenal success treated as increasingly desperate and sad, diva behavior predicated on reputation met with greater scrutiny and laughter, a voice slowly being eroded by time and exertion picked open and apart by on-lookers hungry for disaster porn.
Yet the albums Carey has released in the last decade are her most satisfying by a wide margin. They’re personal, creatively vibrant, and funny as hell (mostly intentionally), the work of an artist comfortable in her own skin and voice and enthusiastic about the music she makes and loves. She’s become an impressive storyteller, a musical historian excavating frothy disco and lithe funk, and a voice reporting from the frontiers of new love, fading love and motherhood. This version of Carey is partially reflected in the hits that made the cut here, at least, like the aforementioned genuine heartbreak of “We Belong Together” and the dexterity and relaxed silliness of “Touch My Body.” It’s also present in “Infinity,” not a hit in this universe but an excellent example of what Carey can do now. It manages to balance a caustic hilarity with a chorus that’s quite wrenching; it mixes French, Fritos, and the Kermit sipping tea meme with ease. More than anything, it’s performed with the confidence and panache of someone who knows how it feels to be on top of the world, even if she’ll never reach those heights again.
Carey is gutting through weeks of performance and promotion right now, and there’s plenty of schadenfreude to be had. There are notes she can’t hit without the help of backing singers and tracks, demands that are outlandish at best, silhouettes that can’t quite match the ones she sports on her contemporary album covers. That’s all part of the game, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But even on its own, #1 to Infinity is a reminder of the incredible skill and performance that enabled all of this pageantry in the first place. As a jumping off point, it’s a window into two and a half decades of high caliber pop music that’s only gotten better with age.